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‘Be consistent. Be visible. And be human’: Building consumer trust through social media

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 09-Mar-2012

Consumers are increasingly engaged in online conversations about food and beverage products, and there could be enormous benefits for manufacturers that get involved, according to a social media expert from The Nielsen Company.

Director of retailer insights at Nielsen, Jean-Jacques Vandenheede, told delegates at last month’s Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) conference in Orlando, Florida that mobile technology has transformed the way consumers connect with brands, and it is vital that food companies work out how to connect directly – often in real time – with their customers.

According to Nielsen market research, increasing numbers of consumers are rating and reviewing products and services online, with 23% saying they have provided internet reviews of food and beverage products. These reviews matter, as they are highly trusted by consumers, Vandenheede said.

“‘Recommendations from people I know’ is the top reason people try a new product,” he said.  “The consumer is in control.”

Brand influence is controlled by three sources, he said: Paid media (advertising paid for by the company), owned media (the company’s own website, for example), and earned media, which is everything that consumers say voluntarily on behalf of the brand. Increasingly, companies are learning the importance of engaging with consumers to earn their trusted and influential positive opinions.

Open and honest conversation

In January 2009, PepsiCo reverted to its old-style Tropicana cartons after some of what it considered its most loyal customers slammed the new design on Twitter. According to Vandenheede, the immediacy of this interaction between brand-owner decision and customer response is one of the great advantages of social media.

“It’s about taking part in conversation. The conversation has to be honest and open,” he said.

While PepsiCo moved quickly to limit what could have been a damaging move for its brand, other companies have reacted more slowly. The fallout from poor handling of social media conversations could be “about the same as a recall”, Vandenheede said.

For example, Nestlé was called out for its “corporate PR response” on Facebook in 2010, after online fans criticized it for its alleged use of palm oil from deforested areas in Indonesia. The incident was picked up by mainstream media across the globe, and eventually led to the company changing its sourcing policy for palm oil.

‘Like discovering the internet again’

But the opportunities to connect with consumers, especially for companies with smaller advertising budgets, are vast – and the boundaries are constantly expanding. Unlike expensive television advertising slots, there is no restriction on time, and if an online advertising campaign is well-designed, it can reach many more potential customers.

“In my opinion, this is a phenomenal opportunity but the question is whether you are going to do it,” Vandenheede said.“It’s like discovering the internet again when we knew this thing was going to be big but we didn’t know what we were going to do with it.”

He said the key question for marketers is “will you share it forward or send it to your friends?”

“It could be a much cheaper way to advertise a product if you find the right way to share it. You can develop marketing that people want to share, or directly involve consumers in decisions,” he said, as Lay’s did, when it asked consumers to choose new flavors for potato chips.

As social and mobile media become the primary access points to the internet, Vandenheede has some succinct words of advice for food companies: “Be visible. Be organized. Be consistent. And be human.”