The Sustainability playground: consumer drivers

Oct. 3, 2012 | by Suzy Badaracco

Regarding sustainability, trust and loyalty among consumers is not something the food industry can spare as it is in short supply. In the past several years, consumers have experienced BSE (mad cow disease) coming into the States from Canada, not to mention recalls of spinach, tomatoes, peanut butter, pistachios, fenugreek, papaya, turkey and cantaloupe. Survey after survey have revealed that consumers don't trust the terms "green", "organic", or "natural". Their distrust comes from confusion over the terms and from witnessing companies becoming targets for lawsuits. General Mills, Ben & Jerry's, and Kraft have all fallen victim to such lawsuits.

Despite their distrust and confusion, consumers desire these traits and seek alliances with companies they trust to deliver on their needs. What they are looking for personally is reassurance, knowledge, and brand recognition which have a grounding effect on consumers. What they seek in a corporation is stability, accountability, transparency, ethical responsibility, a concern for animal rights, and above all else - a company with history, legacy and roots.

To understand where consumers stand on the subject you have to look at where they are getting their information and what are their trusted sources. Among their trusted sources are special interest groups such as Just Label It, CSPI and Friends of the Earth – all adversarial to the food industry. Other sources include friends, family, social networking sites, online consumer review sites and medical authorities. Whom don't they trust? Consumers name food companies and government among their least trusted sources.

Consumers are now coming into a recovery. And don't mistake – it is a long-drawn-out recovery where they are coming into it kicking and screaming. But if you track economic indicators for the Commerce Department, Bloomberg, Deloitte, Conference Board, Thompson Reuters, MarketPulse and others, you will find that across the board, spending, sentiment and confidence are more positive than negative. Recovery behavior is very different than recessionary behavior. This not only alters how they behave toward food but toward all aspects of their lives.

Among recovery drivers for consumers are control, safety, health, economy, motivation and sustainability. Simply focusing on sustainability, the items most commonly appearing in research include animal rights, green verification, affordable green, the ability to re-commerce, seasonal items and indigenous ingredients. Green verification falls into the category of "prove it", a parallel concern of the government. Affordable green refers to the fact that while consumers want sustainable food items, they do not want to pay more for them. They don't understand why green items cost more and so reject having to pay more.

Re-commerce offers the benefit of reuse of a product as an effective means of reducing a products' environmental footprint. Seasonal and indigenous ingredients and foods are the newest cousins to emerge alongside local. They have not replaced local, they have just stolen the spotlight for the moment. Local has now become part of the normal fabric of consumers' everyday lives. As they move forward into recover, green spending and organic use will both increase. They are the first thing to be abandoned (to some extent) during a recession and one of many indicators to watch for signaling the start of a recovery. Value trumps budget during a recovery which means "if I value something, I will pay more for it".

Green and organic also gain back share due to this reasoning. Value and worth reappear during a recovery because consumers are getting back to work and their income is again rising. Tradeoff also trumps trade down. Trade down indicates consumers are sacrificing across all parts of their life – food, cars, computers, travel, etc. Tradeoff however, means they will go to their favorite restaurant or buy their favorite brand but may offset this by saving somewhere else later that day or later in the week. Perhaps they will take lunch to work that day so they can enjoy their favorite restaurant at night, for example. Tradeoff is a recovery behavior and sustainable spending increases as part of this phenomenon.

Ask yourself:

  1. Can you give a story or a voice to your company or products?
  2. Can you make the consumer feel in control through an alliance with your company or products?
  3. Does your company have the ability to make the consumer feel safe?

If you can answer yes to these questions, then you are already on the pathway to gain consumer trust and loyalty.

Topics: Food & Beverage, Operations Management, Sustainability

Suzy Badaracco
Suzy Badaracco is a toxicologist, chef, and registered dietitian. She holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Criminalistics, an Associates degree in Culinary Arts, and a Masters of Science degree in Human Nutrition. wwwView Suzy Badaracco's profile on LinkedIn

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