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Three Hot Topic sessions were presented at the Institute of Food Technologists’ Annual Meeting in Dallas, Tex., June 10–14, 2000. This article reports the participants’ current thinking on trendmaking, biotechnology, and obesity—prominent subjects indeed in the realm of food science today.
Risk can make marketing “curiously strong”
“Overthink dilutes an idea, robbing it of sharpness and clarity.” These words from Clay Purdy, vice president of the Leo Burnett advertising agency, may embody some agency-speak, but they clearly articulate the problem many food companies have in the area of concept development and marketing.
Food companies often have potentially great products that never get out of a test market because of play-it-safe marketing attitudes. Such thinking relies too much on bloated committees and not enough on intuition-based, risk-taking, brand teams, Purdy stressed at the Hot Topic session, “Trendmakers, What Makes Them Tick?”
“Bland doesn’t motivate,” he quipped, and his credentials support such a critical perspective. It was the Leo Burnett agency that took the quirky Altoids, the “curiously strong” breath mint brand, from virtually none to more than 25% market share nationally within just a few years, purely on low-cost, edgy marketing. Purdy outlined the Altoids success story as part of this Hot Topic session. In Purdy’s case, lots of research, intuition, and a willingness to gamble make him tick.
Altoids became a success story based on a good product that had pockets of loyal followers and a corporate willingness to break with tradition. The Burnett team studied the one market where Altoids was strong—Seattle—and observed that its positioning embraced “mouth, mood, and refreshment” (the mints are strong), as well as social interaction (mints are generally shared), and badge value (irregular shapes and the old-fashioned tin are considered cool), according to Purdy.
This study led to a marketing focus on the product, not the user. Burnett used “out-of-home” media such as buses, walls, urban pedicabs, bar postcards, bus shelters, concert tickets, and even a New York City tugboat and a Chicago warehouse roof. This type of marketing was augmented by ads in trendy magazines and a creative Internet site. The award-winning ads generally featured one character, the product, and a clever tag line like, “No wonder the British have stiff upper lips.”
The success of the campaign led to awards and an unprecedented impact on sales. Altoids is even responsible for the subcategory, power-mints, and it has extended the brand to include wintergreen and cinnamon flavors. “Ours was a radical take on an old idea, and it required risk,” Purdy said. Planning was kept inside a small group—the key to speed, and leading to greater risk taking and more reliance on intuition. One early technique invited mint users in Seattle to write obituaries for each brand in the market. This gave the Burnett team an innovative look at how consumers viewed the various products. When it was clear that the most passionate obits were written for Altoids, the team concluded that the brand could create a similar impact on a national scale.
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The Trendmakers Hot Topic panel also included insights from Robert McMath, director of the New Products Showcase & Learning Center, Inc.; Phillip Roos, president of the Arbor Strategy Group; and Simon Foster, founder and “head delivery boy” of Simon Delivers.
McMath’s New Products Showcase is arguably the largest collection of branded consumer foods and cosmetics in the world. Food companies often make the trek to Ithaca, N.Y., to visit him and investigate his museum of product successes and failures. This environment gives McMath a unique perspective on the market, one gleaned from the thousands of new products he collects each year. His trends to watch include sports health, youth, convenience, proprietary packaging, fun, spiciness, and ethnic flavors. If the lists sounds familiar, McMath is quick to point out that “The future is a lot of history repeated.”
This view was supported by Roos in his presentation, in which he outlined three keys to successful trend exploitation: find a problem without a solution, watch the moves of trendsetters and opinion makers, and identify small needs that may have broader applications.
His three key points provided a relevant segue for Foster, who created a home delivery retail grocery service with only a dream and a lot of investment dollars. What makes Simon Delivers different is its emphasis on customer service. Foods are distributed from company-owned warehouses, and his route drivers are known by customers in the same way that United Parcel Service drivers become known and trusted. Best of all, the pricing is competitive with local supermarkets. Customers don’t pay a premium for the convenience. “Our value proposition is that we’ll take care of your weekly chores,” Foster said. Currently Simon Delivers operates in only the Minneapolis–St. Paul region, but Foster has plans to expand into additional major markets.
What is the common denominator here? “In the end, it’s all about ideas,” Purdy said. That involves finding them, expanding them, and executing them.
John Hanlin, senior project leader for the Pillsbury Co., moderated the program, along with Felix Germino of F. Germino & Associates, Inc.
Emotion fuels biotechnology debate
“What is bad about biotechnology?” The question came at the end of nearly three hours of presentations by an elite panel probing “Biotechnology: Field of Dreams?” And with it, an innocent student with an honest question focused the hotly debated issue of biotechnology safety like a laser beam, for not once during the lengthy session had a single concrete health danger been identified. To the contrary, representatives from both sides of the Atlantic identified scores of positive benefits from an industry commercially born just a few short years ago.
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What’s bad about biotechnology seems to be its public image. Despite considerable scientific scrutiny over nearly three decades, the general public throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the rest of the globe has little understanding of what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are all about. The mass media also seems ill informed and prone to the easy, catchy, imagery of “Frankenfoods.”
