Reaching consumers a complicated challenge for the agri-food sector

Consumers are tribal these days, which makes talking to them tough

Canadian food buyers are a complex lot, according to a newly released survey of them. PHOTO: CREATIVE COMMONS/LEFTOVERTURE

Farmers and food companies striving to better connect with consumers need to prepare for dealing with a diverse audience, says the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI).

“There is no single consumer group,” the centre says in a report on its 2017 Public Trust Survey on public attitudes on food issues. “Today’s consumers are diverse, yet engage and communicate similar viewpoints on food by forming tribes. Each consumer is unique and every consumer will display characteristics of other tribes, but ultimately everyone has a primary tribe to which they return.”

Reaching out to the tribes has to be key “when planning who and how to engage with to be most effective in earning trust,” CCFI said.

The 2017 survey built on the centre’s inaugural 2016 survey of public trust attitudes on food.

It found that “the rising cost of food and keeping healthy food affordable ranked as the top two concerns for the second year in a row over a long list of others including health care, energy and the economy.”

Keep these findings in mind when engaging the public, “particularly those who don’t work in food or agriculture,” the centre said. They also added the industry should be prepared to discuss how what they do helps to keep consumers healthy and food affordable.

The survey results show a significant increase in the number of consumers who feel the food system is heading in the right direction – 43 per cent in 2017 compared to just 30 per cent in 2016, the survey said. “This increase was consistent across all segments – male, female, early adopters, moms, millennials, and foodies.

“Just under half of millennials (43 per cent) believe the food system is moving in the right direction. This is slightly less favourable than foodies (51 per cent), but more favourable than moms (38 per cent). Only 13 per cent believe the food system is on the wrong track.”

The rising cost of food and keeping healthy food affordable maintained the top two positions again in 2017. The safety of imported food made the top five, as the concern for the Canadian economy dropped out of the top five in 2017.

The survey also found concerns on many food system issues such as antibiotics, pesticides and GMOs remained constant in 2017, showing existing efforts to explain these topics haven’t reached everyone and new approaches should be considered.

“Foodies are more concerned about most food system issues than other segments, yet also often more positive,” the survey said. They are an aware tribe presenting “a unique opportunity for those working in the food system. Foodies are engaged information seekers and sharers looking for authentic answers to everything food in Canada.”

A 2016 survey showed millennials were the least trusting group and the 2017 survey aimed to learn more about why. There appears to be some opportunity to address “those reporting neutral to negative views,” it concluded. “There is a desire for more information and to engage.”

The survey report also urged food system stakeholders to think about messengers, messages and channels to engage with millennials in “meaningful and authentic ways, perhaps like never before. Think in pictures and video and about what they value most first.”

Companies need to provide consumers with information that is accurate, easily understood and relevant to feedback, the survey said. They also need to be transparent communicating in “language and terms that are easily understood and that help make informed decisions.”

The centre said the results of its research are “designed to be actionable by anyone in the food system – from individual farmers to food retailers and everyone in between.

“What’s really important to consumers versus what may be inflamed in the news, social media or by critics with a specific cause? How are Canadians different or the same as Americans?”

The centre also wants to help the industry decide what transparency means to their operations. “We asked consumers. They responded that food processors and manufacturers are most responsible for providing information about how their food is grown or produced so they can make informed decisions.

“Some transparency activities are more imp

ortant to consumers than others. For food safety, CCFI’s research shows that identifying all ingredients in the food on the nutrition label, regardless of quantity, is a much stronger activity demonstrating transparency than providing safe handling instructions on the package.”

The survey found food manufacturers are most responsible for being transparent on food safety measures followed by farmers and the government.

“Farmers are held the most responsible for demonstrating trust-building transparency when it comes to environmental impact and animal well-being,” the survey found.

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