When Do You Sell, and When Do You Educate?

By Pan Demetrakakes

Years ago I interviewed a brand manager for a personal care product that recently had transitioned from aerosol to a finger pump. She said the switch was partially motivated by consumer concerns about aerosols harming the ozone layer. When I pointed out that chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals that actually harm ozone, had been phased out of aerosols decades before, she told me that it was her job to sell to people, not educate them.

This is, of course, a conundrum that crops up regularly in the food industry. There are distressingly large numbers of consumers who “know” things about food that are dubious or just plain wrong. Is it better to try to inform them, or cater to their mindset for the sake of sales?

Perhaps the most prominent current example is genetically modified organisms. With their potential to help feed the hungry world by increasing crop yield and quality, GMOs are one of the most important modern advancements in agricultural technology. But their acceptance is being held back by people who simply “know” that tampering with genes leads to harmful food, and insist on impossible standards of proof before they’ll believe otherwise.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a feature on how food researchers are twisting themselves into knots to purge perfectly benign, serviceable ingredients and additives because they make some consumers suspicious. Things like xanthan gum, Red 40 dye and monoglycerides are being nudged out, with mixed results. Skittles colored with purple carrot juice came out spotted; chicken Alfredo without mono- and diglycerides had sauce that was “spotty and gray.” A poll cited in the Journal article found that one in 10 young adults want a ban on dihydrogen monoxide, aka water.

The temptation must be overwhelming to stop struggling against the tide of ignorance. After all, business is all about giving consumers what they want. So slap on a “non-GMO” label, shift your body spray from an aerosol to a hand pump, and don’t worry about it. In the short term, that’s undoubtedly often a good tactic. 

But good tactics don’t necessarily make the best strategy. Pandering to ignorance just doesn’t strike me as desirable, or viable, in the long term. We’ve seen the harm it can do in politics, medicine and other endeavors that literally have life-and-death consequences.

This isn’t a call for individual businesses to storm the barricades of consumers’ minds. Even the largest food companies would find that risky. But that’s what trade associations and lobbyists are for. Getting consumers to understand reality when it comes to food and its production is vital to the well-being of the industry.

So don’t spurn that checkoff, association membership or other industry-wide advocacy effort. The consumer you help educate may be your own.