April, 2014

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Conscious Consumerism Goes Mainstream

Alison Dasilva, EVP, Cone Communications

Americans are willing to sacrifice variety and dollars in order to eat more consciously, according to the 2014 Cone Communications’ Food Issues Trend Tracker. A number of specific health and sustainability issues rose to the top as most important when hitting the grocery aisles, including food safety (93%) and nutritional value (92%). But at least two-thirds of Americans prioritize a variety of other issues as significant factors when deciding what makes it into the shopping cart, including:

  • 74% locally produced
  • 69% sustainable packaging
  • 69% animal welfare
  • 67% non-GMO
  • 65% protects/renews natural resources

Consumers Are Willing To Pay More To Eat Local

Nearly nine-out-of-10 Americans (89%) consider where a product is produced when making food purchasing decisions, and two-thirds (66%) would pay more for food that is produced close to home. Although locally sourced food provides environmental, economic and health benefits, consumers state supporting local businesses (64%) is the primary reason for buying local.

Americans’ convictions are so strong in their commitment to purchase locally produced foods that nearly half (46%) would sacrifice variety to do so.

As the local food movement goes mainstream, it’s not just about the “mom and pop shop” or farm stand. Even large companies have a role to talk about where they source food and the respective impacts on local communities. Using local as a broader value proposition helps companies of all sizes talk about the social and environmental benefits of responsible sourcing.

Americans Seek Sustainable Food

More than eight-in-10 Americans (83%) consider sustainability when buying food and would like to see more options available that protect the environment (81%). Their motivations span from the altruistic to the self-serving, including:

  • 43% of Americans want to do their part to protect and preserve the environment
  • 39% believes the quality/taste is better
  • 38% wants to show their support for companies that are doing the right thing
  • 27% believes the products are healthier

Consumers look to companies to help them understand the broader implications of their food purchasing decisions, with nearly three-quarters (74%) stating they want companies to do a better job explaining how their purchases impact the environment.

“Although consumers are shopping with an eye toward sustainability, they are equally motivated by personal needs and a desire to improve society,” says Liz Gorman, senior vice president of sustainable business practices at Cone Communications. “Messaging must be two-fold. Companies must clearly demonstrate the impact consumers’ purchases are having on the environment, while reinforcing health, taste and quality attributes.”

GMO Confusion Persists: Consumers Look To Companies For Information

Eighty-four percent of consumers want companies to disclose information and educate them on GMOs in products because more than half (55%) say they don’t know whether GMOs are good or bad for them. Despite this confusion, three-in-five Americans are on the lookout for non GMO-labeled foods when shopping. Reasons include:

  • 39% believes non-GMO foods are healthier
  • 32% worries about the effects on the environment
  • 24% questions the ethics behind the use of GMOs

“The GMO debate is dominating media and social channels,” says Gorman. “Consumers are confused and the onus is on companies to help them understand GMOs and be transparent about if and how GMOs are used in the products they are buying.”

Key Takeaway

Grocery shopping decisions no longer hinge on price and taste alone. Consumers worry about where their food is made, what’s in it, and how it affects the environment. The stakes are higher for companies to not only provide food options that meet consumers’ modern needs but communicate attributes in a clear and transparent way. To view and read additional research, visit ConeComm.com/2014-food-issues.


Product Satisfaction Comes First

It is useful when reading research such as this to remember that, by far, the largest restaurant chain in the United States is McDonald’s, and the fastest growing large food retail segment is the deep discount sector, with companies such as ALDI, Save-A-Lot and Dollar stores front-and-center. Or put another way, it is useful to remember that when confronted by survey data where consumers say one thing and their food-purchasing activity is the polar opposite, the reasonable thing to do is to ask why consumers choose to say such things.

Part of the reason is probably that these responses are like “Mom and apple pie” of an earlier age. To say one doesn’t care about sustainability, supporting the local community, eating healthy, etc., is to say one is abominable. The fact that this was an online study might also play into it. Perhaps consumers fear that permanent records of their responses could be kept and one day come back to haunt them, so they especially want to say the right things.

In the face of hard numbers that say consumers don’t actually procure with the priorities expressed in surveys such as this, we need to try to understand the consumer psyche better.

One possibility is that the consumers questioned in this survey are not necessarily doing the procurement for their families. This is a survey of “a demographically representative sample of 1,003 adults, comprising 500 men and 503 women 18 years of age or older.” That is not the same as being a sample base of “primary grocery shoppers.” It may well be that adults who are not responsible for handling a household food budget — from a college student on a meal plan to a wealthy matron who has the maid buy the groceries, to a befuddled husband who just picks up take-out — are freer to express their values than those who actually have to feed the family on the funds available.

The results also are not weighted by food purchasing volume. Today only about half of U.S. adults are married. So if all the single people express a willingness to pay more for, say, local, and all the people who are buying for a spouse and brood of kids say they won’t, the survey may accurately report that 50 percent of respondents say ‘yes’ but that would not be reflective of spending activity. Of course, today many non-married people have children, so the breakdown is not going to be simple.

A big part of the answer can be found in other parts of this study, the 2014 Cone Communications Food Issues Trend Tracker. Although it contains all the earnest sounding exhortations that Ms. Dasilva highlights, it also contains other information. For example, when consumers were asked what factors are important when deciding which food products to purchase for their families, they ranked many factors as important, but the factor with the highest ranking for “Very/Somewhat Important” was “Family satisfaction — the products my family or I most enjoy eating.”

Indeed, when asked to select only one top concern when deciding what food products to purchase for their families, Sustainability received just 5 percent, whereas Family Satisfaction received 54 percent.

Responses such as this put the results highlighted by Ms. Dasilva in perspective. Assuming they are speaking the truth and not just saying what they think is the “right” answer, they are still adding a big caveat. They may be willing to pay more for local, they may want to have sustainable options, they may wish to avoid GMOs, etc., but they will only use these purchase criteria after the “products my family or I most enjoy eating” criteria are satisfied. If you were to translate these ideas into the restaurant world, it almost implies that these consumers would really like it if McDonald’s would make them feel better about their purchases there by posting signs explaining that the beef on a Big Mac is raised sustainably.

Very often in consumer research, consumers express many opinions, and these opinions need to be interpreted shrewdly. So in evaluating stores as shopping venues, consumers always rank price, cleanliness and variety as most important factors. The problem is that translating this into useful information for a retailer isn’t that easy. Typically the results do not mean that stores should triple their cleaning staff or double their assortment, for example. The problem is that well known facts tend to be acted on by all stores and so having reasonably clean stores, for example, becomes the ante to play the game and it becomes difficult to get a competitive edge here.

This survey reminds us that the ante for participating in the mass food market is producing and selling products that people and their families enjoy eating. To some extent, that may be influenced by “feel good” metrics such as sustainability but, mostly, this is taste and flavor. Only after our products meet the taste and flavor characteristics consumers want to eat can we expect other factors to move sales our way.