There’s a tendency in business to always put a positive spin on things – somehow to be ashamed to face up to the big issues in plain speaking language and dress them in such polite terms that they lose their meaning. On Tuesday though, I gave a presentation at the annual Organic September trade briefing in London, hosted by Soil Association Certification, one of the themes of which was mistrust. In fact, it was the first point I made.
I was, I’ll admit, a little bit fearful about how it would land – would I be seen as a doom-sayer when actually the headline news is good (the organic market is growing by over 5% in a food market that’s flat and sluggish)? Because, although it’s a brutal fact, mistrust is all around us at the moment. I’m no political commentator, but take Brexit. ‘Out’ votes driven by fear, anger and mistrust of privilege, of politicians, of Europe, of faceless Bureaucrats, of ‘silly’ laws, of the status quo. And in food retail, what else drives the pervading mistrust of big food producers and big food retailers as horsemeat scandals, obesity crises (for whom the retailers, fairly or not, are blamed), mass-manufacturing, ever falling quality, increasing prices and the perceived weasel-words of products and brands that get found out (and increasingly easily get found out, at that)?
So yes, I was fearful that it was a downbeat message and no amount of delightful condiments on the ‘Praise Sandwich’ would obscure the truth.
Yet for every weight, there is a counter balance; pendulums swing both ways. And for every issue there is an opportunity. Of course, if you are connected with the Organic or natural products movement, either as farmer, a grower, a producer, a retailer or brand owner, then you have reason to be cheerful. Never has there been such a sea change in the mainstream market seeking out provenance, transparency of production, desire to know more about producers, dare I say it… craft – than now. And it’s only going one way. Look at the new channels appearing – online, concrete, pop-up, markets – the fragmentation of retail away from ‘the big weekly shop’ can only benefit these retailers. And look at the incredible array of entrepreneurs and small businesses, of all ages, all attitudes, backing their beliefs and bringing sensational new products to market. Many will fail – that is the way of things – but rarely have the tailwinds of fortune been so great. Never before have we seen so much consistent variety in high quality new product development. For someone interested in innovation, it’s like a premium version of Whack-A-Mole. One may fail, but three pop up.
This mistrust may seem to sting if you are in the volume end of the market, yet it is a nettle to be grasped. Take the big supermarkets for example; consumers squarely point the finger of blame at them. In our research we found that issues such as the ‘horse meat scandal’ became tipping points for their ire, electromagnets that once activated, attracted further critique, proving their fears, legitimising their concerns: ‘if they’re doing that, what else are they doing?’. Obesity crisis? That’s because the retailers force us to over buy because of their buy-one-get-one-free offers. The war on waste? Have you seen how much they throw away? Have you seen the over-packaging?
Yet this consumer mistrust really is an opportunity if a committed purpose is drawn up and big action is taken. Take yesterday’s theme, organic food. In the past it’s been seen as a middle class indulgence, yet now it’s being taken seriously by a broader church because of the natural and ever-increasingly innovative approaches being used, the scientific proof on nutrition being brought to the table, and of course, the willingness to adhere to – and be seen to adhere to – a higher standard of certification. Conventional or mixed farmers are taking note – so too should the retailers. And it is clearly not just about organic. This is about local; it’s about backing independent producers; it’s about knowing where our food comes from; it’s about breaking a crazy system that sees pork imported from the Far East somehow ‘cheaper’ than pork produced here. It’s about getting back some common sense – and commercial sense – and letting shoppers see it.
From a brand point of view it’s an opportunity too. The mistrust should spell the end of the silly era of ‘story-telling’. It’s not stories we need as consumers. If trust is wanted, truth is needed. Truth: plain, bare, simple.
(Coverage of the Organic September trade briefing can be found here: http://www.naturalproductsonline.co.uk/soil-association-streamlined-message-make-organic-everyday-choice/)
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success. firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 (0) 1283 246260; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh.
© The Crow Flies, 2016