Many consumers believe gluten-free products are healthier even if they don’t have Celiac disease. Many overweight and obese consumers have no intention of losing weight. There is a push for products containing bioengineered ingredients to be labeled when research hasn’t found the products to be harmful.
Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, Inc., a market research firm, said these are all examples of consumer disconnects. She defines a disconnect as an influence that may prompt some consumers to say one thing but do another, or when consumer behavior is influenced by misinformation or misunderstanding. The disconnects may be damaging for companies, and Ms. Badaracco said all too often some companies cater to the consumer misperceptions instead of trying to correct them.
So how do disconnects get started?
“It’s usually a handful of really passionate consumers who start the ball rolling on a topic, whether it’s gluten-free or G.M.O., and the media loves that ... and then it snowballs,” Ms. Badaracco said.
When this happens, the food industry doesn’t always work to educate consumers.
“What the food industry sometimes does is they don’t help the situation — they jump on the bandwagon, which makes it even worse,” Ms. Badaracco said. “Now you are catapulting more products into the marketplace under a false assumption.”
As an example, she said instead of trying to educate consumers about why some consumers require a gluten-free diet and trying to reposition gluten-free as a medical diet, the grain-based foods industry made more gluten-free products. She said industry and society have so trained consumers to believe “free-from” products are better for them that they easily latched onto the idea of gluten-free.
Ms. Badaracco said a classic example of how disconnects may be damaging may be seen in the bird flu epidemic that occurred a few years ago. Poultry sales in the United States declined sharply during the period, but she said the reaction was based on false consumer perceptions that bird flu had come to the United States and that a person may contract the virus by eating poultry products.
Other disconnects currently impacting the market include “stealth” nutrition for children, or trying to disguise vegetables and other healthy ingredients in more appealing foods to get children to eat them. Ms. Badaracco said this doesn’t work long term, and doesn’t turn the child into a vegetable eater because they aren’t exposed to vegetables intentionally.
The MyPlate icon is another disconnect because although it’s a simple guideline to follow, consumers rarely follow its advice. Additionally, Ms. Badaracco said many overweight and obese consumers have no intention of losing weight, which forms yet another disconnect.
“There also are disconnects around sustainability — consumers can’t actually name a company that is sustainable,” Ms. Badaracco said.
For example, she said some consumers have long believed Whole Foods to be a sustainable company, and until recently its practices were not sustainable. Also, many consumers believe local foods are cheaper and safer.
The best way to diffuse some of these disconnects, Ms. Badaracco said, is through advertising and messaging that focuses on the heart of an issue. She pointed to advertisements the Corn Refiners Association developed that focused on the science around high-fructose corn syrup. In the advertisements, one consumer warns another consumer about what “they” say about HFCS. The other consumer responds “they” simply say it is sugar from corn. In addition, the C.R.A. has a web site, sweetsurprise.com, that breaks down the myths and facts about HFCS and responds to criticism. Ms. Badaracco said these types of efforts dropped consumer fear of HFCS significantly. She encourages the grain industry to consider doing something similar to address consumer perceptions of gluten.
Additionally, she said there are studies showing if consumers are educated about bioengineering and show how the crops may have specific benefits, they are much more open to the products and may even be willing to pay more for them.
Ms. Badaracco said when companies identify a disconnect they first have to understand what it is and how it originated. Next, she said if the company has the money they need to work to reposition the disconnect through advertising and on-pack information sooner rather than later.
So what disconnect may be next?
Ms. Badaracco said the low-glycemic index diet is starting to appear as an emerging disconnect in the market. She said the disconnect is that it’s an extremely difficult diet to do correctly, and it may harm the market for some products such as potatoes. Yet she said overall it’s not a harmful diet that doesn’t vilify any one food group.In economic recovery, consumers are more likely to educate themselves about different diets and issues, potentially leading to fewer disconnects, she added. In contrast, during a recession consumers are more likely to latch on to disconnects.