Joining the consumer conversation

Crystal Mackay
February 25, 2018
By Crystal Mackay
Joining the consumer conversation
Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash
More than ever, Canadians are talking about what’s on their plate and how it gets there. That being the case, the rally cries for producers to speak up and join these conversations are growing. But why and what does it mean for you if you are so far removed from consumers?

If your business depends on a healthy and vibrant poultry sector in the future, regardless of where you fit in the supply chain, these discussions affect you directly because they can make or break public trust in your industry.

Thus, the poultry sector should no longer view these communications as small marketing budget line items. Instead, they should be treated as investments in the future viability of the food system.

If you’re spending a significant amount of money on areas such as research, innovation, new technology or equipment, as examples, how much are you devoting to telling people about those investments?

The trend lines on food system issues from the United Kingdom to the European Union to North America are solid. What can we learn from other jurisdictions on earning trust and understanding social license? One quote stands out to me.

In speaking to a Canadian audience of food industry executives in 2015, Dr. Sandra Edwards, chair of agriculture at the University of Newcastle, said, “Canada is exactly where the U.K. was 20 years ago on public trust. U.K. agriculture was arrogant and ignored the importance of public trust, thinking everyone has to eat and people like farmers. We took public trust for granted until it was too late and the demands on farmers quickly made the U.K. farmer uncompetitive with other jurisdictions on many fronts.”

This perspective in mind, we can learn a lot by asking Canadian consumers directly what they think. We need just apply some well thought out social science. That’s what the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI) is here for.

The organization was created to help Canada’s food system win over consumers. The 2016 CCFI public trust research reveals where the public goes for information on food, who they trust or find credible and who they hold responsible for a number of key food system issues such as food safety and animal welfare.

Unlike traditional usage and attitude studies by sector or specific companies, this work is meant to help provide a deeper understanding of trust to benefit the whole agri-food sector – from poultry to vegetables.

The public trust in food model developed in the U.S. was tested in Canada and applies here, too. At its core, the model is centred on connecting with consumers and earning trust through shared values. In fact, shared values are proven to be three to five times more important for building trust than sharing facts or technical expertise.

In other words, it’s not just about giving the public more science, research and information on topics you think they need to know about. It’s about demonstrating to consumers that you share their values when it comes to topics that matter to them the most.

In this “post-truth” era, celebrity spokespeople like Gwyneth Paltrow and the Food Babe blogger prove this time and time again. They have tremendous volume, reach and influence but very little technical knowledge. Think about it. Who are consumers hearing in the media or finding online when it comes to questions about their food? (Hint: it’s probably not veterinarians, farmers or scientists.)

So what’s the good news? Canadians are more interested in knowing where their food comes from than ever and they value healthy, affordable food. They still hold farmers in high regard overall, with warm impressions and trust in most areas. They view experts like veterinarians and scientists as credible. And the efforts to turn up the volume on credible information on food and farming continue to multiply.

Taking all this into account, it’s important that you speak up on whatever channel you prefer – online, in person or at events like open farm days, exhibitions and farm tours. For those of you who chose your profession because you don’t like talking to people – step up where you can and invest in efforts to support others who do!

Take the opportunity to connect with anyone who eats. And remember: shared values before technical information. It’s a conversation, not a lecture, and it’s one that’s going to continue well into the foreseeable future.


Crystal Mackay is president of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, which represents a coalition of farmers and food and agri-businesses working together to provide credible information on food and farming.Visit www.foodintegrity.ca for more information.

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