Be a step ahead of the questions (commentary)

Be a step ahead of the questions (commentary)

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

SOME columns inherently invoke more feedback than others, and the issue of consumer education resonates sharply in the food world.

As such, a recent column on that topic generated some great insights from readers.

As a summary, the column discussed the importance of consumer education and food literacy. More knowledge is essential to bridging the disconnect between consumers and food producers. However, closing that loop is no easy task.

Primarily, food choices are highly personal and full of complexities. Purchases involve evaluating a host of value attributes, plus consideration of the meal or occasion for which a product is being purchased and a wide variation in consumer priorities (especially regarding social values). Not to mention, we consumers are fickle and complicated.

My favorite description of that reality comes from Frank Beurskens, co-founder and chief executive officer of ShoptoCook, who explained, based on his work in the retail food world, that categorizing consumers is difficult to do. That's because their purchases represent a portfolio of priorities and emphases.

For example, we buy both vegetables and cookies. Moreover, those priorities vary over time.

With those considerations in mind, broad, sweeping assumptions can prove tenuous. So, while facts are important, the less tangible aspects associated with purchasing decisions also need to be considered.

In other words, for consumer outreach to be successful, it must also include some effort to establish trust. Otherwise, it just seems like spin or propaganda.

That brings me back to the importance of creating an ongoing connection with customers.

Along those lines, Beef Issues Quarterly detailed the reality that a single communication platform for all consumers is relatively ineffective.

Authors Michelle Murray and John Lundeen noted that "the most effective strategy for reaching consumers who care about beef production (or any food product, for that matter) is a back-and-forth dialogue that answers their questions, not mass marketing. These are engaged consumers who want to have a conversation about the issues they care about -- like what our practices mean for their long-term health -- rather than just seeing pretty images or hearing short sound-bites."

In our world, food purchases are never strictly a utility-based decision. All sorts of value considerations come into play, and the public is increasingly interested in sorting through those.

Simultaneously, consumers are also empowered in obtaining information -- some of it constructive, but some not so much.

Ultimately, though, consumers want to know and trust that the food products they purchase for their family and themselves are safe, ethical, environmentally friendly and generally associated with fair trade practices. That's never a one-time event; it has to be an ongoing endeavor across all sorts of venues.

"What's in my food?" That question is never going away, but it requires precise, authentic and transparent answers. That's a big challenge, and top-down education with ordinary answers simply won't fill the gap.

The real opportunity for the food industry resides in being ahead of the questions through ongoing connections with consumers.

We can't do it in a cram-down sort of way: "Know this, and then you'll be sure." Rather, it has to occur in more of a personalized and collaborative manner that establishes both familiarity and confidence.

In that scenario, the consumer becomes the food industry's best advocate, and isn't that the justification for education in the first place?

Volume:84 Issue:51

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