Tom Nagle

For many years, a horde of special interest groups has led a continuous onslaught of attacks on the commercial food industry. These groups attack specific ingredients or production practices in the service of an intense, but typically narrow agenda. Many attacks are answered by the targeted company or food category association, while groups like IFT and the International Food Information Council (IFIC) attempt to mitigate potential damage by promoting a scientific, fact-based understanding of food.

Despite these defensive strategies, subtle but pervasive damage is being done. I believe that the frequency and intensity of these attacks, in aggregate, undercuts Americans’ fundamental trust in our food production system and its value chain participants from farm to table.

While the specifics of the attacks against the food industry differ widely—hormones, HFCS, farming practices, “evil” ingredients, GMO use, and so on—the underlying theme is often the same: greedy food corporations motivated only by the bottom line earn their unseemly profits by tricking, manipulating, or coercing consumers to eat foods that are simply bad for them. Despite an almost laughable fact base, many of these attacks are more effective than they have any right to be.

Meanwhile, public argument on the merits of processed foods is difficult in an environment of widely diverse media and public communication, enhanced in volume, if not quality, by bloggers and social media.

It is the nature of the food industry—and a hallmark of classic crisis management—to lead with the facts and stick with science as the basis of a response; to keep it brief and let it go away. While the facts are true and the strategy is theoretically sound, I’m not so sure it’s effective in the long run.

Recent research by the Artemis Strategy Group on processed foods indicates that the public seems largely unmoved by the facts. Though they may understand the benefits of processed foods and be fully aware of their role in our food culture, consumers rank processed foods with a degree of negativity that defies common sense. Processed foods are ranked at the bottom, alongside “junk food,” “irradiated food,” and “food produced through biotechnology.” And yet, processed foods include an enormous array of healthy, nutritious staples—and constitute most of our food, period.

How can this be understood? It begins to make sense when considered in the context of lost trust.

Trust is a fundamental element of every company, every brand, every industry group, and even our regulators. And I don’t think trust can be rebuilt by brands alone when the fundamental trust in the entire food value chain is broken.

This lack of trust leads to consumer confusion and the urge to grasp at nearly any solution. “Eat local and unprocessed foods only” makes a compelling rallying cry to people who’ve been told not to trust the companies and people that produce their food, despite the utter silliness of the idea.

Research reported by The Tipton Group and Statler Nagle, LLC shows that the activist arguments—even those that are least supportable—remain credible in the eyes of not only the media, but also our public officials.

Current responses to threats against the industry are generally narrow and tactical, and are often underfunded and short-lived. In my view, while we may be winning some battles, we are losing the war. We need a new strategy—not just better performance against the standard crisis management strategies.

We need to take our industries out of crisis mode and into a proactive mode of effective consumer marketing. It’s time to take advantage of the media and the communication tactics that are most often used against us.

It is possible to mount a sustained and comprehensive response on behalf of the entire food industry value chain—and viewed from a greater distance, that is exactly the theater of war. Rather than remaining always on the defensive, a campaign on behalf of America’s food production system provides the opportunity to be positive and to provide deeper values-based positioning of the entire industry to the consumer.

By making a collective, long-term commitment and bringing the entire food industry value chain together to communicate the essential benefits of the world’s best, most efficient, and safest food production system as a whole, we can begin to re-establish trust and start winning the war. What’s more, we will be better positioned to overcome the inevitable battles that lie ahead.

by Tom Nagle is co-founder of Statler Nagle, LCC, 1025 Vermont Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20005 ([email protected]).