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Finding common ground with your consumers

Betty Berning

Local, non-GMO, organic, gluten-free. These are some of the words you might see if you look at a package of food at the grocery store. Some of it might make you chuckle. What exactly is non-GMO soda, anyway? And wasn't oatmeal always gluten-free? Why are food companies using these words?

The answer is simple. Consumers are asking for it.

According to the Center for Food Integrity, a non-profit organization whose members and partners range from farmers to food companies, today’s consumer is different from the consumer of the past. Consumers of the past valued price, taste and convenience, while today’s consumer is looking for more.

Selling products consumers want to buy

Health and wellness, safety, social impact, experience and "transparency" are valued by today's consumers. This explains why there are more organic and natural offerings at the grocery store. It also explains the boom in agri-tourism (berry-picking, pumpkin patches, wine tasting). Consumers want to feel connected to their food and feel like they are buying from a trusted friend.

For traditional/conventional farmers, these trends can be challenging. Farmers work hard to provide a high-quality product they can be proud of. Farmers consume their own product and are happy to serve it to friends and family. So, some farmers might feel frustrated when consumers do not seem to trust the product they have worked so hard to create unless it has the words they're looking for on the package.

Like it or not, consumers need farmers and farmers need them.

The consumer’s voice is greatly valued at food companies. Their goal is to sell a product that consumers want to buy. Here is the formula food companies use to find out what and how to market to consumers:

Listen to your customers

Most products are launched and marketed based on consumer research that requires interviewing and listening to consumers, asking questions and responding in good time.

Market effectively

Marketing does not mean telling consumers all the facts about why a product is good for them. Marketing highlights how the product meets the needs and values that the consumer has expressed in the research. Companies relate to consumers through advertisements, social media and customer service. They want consumers to feel like they are buying a product from a trusted friend.

Engage your customers

Natasha Mortenson, public relations director at Riverview Farms, points out that, regardless of how you are engaging with consumers (as a farmer, processor, food company), the strategy is similar.

Natasha’s process is simple and reflects the food company's process:

  1. Listen
  2. Ask questions
  3. Relate and express where you have common ground
  4. Come up with an analogy to explain why you do what you do

Understand your customers' needs

Think about values that you share with people you know. You may be a member of a small community and farm with your family. You are probably trying to provide for your family. Your farm could be considered a small business, as opposed to a corporation. You care about your cows' health and well-being. Consumers value these things, too. Sharing common values helps consumers feel connected to you and provides a sense of transparency.

Connecting with consumers is as easy as talking to your non-farming family and neighbors. Understand their needs and preferences by listening, even if you don’t agree. Ask for clarification or more information if you don’t understand what they want. Talk to them about your needs and share your farm's story (not just facts). Finally, try to identify common values.

Build trust

Facts are important, but people are more inclined to trust facts once they trust you. Remember that we have more in common with others than we might realize. We often want the same things, whether it is safe food, clean water, or healthy animals.

Listen, ask questions, and then highlight your common values. Be patient and good luck!

2017

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