A RECENT survey conducted by global public relations agency Ketchum took the old "customer is always right" wisdom a step further by introducing food marketers to a new group of increasingly influential and extremely vocal consumers, dubbed "food e-Vangelists."
Ketchum's "Food 2020" survey, originally conducted in 2008 and again in 2011, queried consumers in six markets worldwide: the U.S., the U.K., China, Italy, Germany and Argentina. The online survey of 1,800 respondents (300 per market) was conducted between Feb. 14 and March 5, 2013.
"In our third year of fielding this survey, we are seeing consistent and important trends about consumers' interest in the food system and what they have come to expect and demand from food marketers, buyers and sellers," said Linda Eatherton, director of Ketchum's Global Food & Nutrition Practice. "What's distinct about this year's study is that we have identified a group of food e-Vangelists as a small but mighty segment of agents of change who are prepared and motivated to take action and convert others to adopt their opinions about foods, brands and companies in the food and agricultural sector."
Food e-Vangelists are typically young females who are active online, financially secure and have families — a group that also is commonly targeted in food marketing. According to the firm's analysis, what is unique is that this group is not defined by its demographic profile but by its like-mindedness, and further, typical marketing practices aren't effective with food e-Vangelists
"The food e-Vangelists are the single-most important group in the food industry today, but they don't fit typical marketing demographics," Eatherton said. "They are hiding in plain sight, yet food companies are allocating budgets on marketing programs that don't reach them. This group will change the food industry forever, but at the moment, they represent a hugely missed opportunity."
Generally speaking, food e-Vangelists want to affect the way food is raised, grown, packaged and sold. As the agency put it, they listen to everyone, trust no one and are action oriented. In fact, they are distinguished, in part, by their tendency to take it upon themselves to learn about food issues and to influence others by sharing their findings.
More than two-thirds of food e-Vangelists said they would conduct online research to better inform their opinions if they saw a news story about a banned food item.
Eatherton said that tendency provides an opportunity for food companies to be open and transparent by offering easily accessible information that can help these active influencers educate themselves and others about important food issues.
More than one-third of food e-Vangelists said they regularly take the time to recommend and critique food brands and products and share their opinions with others — both online and offline. Forty percent said they share opinions about food purchasing and healthy eating habits with their friends and family members.
"While the 'food involved' group is active at seeking and gathering information about food, food e-Vangelists believe it is their right and their responsibility to influence the beliefs of others and change behaviors," Eatherton said. "We have seen anecdotally and in qualitative research that food e-Vangelists actually track their success in this area and feel rewarded or incentivized by the number of people they have reached."
Delving into specific buying habits and trends, the survey found that two-thirds of food e-Vangelists said they had increased fresh food purchases compared to the previous year. Nearly as many (59%) were also consciously purchasing less packaged and prepared food.
Eatherton summarized the survey's findings by saying that earning the trust of this vocal subset of the consuming public is based on a combination of health, transparency and cause. Furthermore, the survey found that:
* More than half (54%) would like to see food companies prioritize making healthy foods more available in the future.
* More than half (54%) want ingredient information about a product (including source, processing, production techniques, farm or supplier name, etc.) on product labels.
* Two in five (40%) said in order for them to recommend a food company to friends and family, the company would have to ensure that quality food is accessible to families in need.
While the group is small, it is not a "fringe" group, according to Ketchum's analysis.
Twenty percent of the U.S. population might fall into this category, with as many as 24% of Chinese consumers potentially exhibiting "e-Vangelist" traits and behaviors. Across the globe, food e-Vangelists are estimated to generate up to 1.7 billion conversations about food every week.