When I first became a vegetarian in 2004, after reading an article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times about the treatment of steers on American beef farms, many of my friends scoffed at my meager attempt at changing the face of Big Food.
“You think you’re going to change anything just by not eating meat?” they would say. “They’re still going to produce it, whether you eat it or not.”
I hope they’re surprised now: according to a new article by Hank Cardello, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute for Forbes, food activists have taken on the role previously held by brand managers in deciding what is produced, what is sold, and which Big Food companies are successful.
“Only the food companies that recognize this shift have a hope of maintaining or regaining consumer trust and loyalty,” Cardello writes.
For examples, we need not look far.
The buzz in the media over GMO labeling, before a bill for a national labeling law had even been approved, forced brands like Campbell’s, a long-time opponent of GMO labeling, to slap that information on its packaging or risk losing customers.
Meanwhile, consumers voting with their dollar essentially forced big companies like McDonald’s, Costco, and Walmart to make the switch to cage-free eggs, to such an extent that caged eggs will likely become obsolete in the U.S. within the next few years.
While these companies have learned to respond to consumer activists, others seem stuck in the 1930s, when food marketing was less about health and more about value. According to Cardello, companies that stick to this traditional model of “delivering the optimum combination of taste, convenience, and value, regardless of impact on consumers’ health or environmental sustainability” are in for a rude awakening when the realize that that just doesn’t jive with modern shoppers.
This model of “taste, convenience, and value” is translating to the current generation of shoppers as “unhealthy, unnatural, and cheap.”
For most consumers, the voices of Big Food are no longer trustworthy or even worth listening to, now that citizen journalists and activists have taken over. According to the Natural Marketing Institute, 72 percent of Americans believe that most food and beverage companies are more focused on profit than health; when consumers have the choice of listening to a big company in it for the buck or a mom blogger just looking to feed her family healthfully, it’s not surprising which opinion they are going to trust.
“People want to be told what to do so badly, they’ll listen to anyone,” Don Draper famously said in “Mad Men.” It seems the time of consumers blindly following food brand managers is over, and a new age – the age of the conscious, conscientious, activist consumer – has arrived.
Supermarket image via Shutterstock