Ketchum Pleon's "food e-vangelist" consumer
Linda Eatherton: "Companies should realise that there is a time to sell and time to tell"
Thus we journalists are often treated to detailed studies aimed at proving the existence of "the mobile consumer", "the grazer", "the multi-screen generation" or "the Millennials” etc.
Needless to say, these are not always equally convincing so that it is essential to separate the chalk from the cheese.
Certainly one of the most impressive presentations we have had in our editorial offices recently was by Ketchum Pleon. So we asked Chicago-based Linda W. Eatherton, Partner, Director Global Food & Nutrition Practice, why the company has announced to the world the existence of the "food e-vangelist"?
Ketchum’s “Research Food 2020” project is based on interviews with 1,800 middle-income primary shoppers in six countries (Argentina, China, Germany, Italy, UK, and US) and comes to some challenging conclusions.
Ms Eatherton, are food companies losing control of the consumer in the current internet and social media revolution?
Yes, we are witnessing a permanent power shift to the people. Power is now in the hands of those who curate and share information and not in those who attempt to control it. Yet corporations still try to do limit information flow and merely sow distrust in the process.
Who then is winning the battle for consumer hearts and minds?
In the current power struggle we are witnessing the emergence of a new set of food influencers or elite opinion makers who are the self-appointed leaders in discussions about food. We call them “food e-vangelists”. They are the subset of a larger group whom we term the “food-involved”.
How would you characterise the “food-involved”?
They represent more than half of consumers between the ages of 25 and 44; more than half of them are female, and nearly half are parents. They are the ‘target shoppers’ we market to daily.
They care deeply about food, where it comes from, and how it is manufactured and processed. They are the gatekeepers who monitor the health and welfare of their family and friends and they spend their dollars accordingly.
This makes them researchers and label readers and they collect information on food about four times a week online.
This consumer type sounds relatively familiar; what is so special about the subgroup you have found?
Nearly half of the food-involved are food e-vangelists. What makes food e-vangelists different is what they do online. This self-appointed and opinionated group is characterised by its aggressive social media behaviour. They are not just reading and reviewing, but routinely push out opinions to others and try to influence them.
Unlike the merely food-involved, they want others to follow them. They are extremely vocal opinion pushers and take action when they feel they are not being heard. So they recommend, have their own blogs, and create online campaigns to change others’ opinions, a label or a practice.
Do the demographics of food e-vangelists vary from those of the food-involved?
Only slightly; they are a bit younger, 48 per cent are under 35 years of age, and they are predominately female. They are usually parents and tend to have higher incomes.
Does the percentage of e-vangelists vary from country to country?
Their highest population percentage is found in Italy and their lowest in Germany. This partly depends on retail culture and which sex usually does the shopping, but the greatest correlation is with the use of smartphones. This might be because food e-vangelists are very aggressive, full-time individuals who don’t want to wait until they get back home to their PC in order to express a point of view.
At first blush the food e-vangelist looks like an aggressive version of the food-involved. Are there any other major differences?
Yes, the food-involved are, at the end of the day, driven by value. Although they are obviously also influenced by taste, quality etc., price is the most important factor in their buying decisions. They shop to fit their pocketbooks; whereas the food e-vangelist puts a premium on values, especially health, whatever the cost.
What is the relationship between the food-involved and the food e-vangelist?
There is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The food-involved are followers of the food-evangelists and turn to them for opinions, recommendations and endorsements.
Could marketers get away with ignoring the food e-vangelists as a vocal, but small group and concentrate instead on the food-involved as a juicier target?
Marketers would be foolish to do so because food e-vangelists work to create behavioural changes among their family and friends and are shaping tomorrow’s market. They are not only being followed by the food-involved but also by other consumers.
So e-vangelists may be a relatively small group by marketing standards, but they are certainly mighty in terms of influence.
Could you give us an example of their power?
Remember the “pink slime” affair in the US meat industry? This was a tried, tested and approved process for separating lean beef from fat in the processing of hamburgers. It was dubbed “pink slime” for the colour and texture of the meat that was removed.
A few years ago pink slime became the target of an investigative report. The e-vangelists took this news story long after it was first broached, but continued running with it. They made it their personal mission to remove all hamburgers using this process from school canteens.
