I recently interviewed a number of with supermarket executives on how they decided what new products to put on the shelves. They had a “Feed the Beast” mentality: Whatever consumers wanted, they sold. They stocked gluten-free, no GMOs, no antibiotics, no hormones, nothing artificial, natural flavoring and colors, etc. if consumers would buy it.
What leads consumers to want so many things taken out of their food that previous generations didn't seem to demand? I came to two conclusions. One is the Internet and the other is food processors' reticence to explain why their products may have some of these things and why they are not bad for consumers.
Do we as food marketers have any obligation to set the record straight or at minimum to provide two sides of the story?
The Internet has given voice to a minority position on many food issues and given these voices a level of credibility because they are “on the Internet.” I certainly don't begrudge anyone from wanting no artificial color in their food. That is their choice. However, when people write extensively on the Internet about the topic and tell everyone to beware, I think it creates misinformation.
One cannot underestimate the impact of social media on consumers’ ideas of what is good and bad food. For example, if you use Google trends on the search term GMO, it has increased almost 300 percent since 2011. Terms like “gluten-free” also have increased.
There was a State Farm Insurance TV commercial where a young woman told a friend that her impending date was a French model. When the date arrived, he looked more like a bum than a sophisticated Frenchman. When the friend questioned how the woman “knew” he was a French model she said, “I read it on the Internet. They can’t put anything on the Internet that isn’t true.”
There are other jokes, but this is the major source of information that consumers use for food issues. Recognize that much of what is written on the Internet may not be scientifically correct but it unequivocally influences people’s behavior. Consumers read that additives cause some disease, and it suddenly becomes truth and more importantly shared by the reader with many other potential consumers. Now, when the issue is shared, the reader has credibility.
The second question is more vexing to me. I am a dyed in the wool marketer. I have always believed that marketing is finding out what people want and giving it to them. To that extent, I believe in feeding the beast. However, more recently I have come to question whether or not we have an obligation as food marketers to try to set the record straight or at the minimum provide two sides to many of these food-health arguments.
I suspect that I have gone from simply feeding the beast to “feeding the beast food and information.” I realize that creating products that are free of antibiotics, hormones, artificial ingredients, etc., may be a way to differentiate products in the marketplace. And in fact this may be a financial boon to the company that first introduces the product. But how does this affect the whole industry?
When a major branded chicken company announces that their chicken is antibiotic free, it leads consumers to believe there must be something wrong with other chickens. However, to my knowledge, no chicken in the food supply should have traces of previous antibiotic treatment. So one company has created a sense of concern over an issue that might not even exist. But no doubt, the chicken company has reaped the profits from making that claim.
Maybe the best example is gluten-free. If you have celiac disease, eating gluten is really bad. Therefore, it’s a good thing to let these people know whether or not a product has gluten. However, by putting the words “gluten-free” very prominently on labels, and especially on products that never had gluten, consumers have come to believe that gluten must be bad for everyone. Sales of products that are gluten-free are soaring because consumers want to avoid that “terrible” gluten.
When I ask food marketers if they have any trepidation about marketing foods that focus on not having perceived negative attributes, their answer in most cases is no. No, because any bad things that might happen to the industry by catering to misinformed consumers would be in the long run. In some cases, people tell me they don’t expect to be with the company or with that brand in the long run, or their bonuses and other compensation is strictly based on the short term.
So I’m left with the quandary as to whether we should just “feed the beast.” And I ask if anyone else has the same trepidation.