“I recently read an article about bioengineered foods in Time Magazine for Kids,” stated co-moderator and panelist Susan Harlander, president of Biorational Consultants, Inc. and a former vice president of Pillsbury Co. “They showed a giant ear of corn surrounded by doctors and other rather frightening graphics. While the story was fairly balanced, it was aimed at third graders and the visual message was disturbing.”
The United States leads the commercialization of genetically modified crops. In just three years, according to Harlander, the value of GMO agriculture rose from $75 million in 1995 to more than $1.64 billion in 1998, and this figure will be considerably higher for the current year. GMO seeds account for 55% of soy production, 30% of corn, and 40% of cotton. Overall, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved 47 biotech-improved crops since 1996. “Farmers would not be as aggressive in adopting GMO crops if they didn’t offer significant improvements,” Harlander pointed out.
Farmers like biotechnology for several reasons, including:
• Pest resistance—plants are bred to be naturally resistant to plant-eating insects.
• Herbicide resistance—soy crops are modified to be resistant to herbicides. Because there is little or no effect on GMO plants, the weeds may be sprayed only when needed, which improves efficiency, increases savings, and releases less herbicide into the environment.
• Higher yields—more production per acre.
• Drought resistance—crops can be grown in semi-arid regions with less water.
• Environmental benefits—less soil erosion, lower fuel consumption, and lower chemical use, which is a benefit to lakes and rivers, and ultimately to humans and wildlife.
• Virus resistance—heartier plants are less prone to spoilage from pathogens, and this in turn reduces the amount of these substances in the food supply.
• Nutritional enhancement—some crops have specific enhanced properties, such as vitamin enhancements.
• Longer shelf life—lower spoilage, less waste, and tastier, more nutritious products that hold up better to the rigors of distribution.
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Most processed foods in the U.S. have ingredients with a GMO component. Behind this rapid expansion is an extensive effort by both FDA and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) to maintain scientific standards and testing that create a climate of public trust. “We’ve conducted thousands of field trials and determined these crops to be safe,” stressed panelist Keith Pitts, special assistant to Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. “Today we’re working with the public to determine our research agenda. We’ve learned that we need to be more proactive.”
Indeed, despite the tremendous value of GMO crops, the public remains divided on the issue. To date, this has not affected purchasing habits, but it does pose a nagging problem that could have a long-term negative impact. To this end, USDA has formed a 38-member Committee on Biotechnology that met for the first time earlier this year. “We’re looking at socio-economic and regulatory issues to find a middle path,” said Pitts. “We’re also looking at what’s coming down the pike and assessing new potential risks.”
These initiatives are aimed at creating dialogue and forming policy, yet they may be too slow to keep up with the unfolding debate. “For many consumer groups, science is irrelevant. They have their own agenda,” stated panelist David Winkles Jr., president of the South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation. He noted that all current GMO soy varieties are approved for export, including to the European Union (EU), and noted the need for a stronger and more unified industry voice in promoting biotechnology to consumers, adding that “Consumers are more concerned about chemical residues, but alarmist rhetoric gets their attention. In reality, we’re seeing only positive effects from biotechnology applications. Three billion people in developing nations need solutions.”
Much of consumer negativity toward biotechnology in the U.S. and Europe is related to labeling issues, which some see as a means of erecting roadblocks by anti-biotechnology consumer groups. After all, how do you define a GMO product? Plant breeding is an ancient science directly related to genetic engineering, and most human food is the result of genetic modification. “We have to engage the public, this will be a critical tool for us as we go into the 21st century. Labeling has limited value, in fact 87% of the public agree that education would provide better information than labels,” noted panelist Terry L. Medley, vice president for biotechnology, regulatory and external affairs for DuPont Nutrition and Health.
The labeling issue also has a big economic impact on the industry, especially for those companies with a global reach. Labeling requirements differ from country to country, requiring a costly and extensive tracking mechanism for ingredient usage literally from field to table. “The challenges to multinationals are great, and include forecasting labeling restrictions, the availability and cost of non-GM ingredients, understanding sources and formulas, developing multiple specifications and source audits, and establishing the reliability of identity preservation in the upstream supply chain, sampling and testing, storage and contamination issues, consumer acceptance in multiple markets, and the impact of anti-biotechnology and anti-corporate activities on brand equity,” Harlander explained.
The European Union has some of the most stringent labeling requirements for GMO ingredients, a cause for considerable trade tension between it and the U.S. While its efforts to block GMO crops from the U.S. smack of protectionism, panelist Tassos Haniotis, agriculture counselor to the delegation of the European Union in Washington, D.C., stressed that the sole policy motivation was consumer protection. “Nothing we’re doing is aimed at impeding trade,” he said. “We focus on real and perceived health concerns. Unfortunately, trade is the loser.”
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It may be that European consumers are suffering from a Mad Cow Disease hangover. During that crisis, the government and its scientific and regulatory experts lost public confidence. In an effort to rebuild it, regulators have taken a harsh approach to any new science. In addition, consumer activists are far more vocal on the issue. Led by such luminaries as former Beatle Paul McCartney, consumer groups have taken direct aim on biotechnology.
