Are Food Marketers Facing Their Mubarak Moment?

>Three ways that American processed food manufacturers can avoid being toppled by hungry, angry consumers


As Peggy Noonan opined in a recent Wall Street Journal column, Middle East unrest is a "struggle between the ambivalent and the impassioned ... and in modern revolution, passion trumps ambivalence."*

The same holds true for a different kind of revolution ... America's Food Revolution. 

Food corporations must recognize that despite offering a cornucopia of healthier product and packaging options, they are now, similarly, targets. While not endangered by mass protests like those in the Middle East, marketers are confronted by fervent food activists who believe that industry is responsible for our nation's obesity malaise and that marketing practices must therefore be regulated.

Food companies tout (and food activists ignore) the substantial progress that has been made. For example:

Nevertheless, advocates for change argue that product portfolios and marketing practices are not changing quickly enough, and they are pulling out all the stops. They have come to believe that they have the momentum to effect an overhaul of food industry practices, as they have been successful in passing legislation to post calories on restaurant chain menu boards and came within one vote of securing passage of a soda tax bill in Philadelphia.

The winds of change are blowing. Smart companies will get ahead of issues like soda taxes, calorie labeling, and child marketing practices to avoid harsh regulations.

The danger facing food corporations is not a failure to do enough. Rather, it is the danger of falling into the complacency trap—a feeling that, having made plenty of progress, they can proceed at will, all the while being able to fend off activist ambushes through lobbying and public relations efforts.

This would be a mistake.

Food marketers must recognize that public health activists have gained an even more important ally: the consumer. Analysis of Yankelovich research by the Hudson Institute indicates the emergence of a new Responsible Consumer cohort that is demanding that corporations not only take care of the environment but also of consumers' health and wellness. And they will support regulations to drive change.

Over 80 percent believe that their purchases are a way to send a message to corporations, and 44 percent have actually switched brands to prove their point. This is the nightmare scenario for brand managers, since the consumer represents the Holy Grail for marketers, and an exodus of loyal and valued customers could kill their brands.

Regardless of who's right or wrong, those clamoring for reform are vociferous and determined.

The lessons for food marketers are straightforward:

  • Don't allow hubris to creep in. Because health advocates have lost some battles, don't assume that they won't be successful. Just one more vote in a city council could set off a domino effect of taxes on junk food. 
  • Don't hang onto the status quo. The winds of change are blowing. Smart companies will get ahead of issues like soda taxes, calorie labeling, and child marketing practices to avoid harsh regulations and to gain positive publicity for their brands.
  • Capitalize on the opportunity. More aggressively marketing healthier products and proactively using sizable budgets to educate consumers about nutrition and portion control can yield an advantage over competitors. There is nothing inconsistent about marketing better-for-you products and making a profit.

It's time for marketers to get ahead of the Food Revolution. Those who do will prosper. Those who drag their heels do so at their own peril.

Image: Fred Greaves/Reuters

*This post originally stated that Maureen Dowd had written a Wall Street Journal column and that Walmart has a Best Value brand. We regret the errors.