Earning public trust is about doing the right thing, and being able to show and tell others why and how you do it.
But in the noise of social media-spread myth and misinformation, being heard, believed and trusted has never been more complicated or challenging.
The food industry is now in a veritable “pressure cooker” as one attendee at a Canadian Agri-Marketing Association event in Winnipeg last week put it.
Leading North American food and agricultural businesses gathered here for two days of meeting to talk over that challenge, seeking to learn from each other’s best practices for engaging with the public and earning its trust.
A senior marketing manager for McDonald’s Canada was the first speaker of the day, setting the tone for the discussion with his assertion that the overarching challenge for all institutions now has become ‘the battle for truth.’
“We live in an age of distrust towards institutions and information in general,” said Jean-Guillaume Bertola.
Now it is all about the believability of the message given the high degree of skepticism among consumers today, he said.
He detailed three key areas McDonald’s is using to build and maintain trust in its own company’s brand.
One is connecting with people through communicating beliefs and brand values. That’s something very different than talking about facts, he said.
“Facts are what you do. Beliefs are what you stand for as a brand.”
McDonald’s ‘The Big Mac. Not without Canadian Farmers’ campaign is an example of sharing company core beliefs rather than simply stating facts, he said.
“We could have gone with something fact based. We could have said sourced in Canada,” he said.
They chose instead to tell customers about their company’s belief that “good food grows in Canada,” he said.
“And that we believe what we do is the right thing to do,” he added.
Content fosters relationship
Bertola also stressed the importance of content when engaging with consumers. Content involves creating “a unique relationship” that both gives consumers a voice and ability to ask questions of you, he said.
It also offers people opportunity to learn something that they care about while you learn from them.
McDonalds’ ‘Our Food Your Questions’ initiative launched in Canada in 2012 is an example of content marketing that worked very well, he told the CAMA meeting.
This was a completely open and transparent digital platform whereby people could ask McDonald’s any question they wished.
McDonald’s wanted to hear the concerns people had about their food, he said.
“The goal of it was at the beginning to address the mistrust and the myths about the food and how the food is prepared at McDonalds,” he said.
“And we knew people were going to ask very tough questions. We knew it because it was already there in social media.”
They also chose to answer those tough questions in a public forum, doing so because they recognized wherever trust is at risk, transparency is absolutely necessary.
“We could have answered those questions one to one, through emails but we didn’t go this route. We went the route of being public about it.”
Ultimately, Our Food Your Questions gave McDonald’s important feedback that it took action on, he said. The creation of an online tool for tracking nutritional content in McDonald’s food was created because consumers asked for it through Our Food Your Questions.
They also received plenty of negative feedback too, but it was equally welcomed, he said.
“That is the beauty of content. You provide information they care about and they’re giving you insights. Then you take it away and act on it.
“When you think about how important consumers’ opinion can be today and the power they have, think about how important it can be to nurture this relationship with them,” he stressed.
Lastly, but very importantly, Bertola also emphasized the importance of being part of something bigger that aims for a higher good.
An example at McDonald’s was last spring’s launch of its book or toy offering with the purchase of a Happy Meal. It was done in a partnership with Kids Can Press, the largest Canadian-owned children’s book publisher and aimed at supporting work to address literacy needs among Canadian youth, he said.
Ultimately, what all this really is about is embracing dialogue, Bertola said.
It’s about listening first and not thinking you already know what people need or think, he said.
“Don’t assume you know what they think and don’t assume that you know what their concerns are,” he said.
“Just listen to it first.”
Manitoba Agriculture Deputy Minister Dori Gingera-Beauchemin echoed those thoughts in a brief address to the CAMA gathering.
All the advancements in agriculture have been possible because of the priority placed on science and credible research and that work remains a critical part of earning public trust, she said.
“However, all that good, smart and expensive science can be lost in the public trust arena if we struggle to link the science and the new technology with consumer values and the desire for safe food produced responsibly,” she said.
A new approach isn’t about more marketing, education or telling people to go look at more websites, she said. It’s about developing dialoguing and listening skills.
“The need to know the questions (that consumers ask) before providing the answers is really the goal,” she said. “I strive for that and it’s more than curiosity. It’s a fundamental requirement in the goal of cultivating and building public trust.”
The Winnipeg meeting was organized as a working group for participants to network, share best practices and learn from one another as well as the presenters.
Certainly the industry is under intense scrutiny but it’s also an exciting time to be communicating how food is grown and raised, said CAMA president Robert Menzies.
“I do hope this will be the beginning of something great for all of us,” he said.