Social media: Lending credibility to marketing in the digital age

Just being good isn’t enough. Being special can elevate products like canola oil to new levels and increase sales

Low in saturated fat and high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids canola oil, offers clear health benefits to consumers. But marketers can’t expect the product to sell itself — they need to grease the wheels.

Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist, author and consultant spoke at the Canola Council of Canada’s convention in Washington, D.C. about ways to put the heart-healthy oil into more people’s diets and shopping carts.

“(Canola oil) is very basic, although really beloved in the U.S.,” she said. “I think in the U.S. we are even more aware of the benefits of canola oil than you are in Canada. It’s really commonly associated with good health and has an excellent reputation, but it’s not necessarily special.”

The consumer expert said creating different categories of canola oil, possibly touting omega-3 benefits, or playing off the “extra virgin” label of olive oil could be effective strategies.

“I’m not quite sure how that would apply to canola oil, but I’m sure there is a way to make it work,” Yarrow told delegates.

Benefits of niche marketing

And the benefits of selling small quantities of higher-quality, higher-priced oil isn’t the sale of the specialty oil itself — it’s the rub-off effect.

Comparing it to luxury car companies that make most of their profits selling economy-class vehicles, the psychologist explained having a high-end product available can elevate an entire brand category. In short, elevating one type of canola oil elevates all canola oil.

“Price can have that sort of allure,” she said.

Teaming up with other products is another way to imbue canola oil, or any other item, with the attributes of another brand. Yarrow noted the cosmetics industry often draws on farm imagery in products featuring fruits, or fruit flavour, even if there is no apparent connection between items like lipstick and pomegranates.

Canola’s sunny-yellow flowers could just as easily become a symbol for advertisers looking to promote the natural, healthy aspects of their particular products, she said.

“Your area — food — because it’s so pure, because there is a purity associated with it in the minds of consumers, is being annexed into all sorts of brand categories using the rub-off effect,” said Yarrow. “I think there would be room for you guys to lend your image to other products, or for you to steal from the image of other products.”

But getting your message out today isn’t like it was 10 or 20 years ago, Yarrow said. Consumers have become empowered by online information, more visually aware and more self-reliant. Shopper demographics have also changed, and all the while food options have increased causing consumer indecision.

In addition, more men are grocery shopping, fewer families are defined as “traditional,” and shoppers are now weary of marketing claims.

Building trust

“The way consumers really learn about the value of a product today is not by digesting one piece of information from one source, that is why your old ads just don’t work as effectively as they used to,” said Yarrow. “Trust today is built from information people acquire from many different sources.”

Those sources include referrals by friends on Facebook, Twitter feeds or influential bloggers, as well as traditional print and broadcast media.

Yarrow noted she began using canola oil several years ago after it was listed as an ingredient in cookbook after cookbook.

“And that wasn’t an accident; good job,” she said.

Another important shift in consumer trends is the yearning to belong. Although social media may give people the sense of being connected, in reality people today have fewer trusted friends than they did 30 years ago, said Yarrow. The type of friend you call for help when your child is sick, when you have a flat tire or when your dog is on the loose, is on the decline.

This change has left consumers craving involvement and seeking communities, even ones centred around a brand or product.

“Consumers actually really want to be involved today,” she said. “When they feel like marketers and retailers and brands are listening to their needs, they respond with their pocketbooks robustly.”

Changing tastes

Along with changes in how people make food purchasing decisions, there has also been a shift in consumer taste buds. Foods like egg rolls, tacos and ravioli are no longer considered “ethnic,” and demand for spices is growing.

One of the top food trends for 2012 is turmeric, a spice often used in Persian, Indian and Thai foods, while spicy dishes and new flavour combinations are popping up more and more.

“Flavours have really gone wild these days,” she said.

Yarrow said there are opportunities for canola oil to work with these consumer shifts and trends, but canola marketers must also be aware of the possible downside of their industry.

“We’re still looking at something that is big business,” she said.

But there is an antidote to any stigma the big business side of things may create.

“It must always go back to the plant,” Yarrow said. “What we’re looking at here is a way to be really pure and simple. Quality and value is what your brand already has, and that is what consumers are really looking for.”

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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