Whole Grains Council's Oldways Whole Grains: Breaking Barriers Conference

Sampling and positive messages in ads boost sales of whole grain products

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Whole grain

Source: Whole Grains Council
Source: Whole Grains Council
The “best” way to change consumers’ long-held perception that whole grain products taste “like cardboard” and to spur sales is to give consumers a risk-free chance to try the products and use positive, educational marketing, food manufacturers said. 

Despite changes in food policy to actively encourage consumers to eat more whole grains, “there is still a perception with consumers that whole grains don’t taste good, and they are still afraid to try whole grains,”​  said Anna Rosales, nutrition manager for Barilla.

To overcome this barrier, Bannockburn, Ill.-based Barilla launched the whole grain taste challenge to encourage consumers to try its whole grain pasta when it first launched, Rosales said at the Whole Grains Council’s Oldways Whole Grains: Breaking Barriers conference in Boston Nov. 11.

She was joined at the conference by executives from Bob’s Red Mill, Elevation Brands and Lundberg Family Farms to share marketing strategies and best practices for whole grain products, which are becoming increasingly available but still face consumer resistance.

When Barilla first rolled out whole wheat pastas “we wanted to educate people and encourage them to experience whole grains in their kitchen,”​ but the company realized that convincing consumers to buy pasta that was darker than traditional pasta would not be easy, Rosales said.

“So, we said, ‘Try it and if you don’t like it, we will send you a coupon for a free box of our traditional semolina pasta,”​ Rosales said.

By eliminating consumers’ financial risk if they did not like the product, Barilla saw “incredible” ​uptake of the whole wheat pasta and only 400 people asked for the free box of semolina pasta, Rosales said.

If firms offer whole grains, consumers will buy them

Simply offering whole grain products and not assuming consumers do not want them also will drive sales by giving consumers a chance to try new foods, added Dennis Gilliam, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Bob’s Red Mill.

“I have a life premise that goes like this: Nothing happens until you put yourself out there,”​ Gilliam said. He added that the more whole grain products that are available, the more consumers will accept them as normal and be willing to buy them.

He acknowledged, however, that to generate repeat sales manufacturers and retailers will need to educate consumers about how whole grain products compare to conventional alternatives and give them the tools they need to successfully prepare those foods and “to change their lifestyles.”

Give consumers tools to cook successfully

Barilla did this through a 360 degree marketing campaign for its whole wheat pasta that relied heavily on independent key influencers, such as Food Network and bloggers, to dispel the myth whole grains were difficult to cook or the pasta would clump, Rosales said. She noted these messages were more easily believed when they came from trusted, independent parties than from the firm directly.

The firm also repositioned the dialogue about taste in a positive light by providing consumers with tested recipes created specifically for whole wheat pasta and gave consumers tips on how to cook whole wheat pasta differently than semolina pasta for a successful dish.

“We realized that if you were going to take certain pasta dishes and make them with whole grain pasta instead of semolina pasta and expect the same taste and culinary experience, you were going to be disappointed,” ​Rosales said. So the firm opted to give consumers tools and information necessary for successful cooking to encourage repeat purchases, she added.

Bob’s Red Mill also showed consumers cooking with whole grains was possible and could produce delicious meals by taking nine premier chefs from Portland on a media tour of Manhattan where they competed and cooked with whole grains. The event was a food “roadshow like New York has never seen,” ​Gilliam said.

Be positive

Bob’s Red Mill also found “positive messages sell best,”​ which is why it focuses on the added health benefits and increased sustainability of whole grain products in two new commercials launching late this year and in 2015, Gilliam said.

The firm taps into consumers’ increasing desire to buy natural products by depicting whole grain products as the closest the consumer can get to the farmer “without wearing your field boots,”​ Gillian said. It does this with imagery of wheat fields, mills and golden sunsets in its commercials, and with “the simplest possible packaging”​ to communicate as “evident truth” ​that whole grains are natural.

The key to this campaign’s success is “authenticity,”​ Gilliam said. “Positive messaging sells better than you think, but you better be the real deal before you try it or it is not going to work,” ​he said.

Bob’s Red Mill proves the validity of its commercial messaging by winning cooking awards and supporting and communicating the results of research on the health benefits of whole grains, Gilliam added.

In 2009, the firm won the world porridge contest in Scotland using its steal cut oats. Within a month of its victory, sales of the firm’s steal cut oats doubled and have never gone back, Gilliam said. Although he was loath to admit that when he personally entered the contest last year he lost, even though most of the other competitors asked him for his recipe for Morning Glory Oats, which is on the company’s website.

The founders of Bob’s Red Mill also donated millions of dollars to the Oregon Health & Science University to promote research establishing that proper nutrition before and during pregnancy can prevent many diseases. It also has helped the University communicate its findings with the public to build a deeper understanding of health and nutrition, Gilliam said.

Finally, the firm has created a positive image around whole grain products by linking it to well-loved hobbies, like bird-watching, which further connects the brand to nature and engages the consumer, Gilliam said. 

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