Linda Eatherton, who is the managing director of global food and beverage at the communication consultancy Ketchum, explained in last week’s podcast how the last ten years were a tumultuous period for the food and beverage industry as the rise of social media allowed consumers to look behind the curtain at common business practices that many shoppers felt placed profit over the planet and the people.
This loss of trust triggered a powershift from brands to a niche group of consumers that Ketchum dubbed ‘Food eVangelists’ who led boycotts and publicly shamed companies that failed to meet their standards for protecting workers, the environment and food safety.
And while many companies have made strides in recent years addressing these concerns, Eatherton explains in this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast that consumers will continue to push many businesses out of their comfort zone. Based on data collected by Ketchum for its Food 2020: Consumer as CEO research project, Eatherton says the food industry can expect the coming 10 years to bring increased consumer pressure to ‘do good,’ be transparent and not just protect the environment, but also repair it.
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Consumers will demand companies go better at doing good
In the early 2000s, when companies were confronted by consumer complaints that they were taking advantage of workers, straining the environment or otherwise compromising common moral standards to boost profits, some businesses responded by donating money to pertinent, but politically safe, causes or more vocally sharing their existing philanthropic efforts through beautifully packaged and well-branded corporate social responsibility reports.
And while this approach appeased some consumers initially, Eatherton argues that consumers in the next ten years increasingly will expect companies to commit in advance to quantifiable philanthropic goals and partner with third party organizations that will measure their progress and hold them accountable if they fall short.
“What we found in our research was that consumers really wanted big food to make a big impact and make big changes happen. And that wasn’t necessarily requiring those organizations to write a check,” she said. “In fact, what they were asking for, according to the research we saw, was [use] your scale, your access, your clout, your influence to make a difference.”
This mentality has prompted some proactive companies to adopt a triple bottom line approach to business, and some to even become B Corp certified – a high standard that Eatherton says will gain more traction in the coming years.
Increased transparency isn’t the same as more data
Transparency is another area of consumer concern that Eatherton believes companies will fine-tune in the coming ten years as both sides realize that simply providing more data isn’t as helpful as also providing context for information that otherwise might threaten to overwhelm everyone involved.
“What we found was that consumers were not asking for more information, not piles and piles of more data … but what they were looking for were answers to important questions. They were looking for access. They were looking for invitations,” Eatherton said.
For example, QR codes on packages that lead to more data online may not be used by all consumers but they are a signal to consumers that a company’s door is open, she said.
“Our challenge as food industry leaders will be to understand and identify the best way to help consumers either navigate some of those opportunities, gather information or create more accessible ways to utilize that information and wade through it,” she added.
Consumers will raise the bar on sustainability
As with philanthropy and transparency, consumers will continue to lift the bar for sustainability in the coming ten years – pushing companies to go beyond protecting the environment by reducing waste or reusing limited resources. Eatherton predicts consumers also will demand corporations repair the damage already done to the environment.
In particular, she predicts that soil health will become a leading issue in the next decade and that consumers increasingly will reward brands that support organic and regenerative farming.
The new year and new decade likely will bring a litany of other changes, challenges and opportunities for the food and beverage industry, and predicting them all is impossible, acknowledges Eatherton. But one thing she says she knows for sure is “nothing going forward will be as it was.”