How food and beverage companies can position themselves in the age of fake news

How food and beverage companies can position themselves in the age of fake news

Matt Coldagelli of Edelman discusses how to instill trust in a wary consumer market.

August 28, 2018

Many consumers, particularly in the United States, don’t know much about their food, Matt Coldagelli, U.S. lead for marketing firm Edelman’s issues work in the food and beverage sector, explained at United Fresh 2018’s FreshMKT Expo. “It reminds me of the story of the two fish swimming past each other, and one says, 'Look, the water's amazing today,' and the other says, 'What's water?'” he says. “Many Americans, for so much of their life, are like the second fish — until something happens.” That event could be that they develop a food allergy, their child develops a food allergy, or they have some other experience with food that opens them up to the processes that involve getting food on store shelves.

Daily, people across the globe are thrown into confusion by misinformation, whether it’s intentional or not. Coldagelli says trust in the food and beverage sector — albeit being historically volatile — is falling and is at jeopardy of falling lower still. Coldagelli, who is also Edelman’s senior vice president of crisis & risk, outlined this in his presentation, “Maintaining Your Reputation as a Food or Beverage Company in the Fake News Era.” He also spoke about types of fake news, Edelman’s findings from looking at trust in food and beverage production, and how professionals in the industry can gain consumer trust.

Instances of fake news

When addressing “fake news,” Coldagelli says the term has been used recently as a catch-all, but it often falls within one of three groups: hoax content (“fake news in the literal sense,” he says), political point-scoring (what he calls “‘gotcha’ moments”) and plain-old errors. When addressing errors, Coldagelli noted two recent stories that zeroed in on the food and beverage sector.

First, there was the claim that the suicide rate among farmers and ranchers is higher than any other occupation. “That was the result of some misread CDC data, where they mischaracterized where farmers and ranchers fall as an occupational sorting set,” Coldagelli says. “It didn't matter. That story came out in The Guardian, in The New York Times, in The Washington Post, it was on NPR.” Despite that the story arose out of an error, it gave off the impression that farming and ranching are undesirable fields to work in.

Another flawed story that was picked up by major news outlets said that Americans use 500 million plastic straws every day. “If you dig all the way down to the source of that, that came from a 9-year-old doing a study, posting it on a recycling company's website, which was then cited by the National Parks Service,” Coldagelli says.

Measuring trust in the food and beverage sector

For 18 years, Edelman has been using its Trust Barometer, a piece of intellectual property, to measure data from two global populations — Mass Population and Informed Public, Coldagelli says. The former group is representative of 85 percent of the total global population, while the latter represents the other 15 percent: ages 25 to 64, college-educated, in the top 25 percent of household income and engaged in media consumption and business news.

Media and government are tied as the least trusted out of several broad sectors, according to Edelman. But out of individuals, trust in a group that Edelman calls “A person like yourself” is at an all-time low, Coldagelli says. “Those people were the vanguard of, 'Listen to me,’ ‘It works for me,’ ‘I'm a person like you,’” he says. “‘Don't listen to these companies; don't listen to these farmers; they're only in it to make money for themselves.'”

Although trust in food and beverage and CPG (consumer packaged goods) has declined between 2017 and 2018, Coldagelli says, trust in these sectors is still higher than trust in business generally on a global scale. This is good news for food and beverage industry professionals. However, trust in five out of six food and beverage subsectors in the Trust Barometer is in decline. This shows that there are people who maintain a weak level of trust in the food and beverage industry and could end up entirely distrusting the industry as a whole.

Here are a few more statistics Edelman found when surveying respondents about the food and beverage industry:

• Fifty-one percent of people say that large-scale food and beverage production has helped make food available to more people and reduced hunger.

• Sixty-one percent of people say that large-scale food and beverage production has harmed the environment.

• Nearly 80 percent of people think more experts and people from the food and beverage industry should tell their side of the story. “That's an opportunity, for your company, for your industry and for yourself," Coldagelli notes.

Maintaining trust with people outside the organization

Edelman has found that people trust CEOs and business leaders to drive societal change, Coldagelli says. “People think that CEOs and other business leaders should take the lead rather than waiting for government to impose it,” he says. “Globally, that's a high number — 64 percent. If we're looking at the Western Hemisphere here, it's slightly even higher than that in North America — 68 percent.”

The most trusted information source for end consumers who are looking to learn about the food and beverage sector is health and nutrition newsletters, where consumers can opt in, Coldagelli says. These sources provide a sense of one-on-one communication between a company and its consumer that prevents the consumer from having to sort through social media and news stories from outlets that have competing motives and interests.

Companies’ messaging needs to keep in mind not only the end consumer, Coldagelli says, but business partners in the supply chain, regulators, media and others. Actions need to match words, he says, giving the example of what not to do: Audi promoted gender equality during a Super Bowl ad but had women underrepresented in its leadership. “Seek out partners who can help you — NGOs, governmental agencies — things that have a shared mission with you,” he says. “Bring them on board and show how what you're doing is improving the world along those lines. In that same sense, you want to define your purpose in society, and you want to put it at the core of your business and your brands.”


Photo: Patrick Williams