SEA ISLAND, GA. — Influencing consumers’ opinions and consumption habits is a long game requiring strategic investments and time for those initiatives to play out.
The efforts undertaken to develop relationships and win over various groups of influencers who help drive conversations and consumers’ perceptions of grains and wheat foods were central to the updates given by Christine Cochran, executive director, Grain Foods Foundation and Tim O'Connor, president, Wheat Foods Council, to the attendees of the North American Millers’ Association at The Cloister, Sea Island, on Oct. 20. Both organizations are targeting different groups to help move the needle of consumer perception in a positive direction.
In her remarks, Ms. Cochran noted that four years ago she spoke in front of NAMA and told the audience that the G.F.F. wanted to set up a research pipeline. She asked for time, and in return promised positive results.
The G.F.F. has followed a four-step process for influencing perception. They started by establishing a research pipeline that to date has resulted in seven studies. Five of those studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals. The second step was identifying consumer messages like “Grain foods are the foods we love that love us back!” The third step was to develop supporting materials like press releases, infographics, blog posts and social content. The fourth step — outreach and results — has involved pushing out the information, communications tools and materials developed in the first three steps through direct conversations and attending conferences to work with influencers. Ms. Cochran noted that the G.F.F.’s goal for 2018 was to attend five conferences, but they were invited to 10 and accepted all the invitations.
After trying for several years to get an invitation, the G.F.F. for the first time was invited to a meeting called FoodFluence, which brings together the top 30 registered dietitians who have a media presence. Ms. Cochran said they saw positive results from this meeting both in the form of increased interested in the G.F.F.’s information and in the form of a pre- and post-event survey. Before the event 34% of the attendees completely agreed with the statement “I encourage consumption of certain enriched grains foods like bread,” and afterwards the portion of respondents who completely agreed had increased to 78%, Ms. Cochran said.
The G.F.F.’s investment in research and time with registered dietitians has shown a positive outcome.
“What we were able to do in our messaging and our time with them was move them into this completely agree category, which again when they are being interviewed or when they are interactive with their base and influence sphere, this is positive for us,” Ms. Cochran said. “We have actually turned them into advocates.”
She said the conversations at FoodFluence also translated into specific articles that the G.F.F. could trace back to its interactions at the meeting. Huffington Post, FitBit Blog, NBCNews.com and others all wrote articles that showed grain-based foods in a positive light.
Looking ahead, Ms. Cochran said the G.F.F. is following the coverage and perception of the presence of the herbicide glyphosate in grain-based foods. She noted that currently the conversation is global, and the overall perception is neutral.
Mr. O’Connor’s presentation, meanwhile, focused on consumers who are driving things. The consumer voice is an important part of the overall information equation, he said.
“We have gone through some long-range planning, and we have these four strategic targets that we’re working against,” he said. “We’re working with influencers who work in these spaces that can drive that consumer opinion, because influencers have so much more reach than we would have if we were individually as an organization trying to drive the needle without the help of the influencers.”
The W.F.C.’s core messages are focused on reaching personal trainers and registered dietitians with positive messages about enriched flour and modern wheat.
Mr. O’Connor emphasized the importance of the W.F.C.’s work to develop experts to give weight to the organization’s message. He discussed three of their primary experts — Michele Tuttle, M.P.H., R.D.N., C.S.S.D.; Corrie M. Whisner, Ph.D.; and Brett Carver, Ph.D.
Ms. Tuttle has been a registered dietitian since 1990, but what gives her voice extra impact in important influencer groups is her three top five finishes in the last six years at the ITU World Triathlon Championships, Mr. O’Connor said. She has developed nutrition education materials used by grocery stores and health professionals across the United States.
Dr. Whisner is an assistant professor of nutrition in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University. Her talks on diet and the health of the intestinal microbiome have been incredibly popular at NAMA events and influencer conferences, Mr. O’Connor said.
Dr. Carver is a professor and Wheat Genetics Chair in Agriculture Wheat Breeding and Genetics at Oklahoma State. He leads the O.S.U. Wheat Improvement Team that is conducting a wheat breeding and genetics research program. His work in wheat variety development continues a long tradition at O.S.U. that began in the mid-1940s by A.M. Schlehuber and continued by E.L. Smith from 1966 to 1998.
Mr. O’Connor noted the important role that these experts and others have played in achieving the W.F.C.’s goals.
“We have a very clear core message that we’re trying to deliver to each of these influencer audiences and personal trainers,” he said. “We basically want them to understand that they need to tell their clients that wheat foods are an important part of the diet. Let’s cut through the chase on these fad diets. Let’s get to what is really going on in the nutrition of your clients and help them understand that wheat foods actually should be part of their diet. With the enriched flour we are talking about that, these products can fit into a healthy balanced diet. We’re demystifying what enriched flour is, and we’re helping key influencers understand that you don’t need to be afraid of it. With the modern wheat we really have to take it away from the list of villainous foods and talk about (the fact) it doesn’t contain foreign genes.”
Foreign genes refers to genes that come from a different plant species.