Nadine Porter, 2017 Nuffield Scholar
Right now, there is an underground subtle global war being waged in the agri-food sector to secure consumers hearts and minds and New Zealand food producers are not immune to becoming one of the many victims.
It’s not being fought in research laboratories nor is it being fought in disruptive ag-tech start-up boardrooms. It’s also not being fought on our farms…no – this war is being waged in savvy, futuristic communication and marketing thinking rooms with big budgets and even bigger ideas.
When we think of communications – we traditionally think of PR spin-doctors or journalists charged with making an organisation look good – but the reality is far removed. That old school model is being disrupted and we must adapt or face being left behind.
Communicators should be called what they are in this global context – change makers, and thought of as a crucial part of thought leadership within any business. They hold all the keys – and frankly, we’ve been guilty of leaving them in the door to be snatched at will.
These skilled strategists have their finger on a consumer’s pulse at any given moment in time and cast their eyes ahead to what might make that pulse beat faster or slower. They are adept at altering a narrative mid-course, and banishing it to the trash can.
No longer is it necessary for these people to hold a Communications or Media degree. Put simply, successful global organisations know communicators often have extraordinarily high EQ, and use it to intercept what might be the next trend, fad, or feeling.
“They use empathy as a weapon and in this instant, many of our food sectors are the target”.
Take the all-powerful organic movement in the United States where Mums are being carefully nurtured and developed to a point of hysteria around pesticides. Rightly or wrongly, they are dropping well-timed ‘studies’ onto media that make great sound-bites. The Pesticide Action Group of North America only have to mention 1/3rd of population have cancer and then claim pesticides are ‘part’ (note – no quantitative data given) of that reason and you understand just how vital the message becomes.
Recently a group called Moms Across America tested five top orange juice brands and found glyphosate traces in all of them. The levels were low and considered non-harmful but the damage was done. Perceptions were formed and the true narrative lost, the moment the results were ‘spin’ printed.
Yet we knew this was coming. We’ve been listening to the ongoing glyphosate debate for years but what was/is our strategy to combat it?
‘Clean meat’ is another strategy dreamed up by futuristic storytellers. Used to describe alternative protein burgers such as the Impossible Foods (bleeds and has texture and taste of meat but is made from plant protein) and Beyond Meats offerings, it has captured imaginations worldwide. Never mind that’s it’s not meat – because it captures succinctly in one soundbite the perceived fear Mums carry – that meat might be carcinogenic.
The rise of populist politics – of Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, and the Brexit slogan ‘340 million pounds extra a week for NHS’ as the clincher for exiting the EU illustrate the power of a few words positioned to the nuance of the moment.
So what do we do?
Why not take a leaf out of Monsanto’s book – where they invest heavily in thought leaders, strategists and the message. They do comprehensive long-term research globally and know that science by itself, such as in the glyphosate debate, does not save the day.
A visit to their St Louis headquarters proved to be inspiring. For the world’s ‘most hated company’ they sure had their finger on the pulse. Monsanto learnt through pain. They accept they got it wrong when it came to selling biotech in Europe. They realized their biggest failure a decade ago was assuming European consumers hold the same values as American consumers.
Their research has told them that as a food industry collectively, our messaging has been inconsistent and more importantly, our terminology is completely wrong. For example, global research has told them consumers don’t understand the terms ‘conventional’ or ‘traditional’ farming. GM, GE and CRISPR is one blurred topic and sustainability is a buzzword to them, yet they recognize and bond with the term environmental sustainability.
Consumers have told them to stop talking about producing more and to concentrate instead on the message of ‘using fewer natural resources’. Don’t use the term revolutionary, Monsanto found – instead use the more positive evolutionary. Moreover, they don’t want us to celebrate our past (which we are won’t to do in New Zealand, especially when talking about becoming subsidy free, and our low cost grass system). They want us to look forward, not back.
And, if you are in any doubt to where New Zealand sits in understanding how to taper a message, look no further than what we call those that grow our food. From farmers, to primary producers to agriculturalists – none of those terms connect. Our new Ministry of Agriculture is a step in the right direction… but if we were really on the pulse, it would have simply been called the Ministry of Food.