The challenge of regaining consumer trust

by Keith Nunes
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KANSAS CITY — A common sentiment expressed during the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Leadership Forum is that consumers no longer trust many food and beverage companies perceived as large. The sentiment gains credence when one begins looking at what is being said about many of the companies.

During a panel session at the Leadership Forum, which was held in mid-August in Colorado Springs, Tom Phillips, a director with Deloitte Consulting, told the audience his firm “listened in to chatter on the Internet” about the food and beverage industry and reviewed the sentiment of the comments and discussions. Deloitte found that negative sentiment related to some major food brands was three to four times higher than major brands in other industries. He said these brands have challenges when it comes to consumer trust.

A growing trend in the consumer landscape.

This should come as a surprise to no one in this industry. It does not take much effort to find commentary on-line or in print characterizing “big food” as enterprises with objectives far more nefarious than nourishing consumers every day and seeking a reasonable profit margin. Even though what is said or written may be false, it has struck a chord with some consumers and created some frightening misperceptions.

Survey results compiled by Deloitte and presented at the Forum (see related story on Page 16) demonstrate the level of this mistrust and how the consumer’s definition of food safety has changed. Respondents indicated they are not only worried about foodborne illness, but that ingredients in some products may cause harm in the long term to their family.

It may be interesting to someday examine when the tipping point occurred and consumer perception of the largest consumer packaged goods companies began to shift, but as many speakers noted at the G.M.A. Forum, the focus now must be on regaining consumer trust. The Internet and the continued acceleration of the use of social media have turned the business of marketing on its head. Where once companies would create broad marketing programs around such themes as value, convenience, taste, etc., many consumers today are demanding personalized marketing efforts that engage and provide them with experiences.

As one speaker at the G.M.A. Forum noted, marketers are used to speaking to consumers. They are not as used to having them talk back.

This dynamic may not favor companies of significant scale. Past efforts to consolidate business functions with an eye toward reducing costs and create synergies now mean many large companies may lack the resources to engage consumers in a manner similar to efforts utilized by smaller, more focused and more agile competitors.

Then there is the issue of food technology. That production, manufacturing and distribution systems for food are based on scientific principles is not perceived as a benefit by some consumers. In fact, it may be considered a source of concern. Many marketers have become adept at idealizing the family farm and small company that “do things right.” As a point of differentiation, these marketers point to the scale of their competitors and the science behind their formulation and manufacturing processes as evidence such companies have lost touch with real food and are indifferent to their customers.

Becoming more transparent has been identified as one solution to reengaging consumers and regaining their trust. But as Jim Borel, executive vice-president of DuPont, said at the G.M.A. Forum, “Transparency is not dumping a truckload of science on consumers. It is answering questions that are helpful to them.”

Mr. Borel and many other speakers at the Forum advocated engaging consumers in a conversation to help those willing to listen better understand how food is produced. It will not be easy, but it is a first step marketers must take in their efforts to regain the consumer’s trust.

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