Advances in technology and the ability to obtain instant answers to their questions about the food they purchase is encouraging consumers to demand more access to information from food manufacturers and their customers.
“Most consumers today have all of the information they need at their fingertips,” noted Brent Bradshaw, vice-president of marketing, Flowers Food, Thomasville, GA. “That technology is training consumers that they have the right to know everything they want to know about your product. That’s what’s driving the whole transparency.”
With the emergence of various social media outlets, the onslaught of the digital age has put the information age on steroids — and that’s a not necessarily a good thing, added Todd Wallin, president, Ellison Bakery, Fort Wayne, IN.
“I had one of our customers tell me, ‘You can go from hero to zero in 1.3 seconds,’ and a lot of that is driven by Facebook or Twitter,” Mr. Wallin pointed out.
In the past, food companies may have received a complaint letter via snail mail, and that complaint might have been shared with 10 of their friends. “Now you get complaints, and in a second or two, it is posted on Facebook and Instagram and potentially 10,000 friends have seen it,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle today involves managing information — whether it’s right or wrong — through a plethora of websites, communication channels and media outlets on the Internet. “We really need to get the information out there so consumers understand what they are buying and what’s in their products,” Mr. Wallin said.
During the American Society of Baking’s recently held “Best Week in Baking,” Mr. Bradshaw and Mr. Wallin participated in an industry panel that tackled a gamut of industry trends and the challenges that bakers and snack producers face.”
Julie Nargang, vice-president of marketing for Chicago-based Azteca Foods, outlined the challenges of identifying consumer trends, evaluating their staying power, developing new products and eventually marketing them.
Many trends, Ms. Nargang added, go in and out of style. That’s because consumers get bored very easily and are constantly searching for something new. “Nothing seems to really die,” she explained.
Gluten-free, for example, seems to have plateaued, although it remains very relevant to those suffering from Celiac disease or those that receive other benefits from a gluten-free diet. That word — diet — is a classic example of a term that has gone passé. “The word diet isn’t used anymore,” Ms. Nargang said. “It’s ‘healthier living.’ It’s not that dieting has gone away. It has evolved into another lifestyle incorporated with the foods that people eat, the Fitbits that they wear and the workouts they do.”
Moderated by Lin Carson, founder and CEO of BAKERpedia, the panel also delved into potential consumer confusion concerning non-genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), and whether one is safer than the other.
“There is no scientific data that says genetically-modified organisms are less safe than non-GMOs,” said Dean Folkvord, Wheat Montana Farms and Bakery, Three Forks, MT. That said, the company educates consumers on its website about how its baked goods are non-GMO and answers frequently asked questions about its production and farming techniques.
In the realm of public opinion, however, food companies and their marketing departments must deal with both perception and reality. “If the consumer believes it, then it’s true whether it’s scientifically true or not,” Mr. Wallin said. “They’re not going to buy a product if they are concerned about GMOs, and if they are, then you better have a product that is labeled as non-GMO Project-Verified.”
The role of marketers today is that they must deal with perceptions.
“If you think about the last 10, 15 or 20 years, technology has been amazing. It affects almost every part of our daily lives,” Mr. Bradshaw said. “If a question comes up that none of us knows the answer to, we grab our phones and Google it. We joke all of the time that there are no unanswered questions that we can’t find an answer to.”