The food industry used to market food products on the basis of nutrition, quality and value. Companies spoke of the care farmers took to provide the healthiest, safest, best food in the world.
Oh, how times have changed. Today, food branding often focuses on Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD). The nutritional label is overshadowed by the non-GMO butterfly. Organic has replaced quality as a basic criterion for selection of foodstuffs. And even though North Americans spend a lower percentage of their income on food than anyone else on the planet, consumers now equate value with inferior products. Consumers are actually scared of the foods on the shelf.
FUD has been used as a tool to persuade people throughout the 20th century. However, it really gained acceptance as a marketing tool beginning in the 1970s with the development of computers and technology. IBM, and later Microsoft, became well known for using sales tactics which focused on getting potential clients to question the quality and value of competitor’s tech products, instead of the benefits of their own.
In fact, the abbreviation FUD is credited to Gene Amdahl after he left IBM to start his own technology company. He is quoted as saying: “FUD is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that IBM sales people instil in the minds of potential customers who might be considering (Amdahl) products.”
Rather than selling the benefits of a product, a FUD marketing campaign seeks to draw consumer’s attention to perceived negative attributes of a competitor’s product. And the best FUD campaigns roll out a stream of vague assertions, opinions and half-truths which are very difficult to counter.
Consider there are only 10 GMO crops currently grown: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets. So why can I find non-GMO labelling on bottles of olive oil, or on displays of fruits and vegetables for which there are no GMO varieties? Why are glyphosate and chemical-residue-free labels appearing on food products if not to promote the fear of glyphosate and chemical residues; even though there are strict regulations and testing to ensure that such residues are not a risk in foods?
Why do we need antibiotic-free labelling of meat when there is a mandatory period of time before an animal which has received antibiotics can be butchered to ensure there is no antibiotic in any meat?
An effective FUD campaign is very difficult to counter because fear is such a powerful emotion. Flight or fight are the two options that human nature prepares us for in the face of fear. Yet neither is effective against FUD marketing. Running from or ignoring a FUD campaign leaves the consumer with the impression that the FUD attack must be justified. Yet arguing can be even worse, giving the campaign an even bigger stage.
Farmers versus FUD
Agriculture is under attack by FUD marketing on multiple fronts. First, there are self-appointed food experts who question modern farming practices. They quote questionable studies and unnamed experts in their attempt to convince people foods are no longer safe. And often, the motives of these attacks are simply for personal fame or financial gain through book sales or speaking tours.
Then we have groups and organizations using FUD tactics in hopes of changing public lifestyles. Consider the attacks on livestock production practices. You have to question whether those opposing livestock production practices are seeking a change in practice, or simply trying to stop livestock production altogether.
But the biggest threat to farmers is now coming from within the agricultural industry itself. In a quest for market share, processors and food service providers are employing FUD tactics. You can now buy yogurt that is being marketed as being produced from cows fed non-GM feeds. Of course, no one is explaining whether there are actual benefits to the consumer from yogurt produced from cows fed non-GM, or why yogurt from GM-fed cows should be avoided. But that is what FUD marketing is all about.
Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt
The farming industry is responding to FUD marketing through organizations such as Ag More Than Ever and its Agvocate program, as well as the Agriculture in the Classroom organization, Farm and Foodcare, and many others. As of 2017, over 4,000 people have stepped forward as Agvocates, seeking to tell their story about farming and food.
But the FUD danger is growing and a lot more needs to be done. I asked three prominent agricultural marketing and policy experts abut addressing misinformation in agriculture, and the answer always came back to farmers themselves.
Dr. Ellen Goddard, co-operative chair in agricultural marketing and business at the University of Alberta says, “Consumers have a great deal of trust in farmers so messages from farmers about what they do are critically important. The message from an individual dairy farmer is much more powerful than a message from the Dairy Farmers of Canada.”
Goddard explains the general public is inundated by information, so for a message to be effective the source has to be trusted, and this is where individual farmers have the advantage. The public is supportive of farmers and if they do not hear from farmers, the message is often lost.
Goddard believes farmers simply need to tell consumers why they do what they do. Issues are rarely black and white, but are much more complex. Just talking on Twitter about why you farm can be very influential.
One unique suggestion Goddard made was for farmers to take their voices to organizations that we typically consider as critical of agriculture. She wonders why farmers don’t join organizations like the World Wildlife Fund to bring an agriculture perspective to their table.
Dr. Peter Phillips, in the department of bioresource, policy, business and economics at the University of Saskatchewan, says,“Farmers have a powerful voice and need to be heard in discussions about food. The farmer is the one person consumers will stop and listen to because farmers make it real. They can say what they do and why they do it. Farmers have skin in the game.”
Phillips suggests farmers speak from personal values. They need to explain that what they do is important to the success of their farm, their family, and the food that they produce. They need to share the pride they have in producing food.
Most importantly, Phillips says, “Farmers must reach out and become part of the conversation. Don’t let someone in California decide what technology can be used on a farm.”
Dr. Kevin Folta, chair of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florid, is a very strong advocate for modern agriculture. “Producers are the best people to engage the public,” he says. “If producers don’t tell their story, they are letting someone else frame the narrative. Why would you let someone else tell your story?”
Folta suggested three ways farmers can deliver an effective message to consumers. First, farmers need to focus on generating content. “Farmers can keep a daily blog telling what has happened on the farm that day. While farmers may think this would be boring, the public likes to know. They want to know the people who are producing their food.”
Second, Folta says farmers should provide amplification of good work being done in the industry. “Talk about great things that happen. Talk about problems you faced this year. And share your story on social media, in letters to the editor, and articulate it in public. Never turn down the opportunity to advocate.”
Third, Folta says any message a farmer delivers is fine as long as it is authentic. “Talk about what and why something is done and the value it generates. Explain why we use a product on the farm and show consumers that such actions make sense. Avoid generalizations! Talking about feeding the world is a turnoff. Instead, be specific as to what you do.”
Folta points out there are all kinds of opportunities for farmers to deliver a message to consumers. Community groups are often looking for real people to tell their stories and too often it is the same person delivering the message. If someone is uncomfortable with speaking, or with posting on social media, they can be just as effective by leading a conversation with family members around the dining room table.
Effectively fighting FUD
If farmers are to be effective against FUD marketing there are three basic strategies that must be followed.
First, farmers need to listen to consumers. Farmers need to hear their concerns and empathize with them. People want their questions and complaints to be heard. Recognize FUD is focused more on creating emotional responses in the consumer than on making fact-based decisions, so allow the consumer to vent. Simply responding by telling them their beliefs are wrong is never effective.
Second, never argue. Arguing rarely convinces someone they are wrong. How many times have you changed someone’s mind arguing politics? You are likely to be no more effective arguing whether organics or conventional foods are better than which religion is more caring.
Most important, farmers need to rebuild trust with consumers. FUD is eroding the consumer’s trust of farmers. Farmers must win consumers’ trust back. If consumers trusted what farmers are currently doing, they would not be questioning residues, practices, and the food we produce now.
It is up to every producer to play a role in fighting FUD in the food industry.