Using fear as a sales tactic

by Keith Nunes
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KANSAS CITY — The use of fear as a sales tool is not new. It has proven effective in politics and many, many businesses, including the food and beverage industry. But, as many in the food industry are learning, there is a downside to the tactic.

Some consumers believe the stories disseminated about artificial colors and preservatives, bioengineered ingredients, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar and many other ingredients. The result is a marketplace where marketing efforts are perceived as irrefutable fact.

It is a challenge to differentiate food and beverage products in the market. Unlike other segments of the consumer packaged goods sector, it is difficult to develop a truly differentiated or disruptive product. After all, there are only so many product formats, applications and flavors. Combine those limitations with the fact the industry’s largest companies spend vast sums of money on marketing, and it is easy to see why competitors have turned to sowing fear as a form of differentiation.

But this battle for market share is taking place as suppliers and manufacturers are working to innovate and adopt new technologies, and they have found themselves, in some instances, blockaded by consumers and groups who object to a technology based on what they have heard rather than what they know.

A report published earlier this month by Academics Review looked into why consumers buy organic products. The report reviewed more than 200 research reports and found consumers are buying organic products based on misleading perceptions about the safety, nutrition and health attributes of comparative products.

The researchers also noted, “The research found extensive evidence that widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities are a primary cause for these misperceptions. This suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and paid advocacy.”

Examples cited in the report include advertisements that call out a product as “made without the use of antibiotics, hormones and toxic pesticides.” Another advertisement for an organic product features a headline that reads “Pesticides, hormones and drugs, oh my!”

The tactics are intended to sow doubt in the consumer’s mind, and while they may lack integrity they do not clearly violate any laws or regulations.

It would be naïve to say marketers should cease using these tactics in an effort to reduce consumer confusion. But it should be recognized that the marketing tactics featuring fear as a primary theme are having a harmful effect on the industry’s ability to advance and on the consumer’s understanding of health and nutrition.
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