December, 2017

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Radically Transparent as a Clamshell

By Erica Chance, Associate Director, Brand Strategy, Sullivan Higdon & Sink 

When consumers walk through the produce section of their favorite grocery store, they experience the bounty of each harvest with absolute transparency — they can see everything. Some will carefully examine potatoes, apples and oranges, finding just the right ones for their family. They’ll select the trio of stoplight peppers or a clamshell of berries that are most appealing. You’ll even see some not only inspecting watermelons and cantaloupe to find the one that looks best, but tapping them for the one that “sounds” ripe.  

While the produce category has historically been “transparent” in its lack of cumbersome packaging, consumers want more. They want to know where their food comes from and that it was produced in a way they trust.

Unfortunately, today’s food system is not as transparent as it should be in communicating with consumers to earn this trust. In fact, our proprietary Sullivan Higdon & Sink (SHS) FoodThink research tells us that only 37 percent of consumers believe the agriculture community is transparent in their communications about how food is produced, while only 34 percent believe food companies/manufacturers are transparent. That same research tells us that 65 percent of consumers say it’s somewhat or very important to know how their food is produced.

This relative lack of transparency and consumer desire for more information, coupled with a number of high-profile food safety incidents in recent years, has prompted increased interest and even scrutiny in food production processes.

In response, companies and organizations across the industry should publicly affirm their commitment to earning consumer trust by becoming as transparent as produce packaging — radically transparent. It may be uncomfortable. It will most definitely be a departure from “the way we’ve always done things.” But by doing so, the industry can earn the trust and confidence of consumers who will actively look for, purchase and support its products.

So what is radical transparency? For companies and organizations across the produce industry, it is a call for communicating more openly and honestly about the production processes used to bring fruits and vegetables from seed to store. We recommend five actions marketers can take to become radically transparent:

Engage in an open dialogue:By actively listening to consumers, you can better understand why they don’t trust agriculture, and specifically, produce. Their input provides opportunity to engage in the conversation, demonstrating the industry’s long-standing commitment to the values most important to consumers — access to safe, nutritious and affordable produce.

Align industry partners:While individual companies and organizations can tell their stories, there is greater impact in collaborative partnerships across the industry. Such shared alignment in messaging and approach can help earn trust, regardless of the product or brand. Our research shows that retailers, government regulatory parties and the academic community are all resources for consumers, so broad involvement could be beneficial to communicating effectively.

Feature the farmer:Featuring the oft-forgotten farmers in branding and as a messenger elevates their presence as a voice and face for the brand. As our SHS FoodThink research shows, farmers can authentically and credibly carry the brand’s message because 60 percent of consumers believe they are a trustworthy source for information about food production.

Invite consumers in:Opening the farm doors to consumers, bloggers and media provides them the opportunity to look behind the scenes and ask questions. They can then share those positive experiences, building trust through their broad reach and influential voices. According to our research, blogs especially are emerging as a more trusted, mainstream and legitimate source of information for many consumers.

Clarify confusing topics:With a channel of transparent, values-based communications established, it becomes more productive to then engage in an informed conversation about topics of possible consumer confusion. Those that may serve as barriers to earning trust in the produce industry could include GMOs, pesticides and “natural.” Marketers seeking transparency need to be straightforward and seek clarity in communications to consumers.

Many in produce and across food production have already taken a more active role in communicating transparently about how food is produced. The result: trust is improving. These and other efforts to be more forthright are beginning to pay off. Perceived trust in both the agriculture community and food companies is on the rise, increasing more than 15 percentage points since SHS FoodThink began tracking this issue in 2012. That’s likely due in part to companies and organizations being more open in talking about how they produce food.

That progress is encouraging and demonstrates the benefit of increasing transparency. It also shows there is still work to be done to make the produce industry’s communications as radically transparent as the retail experience, earning the trust of today’s consumers.

