I I’m sure we’re all familiar with the practice of performing a trust fall – standing slightly elevated with your back to the room, your periphery teeming with would-be supporters, slowly folding your arms across your chest. Followed by the seemingly mocking tone of an instructor who tells you to close your eyes and simply fall backwards into the awaiting, outstretched arms of your peers.
And if you’ve ever played the game you know the only question on your mind when it’s your turn, the one thought you keep returning to as you blindly put your faith in those around you.
Will they really catch me?
For a long time within the ag industry, the answer was always a resounding YES and consumers were quick to jump to the defence of farmers and other industry partners when questions around food safety and production practices reared their ugly heads. But somehow, somewhere – something slipped, and the consumer confidence in agriculture has been eroding ever since.
Now, I’m sure we’ve all watched enough blooper videos to witness a trust fall gone wrong. It’s usually a combination of two things. The first one is an over-eager participant who jumps the gun and recklessly launches themselves into a crowd of unsuspecting and unprepared attendees. And the second, is a ‘catching’ group that’s just not that into it anymore. The members of this group eventually become bored of the game and can be identified by their mass exodus of the drop zone and the puzzled looks they exchange as gravity takes its toll.
For the past 15 – 20 years, the ag industry has been trust failing – winded and lying on the ground, looking up at the confused faces of consumers and wondering, why weren’t they there for me?
The answer is as simple as it is infuriating. When it comes to consumer trust, the ag industry and their marketing/communications partners have developed two really bad habits over the years – and it’s hurt them.
Bad Habit #1: Ag consistently tries to tell the world how wrong they are, and how right Ag is.
How they know the facts, the science, the truth, and any detractors just don’t understand. It is an out-dated, inflexible attitude that hasn’t won them any favours because it often fails to consider the consumers’ right to choose. And all the facts and data in the world helps you recover from painting choice as a bad thing. Ag needs to get to a place of compromise, without feeling compromised, where it’s okay to say “and” instead of “or” - it may mean increased competition, but in the end, it gives the consumer exactly what they want – more choice.
Bad Habit #2: The continual overstatement of how noble and hard working the Ag industry is and how much their work matters.
Farmers are often portrayed as the hero and/or the victim and the reality is – it just doesn’t resonate with consumers anymore. Not only do consumers also work hard for their living, they are painfully aware that they have to eat to live – after all, they’re called consumers. However, right or wrong aside - Ag’s “feed the world” narrative has been proverbially shoved down consumers’ throats for years and greatly overestimates how much they actually care.
In the distant past consumers didn’t really ask too many questions about factory farming, pesticides, GMOs, or hormones because it was an unfamiliar topic and the trust level was high. However, as consumer interest in nutrition and health have increased, so too have their concerns around food safety. Simply put consumers have become label readers and fact-checkers. More than ever, they are looking for information about their food and how it was made.
Although some groups in the ag community have done a good job answering these questions in a non-confrontational way, many others have failed miserably by either stonewalling them with science or providing indignant responses. As a result, agriculture’s unwillingness to have an open and accepting conversation with consumer audiences has lowered overall consumer trust. And like any good agrimarketer will tell you – lost trust can be a difficult thing to earn back.
Ag needs to find new ways to reclaim consumer trust, and a big part of that is approaching the dialogue openly, on the consumer’s terms. To get rid of some old bad habits and find the right balance between sharing what they feel consumers need to know vs. helping them find out what they want to know. To explore different narratives aside from the ‘farmer as the hero’ or ‘victim’. Most importantly, ag must implement a plan that listens to consumers instead of talking at them, all executed in a manner that respects their right to make their own choices.