Social and digital technologies have had a major impact on almost every single aspect of our lives. How we communicate, how we shop, how we take and share pictures, how we get directions — even how we find a plumber. But one of the greatest shifts this new era of information access has catalyzed is a transformation in the way we eat.
It’s actually a little bit of a chicken or egg question. Are people developing higher expectations for what they eat because they are learning more via the internet and social influencers, or have they always had these expectations and now just have a means of getting answers?
Regardless of which came first, it’s safe to say social media has enabled consumers to move from passive purchasers to active influencers of change. Consumers have more power than ever to make informed choices – and influence the choices of others. In fact, anyone today with a passion and a smartphone can have an impact on what people eat, and what brands they trust.
This new dynamic has created a steep set of challenges for the food industry. Big food companies in particular who are under intense scrutiny to produce food that meets consumers’ high standards without compromising on cost, taste or convenience.
Take the FDA announcement in November that the agency will consider defining what the term “natural” means. The claim has been a source of debate and even litigation for years. Food companies have been sued for using the term on packaging, and courts repeatedly – and futilely – asked the FDA to define the term. But once enough consumers said it was important, and in fact petitioned the agency to provide standardized guidelines and clarity, FDA took up the cause. It’s unprecedented, and I predict one of many such regulatory and legislative actions that will be driven not by consumer activists, but by active consumers.
This is just one example of how so much information from so many sources is creating a culture of consumer confusion and industry caution. For every fact there is a counter-fact, and it’s hard to know what and who to believe. People now have the ability to self-select where they look for information.
But that’s where I see opportunity. I was asked recently why big food hasn’t had the same traction as the ‘organic-type’ niche companies, and would they become irrelevant soon? The short answer is no – big food companies need to feed the world, plain and simple.
What these smaller brands have done goes beyond the products they make. They have used social media to build honest relationships with consumers, turning customers into brand advocates. They don’t take them for granted.
While many big companies fear social media because of its inherent risk to their reputation, it actually can be an effective tool to truly listen to what people want, respond in an authentic, transparent way, and rebuild trust and confidence in their brands.