Held on the heels of the Food Integrity Summit in Chicago October 24, the Food and Agriculture Messaging Summit offered up the latest consumer research by three farm and food industry advocate groups. Among the key messages: consumers are most concerned about long-term health, biotech is low on their radar, and storytelling matters.
"The communication model is shifting. There's no one size fits all anymore," says Jacque Matsen, National Cattlemen's Beef Association and moderator of the day's panel. "Consumers don't accept stiff corporate language. They want authenticity."
Matsen adds that consumers are skeptical, in general. "They're skeptical that government is looking out for their best interest, they're skeptical the media gets it right and they're skeptical that agriculture is headed in the right direction.
"We don't have the benefit of the doubt any more. Our audience is suspect of our motives and they challenge our facts," Matsen says.
What are they looking for? Matsen says they want individual stories, and they want personalization instead of facts and data. They want the experience instead of the explanation.
Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, one of the presenting advocate groups, says when consumers ask about raising hogs indoors, for example, they are asking, "Should we raise hogs indoors?" Agriculture answers as if they've asked, "Can we raise hogs indoors?"
"We've been answering 'can,' with lots of scientific data. We haven't addressed 'should,' and that's what they're asking," Arnot explains.
Research presented by the Center for Food Integrity suggests that shared values are three to five times more important in building trust than is demonstrating competence. "We can't give them enough data to convince them we share their values," Arnot adds.
Biotech is low on the list
Dave Schmidt of the International Food Information Council shared research from their 2012 Food and Health Survey, which revealed that despite all that agriculture hears about consumer resistance to biotechnology, the subject rates very low in consumers' food concerns.
"When we asked the open ended question, 'what food ingredients are you avoiding?' no one in the entire sample answered biotech or GM," Schmidt says. Forty percent of respondents said they avoid sugars, 15% answered carbs and 26% said animal protein. When asked a separate question, "What food ingredients are you concerned about?" only 3% answered biotechnology.
Melissa Kinch presented research done by U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, whose consumer research focused on the "food elite" - those people who are driving the food conversation, are influencing media and to whom others turn for information. They tested more than 300 messages about agriculture to people in urban population centers during the past 18 months.
Their fundamental concern is regarding long-term health effects - cancer, obesity, diabetes, heart health. "The 'unknown', and the chronic disease front," Kinch explains. "And what we've found is that consistently, anything deemed 'not natural' is seen as a threat to long-term health." Among the list of "not natural" items: antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, fertilizer, herbicides, biotech, chemicals, packaged food ingredients, factory farms.
"This is why battling emotion with facts is not working," Kinch adds.
Another key finding: consumers and influencers value transparency. "The audience wants more information, they get more information at the point of sale, and they're skeptical when they can't find it easily. Transparency is everything."
Research confirmed that consumers trust farmers and ranchers, even if they don't trust farming and ranching.
"The farmer or rancher as a storyteller is powerful," Kinch adds. "And you have to acknowledge concerns and answer the questions people are really asking, versus the messages you want to tell."
For more on the research details, visit www.foodintegrity.org.