MIDDLEBURG, Va. — Consumers are agitating for food industry change like never before in ways the industry must better understand, said Linda Eatherton, a managing director and partner in the Global Food and Beverage Practice at Ketchum. Speaking at the annual meeting of the North American Millers’ Association, Eatherton painted a picture of “Food eVangelists,” a newly emerging group of consumers using online tools to wield unprecedented power to effect change.
Her presentation was the first during the Sept. 9 general session of the NAMA annual meeting at the Salamander Resort and Spa. Her comments were based on research compiled in the Food 2020 Study from Ketchum, a global public relations agency.
To explain the importance of what Ketchum is dubbing Food eVangelists, Eatherton drew a distinction with other, perhaps more familiar groups.
|Linda Eatherton, managing director and partner in the Global Food and Beverage Practice at Ketchum
“You’re probably thinking this is a food activist,” she said. “A food advocate. Someone who is protesting. This is not the Food eVangelist. The Food eVangelist is a common everyday individual. It’s a consumer who is simply asking important, challenging questions and is asking for changes four-plus times per week online and off line about food. That’s a lot of engagement per week in an active and busy person’s life.”
She also distinguished Food eVangelists with other more familiar groups — those who “just eat food and don’t care” and those who are “food involved.”
“(The food involved) is the consumer that absolutely likes to try new things,” Eatherton said. “They love to hear about new foods. Yes, they ask questions that are hard. And, they are asking us to be a little better.”
By contrast, the Food eVangelist “is a very different animal,” she said.
“The food involved is very positive,” Eatherton said. “The Food eVangelist is very negative. This is a person who has deep concerns about our food industry, about our practices, about production methods. This person is not satisfied sitting and waiting for change. They are agitating.”
Describing Food eVangelists as passionate, change agents and leaders in the community, Eatherton described the path these individuals follow to exert considerable influence.
“When they go online they have an army,” Eatherton said. “They have an army of people who watch them, listen to them and click and share. And click and share. Click and share. What’s happening is there is a momentum of people who click and share and hold similar opinions. What happens is ‘shift happened.’ We went to a highly information driven society through social and internet type communications. We armed with a megaphone a group of people who are dissatisfied.”
Further detailing the role Food eVangelists play, Eatherton discussed the interplay between this group and the mainstream media.
She explained, “What’s happening with media? First, you have activists stoking a myth. That’s what they do. Then you have fear that ignites those Food eVangelists, who start talking online and sharing. Then conversations start to amplify. Marketers take a competitive reaction to those conversations. They react, listen to what consumers want. Topic begins to heat up on Twitter. This is when trending stories become headline news.
“Then, consumers begin to choose sides. Some will go one way. Some will go another. We are creating adversaries. We are not in control of how this plays out.”
Before this shift occurred, companies responded to controversies with carefully crafted scripted messages. Eatherton said this approach no longer is effective.
“Now we need conversations,” she said.
To engage with the Food eVangelist is not to concede the end to all processed foods, Eatherton said. These consumers still want convenience in their food. Increasingly, though, they want each and every ingredient in foods they eat to be demonstrably of benefit to the consumer and not just to the food manufacturer.
“They don’t all have the same opinions,” she said. “When they see something that bugs them, they congregate online, they activate, they pressure, they push, they get what they want and then they break up. They’re gone. They aren’t an NGO (non-governmental organization).”
They also are not going away, Eatherton said. Describing herself as a former hippy, she said that like many of her peers, her passion for causes faded when she began working and started a family. No such dissipation is going on with Food eVangelists. To the contrary, their numbers are expanding, facilitated by the proliferation of the smartphone.
“In 2013 they were younger with a lot of millennials, and they were definitely more female,” Eatherton said. “Many of them had children, and many were married. In 2015, however, half of them were under 35 but the other half were not. Half were female and half were male. So it begins to look like this could be everyone. This could be anyone. When we first looked at the group, we noticed that their income was well above average. We started to look at this as the elite…food snobs. Now this group’s income is more evenly spread.”
Eatherton pointed to the beef industry’s experience with “pink slime” as perhaps the most high-profile example of the power of Food eVangelists.
The practice for making boneless lean beef trimmings (pink slime) was criticized in an article posted on the internet months before the controversy erupted widely into public view. It was when Food eVangelists finally picked up and widely shared the story that it was picked up on the ABC Nightly News and buyers of the product said they would use it no longer.
“Power has shifted to the individual,” Eatherton said. “They hold the control button. Whether we like that or not, we can’t opt out, and it is not going to go back to the way it was.”
Consumers will find themselves playing a different role in the future, Ms. Eatherton emphasized to the assembled millers.
“And that is to be part of the consumer conversation,” she said. “No longer can you isolate your role as back of the house or in the channel.”
The Food eVangelists appreciate people who are closer to the food itself. For information they look to their family, local farmers, friends, chefs, food media and journalists.
Low on the list of who they go to for information is government, regulatory groups and bloggers.
“Many of you may have thought a Food eVangelist must be a blogger,” Eatherton said. “No. In fact very few of them are. They are very much into Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. They are instant communicators.”
So should the food industry address this group? Eatherton said Food eVangelists are asking not to be addressed through soundbites.
“Don’t market at me,” she said. “Include me and talk to me like a stakeholder in your business.”
Eatherton emphasized that no matter how irrational and ill-informed the Food eVangelists’ beliefs are, they are their truths. When an industry professional responds with factual refutation, the Food eVangelists may feel insulted and shut down. Still, they are looking for more information, appropriately communicated through social media channels.
“Many of us don’t trust social media, but we have to overcome our fears in order to utilize their medium of preference,” Eatherton said. “We need to be seen in their world. Many of them said I know you all make flour this way or your ingredients this way, but I never hear from those people. Who are they? Who are these nameless, faceless people? I want to know them. I want to know where they got their ingredients. I want to know how they made choices. These are the stories that have not been told that creates skepticism and concerns. These are stories that need to be told.”