PARTICIPANTS (l-r in image above)
-Fran Dillard, senior director, brand and product marketing, Driscoll’s
-Rachel Konrad, CCO, Impossible Foods
-Michael Neuwirth, senior director of external comms, Danone North America
-Lisa Rosenberg, partner, chief creative officer, and co-chair of consumer marketing, Allison+Partners
-Janiene Ullrich, EVP of direct to consumer, Francis Ford Coppola Winery
-Katie Warmuth Jaros, director of PR, Zume
-Katharine Richards, senior director of marketing and communications, Perfect Day
-Amy Lund, VP, creative and marketing communications, E&J Gallo
Moderator: Gideon Fidelzeid, managing editor, PRWeek
Broadly speaking, most brands have come to understand that "doing good" has become a business necessity. However, consumer savvy has grown to the point where companies have to not only zero in on precisely how they "do good," but how they tell that message.
In the food and beverage space, this is particularly imperative. After all, we’re talking about products that go into people’s own and their loved ones’ bodies, so the direct impact on lives is clear. The messages that convince them to purchase these items must be spot on.
This becomes amplified when focusing on "conscious consumers," a segment of the broader consumer base that is dedicated to learning about the specific sustainable food practices of the brands whose products they purchase and eat.
At a recent roundtable in San Francisco, hosted by Allison+Partners, an octet of industry leaders offered opinions and counsel on what consumers want to hear and what messages could confuse them. Below we share roundtable highlights.
•MESSAGES THAT WORK
Michael Neuwirth (Danone North America): Our portfolio of products is so broad and requires extremely different messaging for each customer group, but consumers across the board want to hear about our purpose.
Fran Dillard (Driscoll’s): The top priority for our customers is what we put on our products when we grow them. People also want to know about the science behind our products. What surprises some is how important an audience policymakers are for what I do. For them, I am constantly communicating about workforce, the farmers on our products, and, of course, how we are helping facilitate best practices for the environment.
Amy Lund (E&J Gallo): Purpose will be a barrier of entry in five to 10 years. Transparency with product communication and branding on ingredients is also a must. It’s also worth noting that we reuse one-third of our water, while 25% of our energy is reusable.
Rachel Konrad (Impossible Foods): Taste. If our product doesn't taste awesome, if it doesn't completely satisfy you the same way that ground beef from cows does, we can't even play in this game.
You can't get any disruptive leading share of voice or awareness if you're just trying to appeal to people on sustainability.
Three years ago, sustainability, concern for the environment, was not in the top 10 in terms of purchase motivation around plant-based foods. Now it’s number three. The amount of consciousness among people about how their diet is the overwhelming driver of their total carbon footprint has just shot through the roof. People understand that our meat consumption is part of this. People understand that the Amazon is not burning because of lightning or cigarette butts that caught on fire. It's burning because we are razing the rainforest to create land mostly for cow pastures and for crops that cows eat.
Katie Warmuth Jaros (Zume): Our focus is to look at the entire food-supply chain and bring sustainability to it. One of the biggest ways is through our packaging business. We created a new type of pizza packaging that was compostable, better for the environment, but also kept the food much fresher.
Consumers really care about the packaging. We’ve all seen the impact Greta Thunberg has had and the increased discussion around plastic and just all the waste that's created by the food industry in particular. Consumers are starting to catch onto this.
Janiene Ullrich (Francis Ford Coppola Winery): We actually get a lot of feedback on-site from our customers. And we get asked a lot about sourcing because we work with different wine growers from different regions.
A lot of our customers are locals, so we also get many inquiries into how we treat our employees and our level of engagement with the community.
Katharine Richards (Perfect Day): The main dissatisfier people have with plant-based dairy products is that they don't taste like real dairy products. But with the technology we use, we’re able to produce that taste – and it’s a message that resonates.
We’re also lactose-free. With 70% of the world’s population having an intolerance to lactose, that’s another key message.
Lisa Rosenberg (Allison+Partners): An interesting finding from the survey we conducted was that consumers who are not the conscious consumers are the ones most likely to point fingers at companies to say they're not doing enough.
Konrad advised communicators in the food space to remember that, more than almost any other type of product, "consumers attach their personal brands to the food products they use."
•OPPORTUNITY TO EDUCATE
Neuwirth (Danone North America): There's such a logo soup happening right now with sustainability iconography. It’s challenging to figure out what sustainability means to different consumers.