Erica Chance is associate director, brand strategy, for Sullivan Higdon & Sink, a full-service integrated advertising and marketing agency with offices in Wichita, KS, and Kansas City, MO.


Follow The Money Trail

There is in the world today a great disjunction. A visitor from Mars who landed to observe produce purchasing behavior on earth and read all the research reports and consumer media reports would quickly see that consumers are now placing great importance on all kinds of values-based decision-making. They want transparency above all, though the clear implication is they want that transparency to reveal substantive value decisions around pesticides, labor, GMOs and more. After all, transparency that reveals bad things is unlikely to boost produce sales and consumption.

Our favorite Martian would almost certainly think that the largest supermarket chain in America is Whole Foods, as almost singularly it is on trend on all these points.

Yet, the total sales of Whole Foods is nothing more than a rounding error in the food industry. Wal-Mart is, by far, the largest food retailer in the country. Aldi is the fastest growing established food retailer in the country, and Lidl is the fastest growing start-up food retailer in America.

In other words, the largest chunk of the industry today and the prospects for future growth are strongly on the discount side. Now even discounters pay homage to trendy things, and so Wal-Mart has for decades been putting up pictures of farmers and having “store of the community” initiatives. All retailers know how to use words that appeal to consumers’ aspirational needs. But the evidence that consumer purchasing is being heavily swayed by all these things is, to be generous, quite slight.

Think of the facts: Consumers need to purchase a certain amount of calories to feed their families. If the produce industry — with its products known as being generally fresh, healthy and natural — is imperfect in its transparency, then consumers will do what exactly? Switch from buying Halos and Cuties to chocolate bars? Does this make sense?

The biggest argument for transparency is not that it will boost produce sales; it is that it will keep us at our best. It’s the same reason restaurants should have open kitchens. Perhaps the theatre provides some marketing utility, but, definitely, management and workers behave differently when they know they are being observed.

It is extremely important to avoid being excessively swayed by anecdotal, non-scientific interactions with consumers. Who can be opposed to open dialogue? Engaging with individuals who are passionate enough to reach out to a company or an industry is the right thing to do. But there are more than 300 million consumers in the United States, so the fact that someone tweets something is important mostly as a matter of damage control – lest that tweeter influence others. One cannot assume these kinds of interactions represent consumer opinion.

It also is important to distinguish between consumer expression of aspirational values and actual consumer behavior. Consumers may want to be the kind of people who know their farmer, understand how food is produced, evaluate treatment of workers, assess the impact on the land of their food choices, support the local economy, etc., etc., but many are not at all willing to invest the time required to do this.

Now maybe they feel better just knowing it is there on a website. And this makes sense as even if they don’t read and study all this, they may assume some grad student, think tank or reporter has done so, and the subsequent disclosure will result in better behavior. But don’t think that in expressing these desires, consumers are also expressing the way they wish to allocate their time and money.

In fact, most of this type of consumer research is more directly useful to retailers than producers. What consumers are most likely saying is they want their retailers to know all this stuff and vet everything for them, so they can shop with confidence, even if they have not spent their evenings studying the details of where and how their kohlrabi is produced.

Of course, it is wise for the produce industry to engage with media, government, academia and others who can influence consumers and to use these venues to help clarify difficult scientific issues, such as GMOs, pesticides and the meaning of organic or natural.  And using farmers as brand icons and industry representatives is nothing new. Take a look at the current Ocean Spray ads with the farmers in the bogs.

Allowing consumers and media in to see our operations is a positive and reinforces we have nothing to hide. Sometimes retailers can create standards directly, by, say, imposing inspections and requiring audits on such things as food safety or social issues. But they can sometimes achieve these purposes with more ease by simply requiring vendors to be transparent, allow media tours, etc.

If you think about the LA Timesexpose on worker conditions in Mexico, perhaps that could have been avoided had there been a retail requirement that to sell to us, you can’t live in darkness. Media and public tours of farm dormitory facilities can change these things. As is sometimes said: sunlight is the best disinfectant.