They created such intense pressure online that, within 24 hours of serious escalation, the USDA felt obliged to issue an equivalent ban.
This policy change occurred without due process and as a result of the e-vangelists’ influence and power. It clearly shows what they are capable of, if they feel that their issues are not being addressed.
And presumably food e-vangelists don’t feel that their issues are generally being addressed properly?
More than two-thirds of the e-vangelists feel that food companies in particular need to do a better job of communicating in order for them to be perceived as trustworthy.
How then do they react to advertising?
This is a very sensitive group with fine radar. Traditional marketing simply bounces off of them, and they can smell a corporate message a mile away. So what many companies and brands are saying is not what food e-vangelists are hearing.
In fact, advertising slogans may actually be backfiring and creating a problem because this is a group that rejects the notion of perfection. So brands that pound their chest and claim to be perfect à la “We do everything bigger, better, and best!” are the ones e-vangelists trust the least.
But e-vangelists trust no one — not even experts; they always make their own judgements and believe in themselves more than anyone else.
So what do food e-vangelists believe in?
Social platforms are their most trusted source of information, yet few companies know how to engage them in social conversation. E-vangelists want the whole story behind every claim and access to all information that they feel should be readily available.
In what form should this information be provided?
Only e-vangelists in the UK specifically define food product labels as their preferred source of data; in other countries they mostly want online information.
Food companies must therefore not only make knowledge more available, they must also point e-vangelists in the right direction to get more information.
Last but not least, nearly all food e-vangelists want a direct line of communication on a day-to-day basis with the c-suite of leading brands so that they can participate in decision-making.
But surely the last thing executives want is to spend time online talking to consumers?
True, but this is what this group expects, and there are companies that are opening their doors to do so.
How can marketers pitch their advertising messages to reach e-vangelists?
Being slightly vulnerable is a highly prized quality among this group. A brand that admits it has some practices that need to be improved, but will keep consumers informed on progress will get very high marks.
This is all extra cost for companies. Where is the upside?
Food e-vangelists are loyal to their values. So when a company accepts their influence and changes its policies accordingly, they will often be loyal followers. In fact, we call them the new “moveable middle”.
Interestingly, food e-vangelists are not a target for food companies although they are in the centre of the consumer universe and are heavily involved in all conversations about food.
It is no wonder that this group is losing faith and trying to take matters into its own hands when no one is listening to them.
How can food companies master the art of listening?
Companies need to start from what e-vangelists want to hear. They must begin by recognising e-vangelists’ emotions and the context of their perceptions. Marketers need to go deeper and bridge the gap between e-vangelist and corporate truth.
There is a place where these two truths overlap, and that’s where communication can be very successful. One must start where there is common ground.
Brands must earn their trust by practicing the art of listening and by sharing information with e-vangelists about who they are and what they have to offer. They should recognise that there is a time to sell, and a time to tell.
But don’t brands and businesses do this with focus groups and surveys?
Yes, to a limited extent, but this is about social listening, learning, and empathizing. Companies must listen first to what others are saying about them and talk second without snappy responses or defensiveness.
Listening is not a one-time event; it is a culture and a way of doing business. It also means searching for the unspoken, unmet feeling and needs that have not yet been articulated.
Must companies also act on what they have heard?
Yes! With continuous listening there must also come continuous improvement. Companies must demonstrate that the food e-vangelist is being heard and that they are working to create a better situation for the future. This knowledge alone goes a long way towards rebuilding trust and gaining influence.
Building a relationship is one of the most important things we can do to earn trust. Thus companies must rethink their role as a vendor-supplier and become a partner where both sides are equally respected in a dialogue that is free and open at all times.
Above, all they need to let the e-vangelist decide what’s important.
Where do you see the role of the retailer in all this?
E-vangelists see the retailer as a trusted partner in their buying decisions. So the in-store environment or retailer website is where they turn for reliable information. They also want the retailer rather than brand owners to be an arbiter of product certification because they see the retailer as more impartial.
Your study also looks forward to 2020. If you had to make one prediction as to how e-vangelists will change corporate structures, what would it be?
We believe that a new role will enter the c-suite: the Chief Relationship Officer (CRO). This exec will be focussed on creating a culture of listening between the corporation and its stakeholders, and his or her success will be measured by the health of that relationship.
Related article in German: By Mike Dawson in Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 44, 01.11.2013