Editorial: Selling the story of food to reach consumers

There are several forces driving change in the way consumers act, and food companies and farmers need to make sure they’re ahead of them.

At this point they are not, and are stuck in traditional boxes that are constraining to growth.

The world is connecting via digital and social media into like-minded cabals. For whatever reason, they build trust among each other and tend to reinforce beliefs.

Why it matters: Traditional ways of doing business no longer apply in agriculture as consumers look to social media and alternative sources for information on the food they eat.

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At the worst that means people making decisions that are harmful to themselves and others, even though they don’t see it that way. These are the groups that agriculture spends too much time railing against.

The radical fringes are often harbingers of coming change, but not bringers of change. That comes via a broad societal shift.

That’s happening now, with online spaces and easy access to influencers affecting consumer choice.

Qasim Mohammad, a Toronto technology investor, recently tried to explain the new community consumerism in the Globe
and Mail.

“The biggest driver of this increase is the emphasis that social and e-commerce platforms place on curated product recommendations, live interactions between people, and a virtual stage for influencers to share their tastes and preferences,” he wrote.

Mohammad attributes this trend to millennials (the group of consumers now from their mid 20s to late 30s). It’s popular to attribute most societal trends to millennials, but I think it’s broader than that, as I see people of all ages connecting to other like-minded individuals relating to food.

There’s opportunity in a fragmented marketplace for those who know how to create the products and stories to sell into it.

The agriculture sector has been more broadly scattered in its approach to communicating with consumers. It
needs to be more focused. Some farm organizations have grasped this, launching influencer campaigns and partnering
with people who have a popular social media following.

Agriculture has been good at producing commodities, undifferentiated for a broad marketplace. Successful marketing into the future (and frankly today) will need to be more targeted, and able to hit many different customers with product that they are willing to pay more for. That may run counter to the popular group-think among commodity farmers that anyone differentiating from traditional production is pushing back against their friends and neighbours and fellow producers.

It’s more about the story than a commodity. The story doesn’t have to be inaccurate or sensationalist, it just needs to be convincing. The food and agriculture sectors have been unable to tell the kind of convincing stories that others do.

At one time the dominant story in beer belonged to Labatt and Molson. We now applaud differentiation in beer, instead of everyone drinking Blue, Canadian and OV. The beer consumed is now higher value, and I expect there’s a lot more money overall in the sector. Not many of us miss the old days of little choice.

It’s overwhelming making a choice at the beer store — the beer has to meet your tastes or you won’t buy it again — but the story is what makes the first sale.

The extraordinarily diverse food market is even more complicated than the beer market has become, but there are lessons to be learned about the future of food, when more customizable food can be produced and sent to interested buyers willing to pay for it. Online sales are powerful and can be significant for a smaller company.

Many producers see a moral imperative around food communities and the stories they tell. How important is truth, or science or fact in all of this?

It might be the journalist in me, but I tend to run away when I see a celebrity or influencer hawking a product, paid or not. I don’t understand the thought process behind just buying something because someone famous says it’s a good idea.

However, I have to admit that I understand the allure of aggregate product recommendations. When I’m looking to buy something, a quick Google search for whatever product and reviews is a simple and usually effective way to inform a purchase decision. I also expect that I also skew towards having my decisions reinforced by those recommendations.

Whether we like it or not, the way consumers behave is changing. Agriculture and food companies and farmers need to understand what that means and not be afraid to try new ways of reaching customers.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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