Food Production: Reaching Consumers in the Modern Age

In many ways, today’s consumers present a bit of a mystery for agriculture, food producers, and retailers. As the Internet Age has evolved over the course of the 21st century, several companies have been left scrambling to keep pace with the “new demands” being made upon them by buyers. Perhaps Nicole Collier, Director, Policy and Public Affairs for Nestle, put it best at the recent annual meeting of the Mid America CropLife Association (MACA), held this past September in Indianapolis, IN.

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“What do consumers want?” asked Collier. “They want something different every day.”

Collier was just one of four panelists from the food and agricultural industries looking at the topic of the food chain in 2019 and what consumers want. She went on to point out that such topics as wellness and flexibility are presently dominating consumer buying habits based upon Nestle’s own research into this area.

“Consumers today are moving away from quick fixes and fad diets, with many having an eye towards product traceability and transparent information,” she said. “The bottom line is health and wellness in food today are not the same concepts as they were just 10 to 12 years ago.”

Vincent Restucci, Director of Procurement & Business Technology at R.D. Offutt Farms Co. (a family-owned farming operation that grows a variety of crops in seven states), agreed with this view. “Meat is no longer the center of the plate for today’s consumers,” said Restucci. “People want more vegetable options as their centerpieces.”

He also noted that most consumers do care about such agricultural concepts as environmental footprint and sustainability when it comes to how their food is produced. “I talk about these ideas with everyone I meet these days,” said Restucci. “I tell them that my entire livelihood working for a farming operation is based upon the responsible use of the planet’s resources.”

To better understand consumers today, Jennifer Maloney, U.S. Food Stakeholder Manager – North America for Bayer, invited MACA attendees to “put on some consumer-thinking panty hose” and consider four different topics of conversation. The first of these she dubbed “people don’t hug me anymore.”

“I remember my first day on the job when I worked for John Deere when I introduced myself, my supervisor immediately hugged me and started telling me the story of how his grandfather had used a John Deere tractor and how important that was to him and his upbringing,” said Maloney. “It was an immediate connection, through that story and the warm embrace. But today, when I tell someone I’m talking to that I work for a crop protection products company, I don’t get any hugs. Today’s consumers care about their food and don’t necessarily understand how a company like mine helps produce for them.”

Second, there is what she calls the paradigm shift. “I used to be a lobbyist in Washington, DC, and most of us in the industry then used to look at legislation like the Farm Bill for market guidance,” said Maloney. “But that could cause us as a market to overlook consumers. Consumers today have so much power. Their voices are so much stronger because of things like social media. So, the food industry must move faster on developing new products for them, and this in turn is having a much bigger impact on the demands being made to farmers who have to grow the crops to do this.”

Thirdly, consumers have developed an intimacy with their food. “People are proud of the food that they buy and eat,” said Maloney. “It’s part of their personality, and they really, really care how their food is produced and grown on the farm.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is transparency. “Consumers today consequently want to know such things as what’s in their food, where was it grown, what pesticides were used on it in the field, and when was it harvested?” said Maloney. “That’s why many food producers are putting as much information as they can on their product labels, so consumers can use their smartphones to find answers to these questions.”

So, what can the industry do to better connect with today’s consumers? According to Maloney, moving away from a myopic perspective is a good first step. “Many times, we focus on the issues that are key to our businesses, but never really think about what the consuming public is thinking about,” she said. “Also, it’s important for our industry to think about non-traditional way to get to consumers by telling easy-to-understand stories that make a connection with consumers about the safety of their food.”

Kara Behlke, Director, Health and Wellness Strategy for Schnuck Markets, Inc., a family-owned supermarket chain with stores in five Midwestern states, concurred. “Too often in this industry, we have pointed to science to justify our production methods,” said Behlke. “But to have real appeal to today’s consumers, we also have to engage with them on the emotional side of how their food is produced.”

Behlke went on to tell attendees that the days of being about to launch a new product simply by buying “lots of television ads and billboards” are long gone. “To reach today’s consumers, the marketing has to be more personal, such as reaching them through their smartphones with individual promotions or their social media platforms,” she said. “Food is more than just stuff in boxes. Today, if I as a marketer am trying to talk to everyone, chances are I’m talking to no one.”

Growers such as R.D. Offutt Farms has also gotten this message. According to Restucci, his company has been working with such alternative crop protection/nutrition products such as biologicals for many years now to differentiate themselves from other farms. “We’ve also tried to be nimbler in responding to consumer demands,” he said. “With our size and the variety of products we grow, we can enter and exit a market very, very quickly.”

According to Bayer’s Maloney, one of the most important ways agriculture can reach today’s consumers is by simply speaking for itself. “Many of us might think that other people will talk to consumers about how their food is grown,” she said. “And we would be right. Other people outside our industry are probably talking to consumers about how their food is grown, but it might not be how their food is actually grown.”

R.D. Offutt Farms’ Restucci agreed. “I’m always willing to talk about what my company does when it comes to farming,” he said. “I think if you have questions about something in life, you should go to the source. We as an industry shouldn’t look to celebrity know-it-alls to do this for us.”

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