FOOD is seemingly an inexhaustible subject, especially when it comes to consumer perceptions about food and the food industry.
Dealing with all the layers can seem overwhelming at times, especially when consumer views seem misguided or incorrect. To clear the noise, the industry's fallback answer is often, "Educate the consumer."
Brandi Buzzard Frobose provides her take on that approach, or, rather, the inappropriateness of that approach, in her Buzzard's Beat blog.
"Consumer is a word that I really don't like. To me, it carries the same connotation as 'educate,'" Frobose said. "We don't need to 'educate' consumers; we need to engage, interact, talk to — anything but educate. And now, I feel 'consumer' has joined the group of words that make me cringe when I hear them used during agvocate-speak. I don't even like to hear myself say it because I'm sure it inadvertently comes out as demeaning or degrading. 'I am a producer, and you are a consumer — allow me to impress you with my agriculture knowledge.' Bleh. If I was a 'consumer,' I'd smack me."
What's particularly interesting here is that one reader, responding from Australia, noted that the perspective from the Land Down Under is a little more nuanced. The producer/consumer educational construct should involve give and take (versus a top-down, producer-to-consumer pathway). In other words, educating consumers is important, but there also needs to be emphasis on learning from consumers.
On one hand, that seems obvious. After all, any successful business or industry recognizes the importance of listening to its customers.
On the other hand, when under attack by activists, the default response often leans towards the one-way approach: education. So, maybe we need to orient the industry/consumer relationship a little differently.
That's especially true considering recent survey results of grocery shoppers commissioned by Where Food Comes From Inc. (and conducted by the Service Management Group). It sheds a slightly different light on the subject.
Most notably, when asked about changing attitudes regarding food issues over the past several years, 53% of respondents indicated that supporting farms or producers whose values are similar to their own has become increasingly important.
Sure, the term "values" is pretty squishy and potentially encompasses a wide swath of different meanings or connotations. It could have been interpreted as involving specific production attributes. Alternatively, it might also denote terms like independent business owner, family-owned and stewardship. Or, maybe it's all of the above and then some?
Whatever the association, it says something about the mentality among consumers. That is, the blog post is absolutely correct: Consumers don't just want to be educated; they're also looking to connect with food producers whose values are increasingly in line with their own.
That's encouraging! Despite all the activist static out there about agriculture and food production, consumers are still open to establishing a relationship with the sector, and while they may not always say it, consumers apparently still largely hold a favorable perception of what's happening out there.
It means they're looking to connect with food producers, not activists! The balance is tipped in favor of the industry. So, the answer to activist claims may not be education but, rather, "partnership."
That will take a bit of a different mindset in order to be successful. It means that the supply chain has to be increasingly linked with each stakeholder, carefully understanding their respective contribution to whatever food product is being produced.
Such outside-in thinking also requires all entities to work together, from the first supplier to the end consumer, as part of a larger network of participants.
That's hard work, but it ultimately spells new opportunities to win the battle for the hearts and minds (and mouths) of consumers.
*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.