The Vital Role Marketing Plays Today in Supporting Our Food System

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The following article was originally published in Adweek.

Today, business is the most trusted institution in the world, which means the responsibility of marketing and marketers greater than ever before. The messages we write and the stories we craft can transform consumer landscapes, shape industries, grow or shrink brands, and support or hinder livelihoods.

In perhaps no industry is this truer than food and agriculture.

Articles, studies and public policies show just how impactful food advertising is on society’s changing tastes and preferences. Our ability to sway public opinion not only alters what America eats, it can foster skepticism about common agricultural concepts.

When we advertise food brands, we’re not just selling products—we’re painting a picture that is often the only image consumers ever see of our food system. If we don’t get it right, we run the risk of perpetuating misperceptions that impact the entire system, from the crops that are grown and where ingredients are sourced to which products show up on store shelves.

It’s an important time to ask: are we getting it as right as we can? While there’s no shortage of data on consumers and agriculture audiences throughout our food system, there are far fewer first-hand perspectives being shared. For a holistic view of food, we went on a unique journey to capture a broader perspective and consider how marketing’s influence impacts the food system by conducting dozens of interviews with an expansive group of individuals, from farmers to entrepreneurs to butchers to eaters.

And it’s evident that there are opportunities for us to come together and do better.

No such thing as Old McDonald

According to a Wisconsin dairy farmer interviewed, there is a shared frustration amongst today’s farmers with the misrepresentation of the food system in advertising and consumerism in general. Her opinions are not unique. As Megan, a fourth-generation Illinois farmer who grows conventional and organic crops as well as livestock, shared—there is an old, outdated view that farming is ‘Old McDonald.’ The reality is that technology has advanced agriculture practices—iPads are in tractor cabs and there is an emphasis on using precise technology in the execution as a whole.

Their messages and those of fellow farmers are clear: farmers believe there is a growing disconnect between consumer preferences and the reality of how food is grown and delivered, and that marketers play a role in creating this disconnect.

What seems like a benign fact—that many people today have never met a farmer—in reality opens the door to perpetuate myths and misunderstanding. We, with our impact on messaging, can play a role in bridging the growing divide; the growing divide between consumers, their preferences, farmers and how they produce food that will, in turn, make our food system better. This is becoming a cultural imperative — one that can impact sustainability, nutrition and food access in a positive and inclusive way for consumers and farmers alike.

The biggest challenge, pointed out by a dairy nutritionist and speaker, is how to get food companies and processors to be better partners with the farmers. It can often be deemed as “unsexy” to tell a different story otherwise, but this creates problems as well. There is consumer demand and then there is consumer demand generated by marketing efforts. Farmers who deal with this complex supply and demand issue regularly want to know: did the consumer ask for it or did the messaging give them the idea to ask for it?

Harvesting a real, supportive narrative

We as marketers don’t just respond to consumer demand; we create it. We can guide consumers to make fully informed choices for themselves based on the full story.

This means we need to:

  • Advocate for a whole system view of food production and distribution. Lacking a single definition of success, our food system is at once achieving and missing its goals. There is no one food system, but rather countless individual food systems. With so many consumers experiencing vastly different food systems, it can be challenging for individuals, brands, and the government to align on solutions.
  • Tell the full story of our preferences and the food we eat. Consumers hold a lack of knowledge on where their food comes from or what food is best for them, a reality that leads to underappreciation of the farmer and a lack of desire to make change. Educated consumers are more capable of stimulating demand for food that benefits everyone: themselves, farmers, well-intentioned brands (of which there are many), and the planet.
  • Act responsibly in how we influence consumers. Food brands today have access to knowledge and expertise that the average consumer doesn’t. Guided by the messages they see in marketing and elsewhere, consumers are making decisions for their families and themselves. Brands need to spread the wealth by not just selling great food products but recognizing their role in educating consumers about the realities of a food system they helped create and continue to build.
  • Foster unity and understanding within the food world. Our food system is extremely complex and collaboration is as imperative as it is overlooked. Entities have insights and thinking that others can learn from yet the intense “siloing” of our food system has left ideas off the table and innovation on the bench.

For an industry we all rely on, we owe it to ourselves, our brands, our farmers and our consumers.