What we’re really focused on is establishing the hallmark of a sustainably run business. We believe it's B Corp certification. Danone North America is the largest certified B Corp in the world. We feel it is so important because it includes the major categories of environment, worker safety, quality, how you treat employees, supplier and purchasing practices.
Lund (E&J Gallo): I don't think consumers know how to define sustainability. It’s not just recycling. We have to find a common language amongst ourselves as industry leaders.
Jaros (Zume): There's 300 million tons of plastic produced every year and only 9% actually gets recycled. Our responsibility is to communicate a new way of behaving so people actually make the shift. Until then, we won’t see a difference in terms of climate change, the environment, and all these other things we're hopeful for.
Ullrich (Francis Ford Coppola Winery): We get asked a lot about alternative packaging. We were the first winery to put our product in a can and we were endlessly asked whether or not it really was the same wine with the same taste. People can be very skeptical, which is a hard barrier to overcome.
Dillard (Driscoll’s): People really don't understand how food gets picked and how it gets to their grocery. They do not understand that more than 75% of the fruit is still hand harvested. And with advocacy groups and policymakers being a key audience for us, the labor shortage among our grower base is also a big story. So we created a documentary, The Last Harvest Film. It was meant to make an impact on what needs to get done for our business. And an outcome of that was an increased focus on immigration reform.
Lund (E&J Gallo): One reality we’ve quickly discovered is that consumer expectations differ greatly from region to region. And conscious consumers on the coasts tend to lead when it comes to sustainability standards.
Konrad (Impossible Foods): What might surprise some is that Burger King selected to do its launch of the Impossible Burger at 59 units in greater St. Louis. Note that Missouri is the number-two producing cattle state in America. People in cattle country are exquisitely aware of animal welfare issues and the unsustainability of animal ag itself.
Dillard (Driscoll’s): As marketers, our responsibility is providing the information in the most fact-based way, neutrally, and allowing folks to make their decisions. People want to have discussions. We need to provide the transparency for that.
Konrad (Impossible Foods): If I could touch on GMOs for a second. I think the GMO issue is a red herring. It is actually unconscionable to me that people would be promoting GMO-free products in this day and age. Insulin was the first GMO product that was approved by the FDA. It has prolonged and spared the lives for millions of diabetics.
Every single thing we eat is a combination of nature and science. We cannot get to a sustainable agriculture system without GMOs and with animal meat. It does not exist that way. We must eliminate the need for animals in the food system.
People will definitely come to understand this is an imperative. They will choose companies that do the right thing, that don't force them to compromise on taste or nutrition, but that have an ethical compass and are on the right side of history.
Ullrich (Francis Ford Coppola Winery): When someone walks into a store to buy wine, it’s a wall of labels. You want to get creative, but it’s a difficult prospect. But Sonoma County Winegrowers, inspired by an existing technology, came up with a fun, powerful way to share a sustainability message using AR. An app was designed where you can stick your phone over a label and see the sustainability message for that brand. We’ll be on board with that pretty soon.
Konrad (Impossible Foods): From a messaging standpoint, something very important to keep in mind is how much consumers attach their personal brands to the food products they use. What you eat is a really important statement about your values. Food is truly intimate. So everyone around this table is in a great place to impact consumer change, behavior change, complete attitude change.
"Consumers across the board want to hear about our purpose," noted Neuwrith.
•HOW COMMS WILL EVOLVE MOVING FORWARD
Ullrich (Francis Ford Coppola Winery): Social responsibility can’t be a section of your marketing strategy. It needs to be interwoven into the whole plan – and not just with consumers, but also internally.
Jaros (Zume): Communications will have more power to influence the direction of the entire business.
Richards (Perfect Day): Finding ways to simplify is going to be most critical.
Konrad (Impossible Foods): I think a lot about the fact that I am giving my kids this planet that's mostly bereft of life other than cows, and maybe there's soy and corn. My life's work is to reverse that – and we can't just be focused on a single brand or even a portfolio of brands. It's really about system collapse that we're entering and we need to reverse that.
Lund (E&J Gallo): Social consciousness and all those things that fall under sustainability will become a non-negotiable for people for employment purposes.
Dillard (Driscoll’s): I see a blending of audiences – consumers, advocacy groups, policymakers. The consumer has – and will have more – power to make political change.
Neuwirth (Danone North America): Our role as chief communicators will be much more inclusive of that role in public affairs and policy alignment with our stakeholders.
Rosenberg (Allison+Partners): Whatever comes next in technology will give the consumer that much more share of voice. And we will have to adjust how we're engaging them when they may have more control and a lot more to say than they do now.