In just two years, the proportion of consumers who actively critique or recommend food, brands and agriculture practices has grown from 10% of the global population to 24%, according to the fourth annual Food 2020 study released Jan. 12 and conducted by the public relations firm Ketchum.
This group, dubbed “Food eVangelists” for the “fervor” with which they convert others to behave towards food in the way they want, is highly skeptical of the food and beverage industry – believing that manufacturers are concealing information they need to make healthy decisions about what to put in their bodies, said Linda Eatherton, partner and managing director of global practices development and global food & beverage practice at Ketchum.
She explained because of their distrust of industry, these consumers have constructed a wall between themselves and manufacturers – refusing to listen to industry and instead preferring to gather information about food from each other, families, nutritionists, farmers and healthcare providers. They then echoed what they learn to others.
Initially, industry stakeholders dismissed this group as too small to have much impact on their bottom lines or mainstream consumers. They opted to treat this group as “critics and people to be dealt with instead of embracing them as part of their core loyal franchise” to whom they should listen and respond thoughtfully, Eatherton said.
But, she added, the opposite is true. The study found their influence and numbers are growing quickly, and they likely will become “the new normal.” On the bright side for industry, she added, once their concerns are addressed, they will disband and no longer be a threat to industry’s reputation or sales.
What Food Evangelists want
Having turned their backs on large scale food industry, Food eVangelists are buying products from local producers and specialty food makers, with whom they feel like they have relationships based on information, knowledge, shared values and shared conversations, according to the study.
More specifically, the study found 54% of Food eVangelists believe the best food comes from local farmers with whom they can interact and 49% trust the quality of food from a local retailer more than mass supermarkets – revealing this is not just an issue impacting manufacturers, but retailers as well.
In addition, 69% believe fresh food is better than packaged food.
Willing to work with industry
Even though this group distrusts industry currently, they are willing to work with food manufacturers to find solutions and improve the quality of products, according to the study results.
“As one might anticipate today, Food eVangelists have a rather strong expectation that global food companies will communicate via social media on certain topics, but their expectations are not over the top,” according to the report.
It found 28% expect firms to offer a direct line of communication with management and only 20% expect the company to be active on Twitter. However, 50% expect firms to answer questions on social media, 47% expect transparent communication about sourcing and manufacturing on social media and 44% expect them to solicit feedback on product improvements and new products, the report states.
With this in mind, 53% of Food eVangelists said they would engage in a two-way dialogue with food companies via social media to offer product feedback, 56% if concerned about one of their products and 45% about general comments.
While Food eVangelists expect honest and transparency from food companies, they do not expect perfection, Eartherton said. Rather, they look for continuous improvement and a wiliness to go with consumers on a journey towards something better, she said.
The next generation of shoppers
Food eVangelists, not surprisingly, are instilling these values in their children – whom they increasingly are talking with and listening to when it comes to food decisions.
In the past, children’s voices about food preferences may not have carried much weight, but now children are the family’s “conscience-keepers,” according to Ketchum.
It found children are “even more strident in their believes than their parents,” according to the study, which found 49% of children take an active role in choosing the types of foods the family eats, 39% look at labels, 38% shun certain ingredients, 33% initiate conversations about food sourcing and safety and 33% prefer organic or locally produced foods.
While marketers cannot directly target children in their communication efforts, Ketchum cautions marketers not to dismiss their views. As it says in the report, the younger generation’s opinions are important because they “are poised to become the influencers of the tomorrow.”