Engaging the food evangelists

by Jeff Gelski
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NEW ORLEANS – The food evangelists are here, and they are on Twitter.

“Twitter drives news,” said Linda Eatherton, partner and director for Ketchum Global Food & Nutrition. “(It’s) not necessarily fact, but that’s where people get their information.”

She gave details on how the food and beverage industry may engage food evangelists at a June 22 session during the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition in New Orleans.

According to Ketchum research, food evangelists make up about 11% of the U.S. population. They give opinions about food more than four times per week, both on-line and off-line.

“They are on a mission,” Ms. Eatherton said. “They actually want to make sure you change your mind about food and change your purchasing habits.”

Food evangelists tend to be younger and female, she said.  They have incomes well above average and are highly educated.

Food evangelists want to convince friends and family to change their food purchasing habits. Generally, food evangelists are not activists, but activists may influence them. Ms. Eatherton said an activist may demonize a certain ingredient, such as Vani Hari, also known as “The Food Babe,” writing a blog about azodicarbonamide. The views of the activist ignite fear over an ingredient among the food evangelists. The issue heats up on Twitter.

“That is where the nightly news gets its headline story — from Twitter,” Ms. Eatherton said.

Consumers, upon hearing the news, begin to make food decisions based on emotion, not science.

When companies do not respond, food evangelists believe they must be hiding something, Ms. Eatherton said. In the past, industry could wait out short news cycles, she said, but today stories and discussions boards may linger.

She advised companies to engage food evangelists, but she warned against marketing to them.

“They are so skeptical that they actually reject anything that looks and sounds like marketing,” she said.

Companies should stop fighting questions from food evangelists, she said. Instead, embrace the questions. Point out each decision the company makes has consequences. Be transparent. Explain why a choice was made.

Ms. Eatherton pointed to an “EASE” strategy used by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. The “E” stands for engaging the public. The “A” stands for acknowledging food evangelists have legitimate concerns.

“Even if they are acting a little crazy,” she said.

The “S” stands for companies sharing the information and science they have.

The final “E” stands for experience. The food evangelists want to see more than just print on paper. Companies may show consumers the practices and processes they use.
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