March 9, 2017 / POV

Distrust and Anxiety Make this Golden Age of Food Taste So Wrong

What marketers can do to regain consumer trust 

By Bernice Neumann

America is a nation of food adventurers with rapidly evolving taste preferences and growing culinary sophistication. We have unmatched access to the latest data on sustainable sourcing, exotic ingredients, nutrition studies and ethical farming practices. This golden age of food should be exciting and inspiring, right? Instead, it has produced unmatched worry. Today, 55 percent of consumers distrust the food system, according to a Sanford Bernstein survey. And food-related angst, warnings and phobias are only rapidly expanding.

Marketers and retailers today need to work harder to make connections and build brand trust, which are essential for reassuring consumers that companies are responsible, and food supplies are safe. Here are marketing approaches that make connections and build or regain trust:

Use empathy to better understand consumers and their communities

With an influx of information and the power of social media, all the predictable food buying patterns we used to rely on are out. Consumers more often value discovery, diversity and curiosity. And they engage with communities that share their passions.  To understand your consumers, get to really know them. Use empathy-driven approaches to learn about their hearts and minds. Conduct in-home research and interviews that start by asking “What do you really need?” Study the micro communities that share your values and behaviors to build trust. People remember and share experiences—how we made them feel—not just logos or marketing taglines. The brand or retailer that screams the loudest no longer commands the most attention; the one that offers something genuinely useful and helps you feel included, does.

Bring consumers into your journey

The need for transparency is not new, but it’s becoming essential. Today’s consumers want to know and understand the people and values behind a brand. Bringing them closer to the source, whether it’s the farm where food is grown or the person who crafts the product, helps build trust.Technology also allows us to share stories in ways never before imagined. Video and live experiences through social platforms, like Facebook Live, or Instagram stories or products like Spectacles by Snap Inc., create innovative storytelling opportunities. Consider how you can use technology to create unique brand experiences and provide consumers with a peek behind the curtain.

Define and live by a higher purpose

Consumers are savvy, and they look at the whole brand when making decisions. Marketers should ground their strategy in the core strengths, values and beliefs of their business, whether that’s sustainability, use of water, fair trade or other worthy activities. Connect the product story to this purpose, from the origin story to the ingredients to the packaging. All efforts should be authentic and tell a story that is important to the company and its customers. 

Use evidence to help people make better choices

We live in a tricky time when the motives of scientists and scientific organizations making recommendations about our food supply and its safety are under scrutiny. At the same time, food and nutrition bloggers, dietitians and even celebrity doctors, have expanded their influence over consumer behaviors and food buying decisions. Brands that lean on respected influencers can help consumers make more-informed choices by ensuring published content includes facts and evidence and puts this data into perspective, based on what people need. Aligning with influencers who utilize research that’s been peer reviewed and evidence from respected organizations goes a long way in building trust.

Think like a startup

Disruption is happening all around us as consumer preferences change or evolve at lightning speed, new technologies bring never-before-seen products to market, or companies launch and market in new ways. We see smaller companies or new players now leading industry innovation by responding to very specific consumer needs. Marketers can adapt a more disruptive mindset and act like a start-up in numerous ways, including actively listening to consumers in the social space to find opportunities to engage. They can also get closer to consumers by selling to them directly, being more involved in local communities, and participating in more event or tasting activities. These actions make a brand more approachable and authentic, which also builds trust.

Invite participation

When people buy into your story, purpose and values, they will be more eager to connect and share. Creating a dialogue where consumers can ask questions and be informed also builds trust. It’s important to have conversations when consumers want them, being empathetic and treating them with intelligence.

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Bernice Neumann, Practice Leader, Food and Nutrition, Exponent PR

Bernice Neumann was recently named a Top Woman in PR by PR News. As the food and nutrition practice leader at Exponent PR, she oversees game-changing brand marketing and public relations campaigns for a range of clients, including Florida’s Natural Orange Juice, General Mills, Land O’Lakes and the Peanut and Tree Nut Processors Association. She is known for her creative, high-impact ideas, ability to make instinctual adjustments in the most difficult of situations and integrated collaboration between various brand teams.