IFT FIRST: Addressing conflicting consumer demands: Ask yourself, 'Why should my brand exist?'

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

Photo Credit: Getty Images /  Hiraman
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Hiraman

Related tags: sustainability, Ift

Should the food industry always yield to consumer demands, especially when those demands can be conflicting and at odds with other values, such as sustainability and environmental impact?

For instance, consumers may say they care about regenerative agriculture but also love the idea of year-round blueberries. 

In many ways, product developers' jobs have become harder, said Ashley Ericksen, vice president at Ipsos, a global market research agency, during an IFT FIRST virtual panel held earlier this week. 

"While there’s heightened awareness​ [around sustainability], consumer behavior really hasn’t changed a lot when it comes to sustainability over the past five to seven years,"​ said Ericksen. 

While consumers may not all be composting at home or have stopped their use of single-use plastics, they do expect companies to be leading efforts in this area.

"One variable at play, is this notion of responsibility. Consumers tend to put more responsibility on businesses and government than they do on themselves. That skew in responsibility is even greater in the US,"​ said Ericksen.

'Consumer behavior really hasn’t changed a lot when it comes to sustainability over the past five to seven years'

In this situation, consumers want brands to help guide them and prove that their businesses are doing "the right thing."​ To do this, values such as sustainable practices have to be incorporated at every stage of the development process, explained Ericksen.

"If you bring that element into the later stages as you launch, you’ve probably missed an opportunity," ​she said. 

"We have found that when it comes to this space of sustainability, consumers have told us they’re much more likely to change their behaviors in the food and grocery space. It’s easier, it’s low-hanging fruit."

But what does that look like in practice? Ericksen said brands have to get comfortable talking about their business in a public and accessible way.

"I would draw a parallel to what public health officials have had to do for the past year and a half​ (having to figure out ways to communicate with the general population about public health concerns, goals, and action plans)," she said. 

"I think maybe that is going to be true for food and beverage manufacturers – how public do you want to be about what it takes to manufacture food to feed the world? Which actually does require consumers to balance what they want and what is really feasible,"​ she said. 

An actionable way to establish an open dialogue with consumers would be on-pack and that brands should be investing a lot of time and energy in their product packaging architecture, said Ericksen.

"Your pack has to do a lot of work for you. We do know that consumers look a lot more at the back of the package for something that’s new... so, you have to put special care into how you're executing that,"​ she added.

Ask yourself, 'Why should my brand exist?'

Blindly following consumer demand will leave brands frustrated and spinning their wheels, which is why it's important for brand owners and marketers to establish and understand their value proposition in the competitive landscape, according to Vijay Viswanathan, associate dean and associate professor of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. 

"Philosophically, I would ask every brand manager to ask themselves, 'why should my brand exist?' As you come out of this pandemic, this is a great opportunity for brands to really figure out what is their value proposition,"​ said Viswanathan.

It's not about selling a product or service to customers but understanding the underlying motivations for why a person is buying granola or Greek yogurt, for instance, he explained. 

"If you’re really able to address that social need and social purpose, you have a much better chance of being considered by these new upcoming consumer segments and making them your future customers."

Once brands have established the reason for why they exist along with a set of clearly-defined goals and principles, they can then start to actively engage with their target audience and understand what influences their decision-making, he said. 

'Customers are trusting customers a lot more than the brands themselves'

I’ve heard too many brands say, 'Content is king,' and I couldn’t disagree with them more. Understanding the customer, understanding the context, that is more important,"​ said Viswanathan.

When thinking about deploying a marketing strategy, brands need to look at things through a different lens than what's been traditionally done in the past, he noted. 

"Just doing AB testing and content marketing, I don’t believe is going to cut it,"​ he said. 

"Where I think brands are really missing the trick is that we have moved beyond digital marketing to what I call dynamic marketing. This is where customers are trusting other customers a lot more than the brands themselves. What they’re really searching for are not just products and services, but they’re looking for other customers’ experiences.

"So the whole concept of customer experience becomes really important. A customer experience is a conscious feeling that a person undergoes when they interact with a brand at a certain touch point, and that touch point need not be related to purchase."

Not a one-size-fits-all solution

Unfortunately, the solution for brands to forge that strong customer experience is not one-size-fits-all, added Ericksen.

"We know that different generations will seek and use information in different ways. When it comes to sustainability, there are some that are very engaged and willing to pay more for something will make a difference, and then there's a segment out there who is perhaps just overwhelmed,"​ she said. 

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