“Consumer tolerance of acceptable risk is declining. Thus, the EU has taken the position of absolute truth versus knowledge with uncertainty,” Haniotis said. Countered Winkles, “I have talked to European farmers who would like to plant enhanced seed, but they fear eco-terrorism.”
In the end, the fate of GMO products is tied to whoever wins the public relations battle. Stated Harlander, “I have confidence in the U.S. public that, as they get the facts, they will make the correct choice.” That may create the momentum necessary to sway global acceptance of GMOs.
How to slim a supersized nation spurs controversy
The Hot Topic session, “Obesity: The Rhythm Method of Girth Control,” raised heated issues on what was indeed a hot topic.
“Supersized meals have created a supersized nation,” cautioned Glenn Gaesser, University of Virginia professor of health and physical education. His sentiment was met with unanimous agreement from the diverse group of panelists, but that’s about as cohesive as it got during this wide-ranging discussion.
At issue: Is this nation of growing belt lines at risk primarily because of its sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, or over-consumption of food? And if the answer is “all of the above,” what’s the remedy? Should the federal government intervene with a so-called “Twinkie tax” to engineer more positive public behavior? Panelists all weighed in with differing perspectives, although none would go so far as to endorse the tax.
Statistics verify that Americans are rapidly growing fatter. “The crisis is that half our population, 55%, have a body weight that negatively impacts their life. And over the past 15 years these statistics have doubled. If obesity were an infectious disease, we would have mobilized the country to deal with it a long time ago,” stated James O. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado. He argued that obesity is a quantifiable condition that relates to both diet and physical activity. Weight control is therefore a necessary public health policy priority.
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“We live in a ‘look-ism’ society,” countered Gaesser. “The standards for how ‘overweight’ is defined are entirely subjective and grossly overstated. Americans have come to associate “thin” with “healthy and attractive,” but physical inactivity and poor diet are a more relevant health focus than weight,” he stressed. Many people can attain an acceptable weight without proper activity or eating habits. Conversely, a significant percentage of the population can maintain a healthy diet and proper exercise while remaining statistically overweight. It’s possible to be fat and healthy or thin and unhealthy.
“In any case, it’s our rising affluence that has created the problem, isn’t it? We have more money and more choices than ever. And advertising just motivates us to consume more,” prodded topic moderator Charles Nesson, professor of law at Harvard University and director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
“Affluence is part of the problem, but there are many more causes. You can’t point to any one,” cautioned Harold W. Kohl, director of physical activity and nutrition for the International Life Sciences Institute. Too many inexpensive, readily available calories on one side, and too many labor saving conveniences, from the escalator to the riding lawn mower, on the other side, keep Americans bulging.
“We’re just not getting through to the consumer, they just don’t look at this as the same kind of problem as we do,” observed Sylvia Rowe, president and CEO of the International Food Information Council. Since the 1980s, the diet-health-obesity issue has received considerable attention in the media and among health professionals, yet the country continues to grow rounder.
“In Washington, there’s not much political perception of a problem. There’s no strong feeling that voters want to spend money on this issue. And despite the dollars that have been spent already, it’s a medical and social irony that the problem is getting worse,” stated Stephen H. McNamara, a partner with the law firm of Hyman, Phelps & McNamara.
Some of the reason is rooted in media oversaturation and blurred messages. “Labels don’t help if people tune them out. And the government sends a mixed message, stating that certain foods are less important while providing subsidies to produce more,” offered Washington Post health and medical writer Sally Squires.
“We’re in the midst of a change from a physiological to a cognitive weight management environment. In societies where normal, everyday life involves physical activity, weight maintenance is largely unconscious. In our society, people have no concept of the relationship between physical activity and weight. To expect them to handle this aspect of their health is akin to giving someone a checkbook who has no concept of banking,” Hill observed.
“People are overwhelmed by signals and data so they tune it out. It’s too complicated,” stated Cornell University lecturer and former restaurant owner Barbara Lang. She stressed that both foodservice and manufacturing companies respond to what consumers want. “If we don’t deliver customer-pleasing foods, we’re not in business very long.”
In the final analysis, the panelists agreed that the core health problem is related to both diet and physical activity, with differing emphasis. And they agreed that education and some national initiatives, short of imposing taxes, bans, and over-regulation, is necessary. Coordination and consistency are key.
“You need a nutritional plan that requires behavioral change. We eat too much of everything. We regulate other things like tobacco and alcohol. Open competition is not taking care of it,” stated X. PiSunyer of the St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center at Columbia University. While most of the panelists were less enthusiastic about a strong regulatory approach, they agreed that any more aggressive policy would require stronger consensus. “If we can’t agree, we can’t get the community to agree. There’s a crisis, but we don’t agree on what the crisis is,” Hill concluded.
Also on the panel was Donna V. Porter, specialist in life sciences for the Science Policy Research Division of the Library of Congress. Julie Miller Jones, professor at the College of Saint Catherine, was the lead moderator.
by PIERCE HOLLINGSWORTH
The author is President, The Hollingsworth Group, P.O. Box 300, Wheaton, IL 60189.
Edited by Betsy Baird