Getting to know Grain Foods Foundation's Christine Cochran
by Josh Sosland
BOSTON — Less than 48 hours “on the job” as executive director at the Grain Foods Foundation, Christine Cochran certainly could be forgiven if she were not yet ready to fully unfurl a comprehensive roadmap forward for the organization.
Yet, in an interview conducted Aug. 2 with Milling & Baking News, Ms. Cochran’s second day on the job, the new leader of the G.F.F. was forthright in outlining opportunities she sees for enhancing the image of wheat-based foods.
While the industry’s products, particularly enriched grains, certainly face serious challenges in terms of public perception, the current environment of intensive debate about nutrition and public health creates a fertile environment for the industry to communicate its message, Ms. Cochran said. And with a move of the group’s headquarters to Washington, she believes the foundation will be able to partner with like-minded groups in its effort to communicate a sensible, science-based message about food and nutrition.
The interview was conducted after a semi-annual G.F.F. marketing committee meeting at the Boston headquarters of Mullen, the foundation’s longtime public relations/advertising agency. The conversation came three weeks after the foundation’s announcement that Ms. Cochran would succeed Judi Adams at the helm of the G.F.F. Her decision to take the new position followed a 2½-year stint as president of the Commodity Markets Council in Washington. Ms. Cochran is a graduate of the University of Missouri with a degree in agricultural economics and of Georgetown University with a law degree.
Asked about her legal background, Ms. Cochran said she had wrestled between law school and pursuing a doctorate in her undergraduate field of study.
“I really enjoyed school, and the choice for me was between pursuing a Ph.D. in agricultural economics or law school,” she said. “I opted for law school because in a large part I felt like it was a broader degree and would give me a bigger toolset to work from. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do professionally. The legal side has been great in terms of training me to think critically, to read extensively, analyze a lot of information and synthesize it so that it’s digestible and understandable for other people. But even in law school, I followed agricultural issues and just always in the back of my mind knew that I wanted to use that degree to work in that space.”
While complimentary of the successful partnerships forged over the past several years by the Grain Foods Foundation, notably with the March of Dimes and the Spina Bifida Association, Ms. Cochran said opportunities for additional valuable alliances will be greatly enhanced by the foundation’s relocation
to the nation’s capital.
“I think the decision by the Board of Trustees to move the foundation to Washington, D.C., shows a real depth of strategic thinking,” she said. “Being physically located in the nation’s capital where so many other organizations, foundations, government agencies exist, creates an opportunity to fully develop collaborative partnerships, coalitions, synergies, a variety of relationships to advance the foundation. One of the things I’ve learned having worked in D.C. for eight years is that relationships matter. And regardless of your credibility, people need to know who you are. The Grain Foods Foundation has great credibility. Now, to be able to bring that to Washington and tap into relationships will go a long way toward advancing the foundation’s message in terms of reaching out to influencers and policy makers.”
A decision to tighten the G.F.F.’s target audience toward “influencers,” a move announced earlier this year, also should heighten the group’s effectiveness, Ms. Cochran said.
“Explaining to people the nutritional benefits of grains is a relatively simple message because the science is so strong behind it,” she said. “But being able to get the message to the people who need it the most is always the challenge. And I think focusing on the influencers will allow the foundation to maximize its impact across all segments. Focusing on the influencers allows the message to trickle down to consumers and is a more effective way to achieve the group’s objectives.”
In terms of opportunities to effect change, Ms. Cochran said building the public’s understanding of the healthfulness of grain-based foods is a multi-faceted task.
“The Grain Foods Foundation has a real opportunity at this point as the nation engages in a nutrition discussion to reeducate the population about the nutritional benefits of grain,” she said. “Grain has been the building block of diets for Americans for generations, and I don’t necessarily think that it’s always been something that people have thought about. Now the public is thinking about it, which creates the opportunity for the industry to educate people as they delve deeper and think about food and what they are putting on their tables and what they’re consuming in restaurants, throughout their lives. I think that’s a very important piece.
“The other opportunity I think that exists there for the foundation is also the opportunity to help provide some clarity around various terms associated with grain products. So whether you’re talking about whole grains, whether you’re talking about enriched products, to really educate people about the nutritional value up and down the ladder of options when you go into a grocery store or you order a sandwich in a restaurant. So from my perspective, the foundation has a big educational opportunity, whether it’s educating them about what they are already consuming or educating them about the words that are used in labeling of products.”
Ms. Cochran was only slightly more guarded when asked about what may be achievable longer term, five years in the future, when it comes to changing public perceptions of the industry’s products.
“I always like to think longer term because the bigger vision must be in place if we want to reach where it is we want to go,” she said. “This makes me nervous given that it is day two on the job, but my initial impression is that I think we can grow the Grain Foods Foundation into an organization that has a brand recognition with it, both inside the D.C. Beltway community and beyond. I think there is an opportunity for us to educate generations of people, starting with school-age kids through adults about the nutritional benefit of grains and help them make better choices when they go to the grocery store or they order a meal at a restaurant. I also think that the Grain Foods Foundation has a real opportunity to broaden out its message by building coalitions with similarly-minded organizations. I think the work that we do right now with the Spina Bifida Association is a great example of that and I would look for us to do a lot more of that type of work where we identify groups where we’re able to coordinate our message and get to target audiences as well that desperately need to learn a little bit more about the grain industry.”
First steps toward turning this long-term vision into a reality will be an aggressive push to interact with companies that have funded the Grain Foods Foundation and others that may still be on the sidelines, Ms. Cochran said.
“I want our investors to know that they are going to be getting to know me a lot better and that I’m going to be working to ensure that they continue to see the value in their investment in terms of opening up the lines of communication, messaging and information flow that comes from the foundation back to them,” she said. “And to current investors and for folks who might be contemplating investing in the Grain Foods Foundation, we’re going to develop a very strong plan for the next fiscal year in terms of exactly how we’re going to be messaging to this influencer community along with a detailed system of measurement of that success. I think as the market is changing, there is a lot of question about ‘why’ are demand trends moving as they are. This is a great opportunity for the Grain Foods Foundation to help our investors answer that question through studies and research we can provide. Because what we do at the Grain Foods Foundation is not just an external messaging piece, but there is internal dialogue that goes on as well. We learn a lot from consumers and influencers when we work with them to get our message out. They dialogue back at us and that’s valuable. So one of the goals I have is to ensure that the communication that is coming back to us as a foundation makes its way to our investors.”