Guest Comment

Food industry must face the communication age

Related tags Food industry Food and drink

The food industry must face up to the challenges of modern
communication if consumer confidence is to be regained - and costly
mistakes are to be avoided, writes Keith Taylor.

'Brussels warns on junk food', 'Cancer Chemical', 'Food fads spark allergy fears', 'Cadburys Mistake' - headlines that illustrate just a few of the challenges faced by those of us responsible for communication on behalf of the food industry today. Adding to this, recent research by Datamonitor shows that only 44 per cent of the UK population trusts nutritional claims made by food and drink companies.

We are working in a beleaguered industry - one that is under pressure from a broad range of stakeholders and is often portrayed as being culpable for a plethora of societys ills. The industry is also under siege financially, with shares in food producing companies under-performing the FTSE 250 Index by around 20 per cent over the past five years.

It would be all too easy for those of us working for food manufacturers to throw our hands up in despair and blame the negative feeding frenzy on the media and the self-interest of other stakeholders. But in spite of this catalogue of doom there are good reasons to be cheerful.

First, we have a lot more control than we might realise. The key is to build trust in individuals, organisations and the industry. Secondly, there is growing evidence that we actually have a broadly sympathetic consumer audience. They want to be well-informed, but just as much, would like to get back to enjoying their food, without worry and their consciences dominating every mouthful.

How then do we earn trust? The food industry needs to be even more responsive and be ready to respond fast. We also have to be open, while at the same time, resisting the temptation to have public spats, particularly in the media. Finally, we need to be joined up in our communications involving other parties, within and beyond the food industry.

There is no doubt food manufacturers are listening harder and more effectively to consumers than ever before. Gaining deeper insights beyond product and advertising preferences has had to become a habit. Equally, we all realise that its the first hour, and not the first 24 hours, that can determine whether a crisis is handled effectively. Research from consulting company, Oxford Metrica shows that companies are re-rated up or down based on the perceived quality of management during a crisis. And this re-rating process begins the moment the crisis breaks.

The broader commercial impact of a crisis is well illustrated by the Cadbury salmonella scare. JP Morgan Cazenove, the investment broker for Cadbury, estimates the cost of the product withdrawals at £5m and another £20m in sales due to lack of consumer confidence in the brand. Cadbury also faces regulatory action for allegedly not disclosing the information.

The whole episode has underlined the importance of establishing control and being seen to take responsibility fast as a key prerequisite to earning trust and maintaining commercial performance.

The food industry has to be open and honest - and not just in crisis situations, such as product recalls or health scares. We need to be transparent on what we are doing, why we are doing it and if we are succeeding against our targets.

But this does not mean seeking out every opportunity to conduct a public debate. We know that the media, in particular, will thrive on different policies and perspectives. This may impress some consumers, but overall the net effect of these public spats will be an erosion of the very consumer confidence the industry craves and so desperately needs.

How has the recent media coverage on different labelling schemes been received by the public? Open and honest exchange of views perhaps? Or a host of manufacturers, retailers and authorities acting on their individual agendas? Equally, advertising and publicity campaigns built around celebrating any negative practices carried out by competitors may and I say may bring short-term marketing advantage, but risk bringing consumer disapproval on a whole food category. Elements of the meat industry have been guilty of this. Scoring cheap points in the media has to stop.

And what of being joined up as an industry? The good news is that the industry appears to be integrating hard within our own companies and with trade associations, academics, trade customers, health authorities and government. If food manufacturers are to be seen as responsible, along with those other organisations, for the many issues out there, this has to continue to be a priority.

The way DEFRA, along with the poultry trade associations, retailers and others have co-ordinated their media response to the threat of Avian Flu has been a credit to all concerned. Clear planning and messaging, prompt response, and informed, empathetic spokespeople have helped create balance and perspective on an issue which still has the potential to trigger public hysteria.

Get the communication right and I believe we are increasingly pushing at an open door with consumers. Having witnessed several recent focus group discussions, there is a palpable desire for rediscovering the enjoyment of eating and drinking. Consumers do not want to feel guilty every time they munch on a steak or an ice cream cone.

This has resonance in the US as well, where the Pew Research Center found only 39 per cent of Americans said they greatly enjoy eating, a drop from the 48 per cent who felt that way in a Gallup Survey in 1989.

I think we are witnessing a subtle psychological backlash amongst consumers. In a world where safety is not guaranteed, our leaders continue to be fallible and science is not absolute, consumers are still demanding reassurance and information. However, a growing number are also becoming fed up with the never-ending assault on food, which is close to draining any morsel of pleasure from eating.

In short, consumers want to trust their food. If we can earn that trust, we will help counter the doubt, scepticism, panic, boycotts - and profit warnings - that stem from confidence vacuums. After too many years of suspicion and doubt, there are indeed reasons to be cheerful, to quote one New Wave music icon. As professional communicators, we should be setting the beat.

Keith Taylor is a director of the corporate practice at Porter Novelli, a leading international PR agency. He has worked for clients such as Danish Bacon, Kraft and the Almond Board of California.

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