Identifying animal feed supply chain strategies for dealing with a shifting consumer landscape was a resonating topic of interest at the 2016 Purchasing & Ingredient Suppliers Conference (PISC) Nutrition Symposium, held on March 9, 2016, in New Orleans, LA. 

Consumer trust has a direct correlation to purchase behaviors, according to the Edelman Annual Consumer Trust Barometer, a global study of 33,000 people from 28 countries, which draws from 16 years of cumulative data. Such behaviors are strikingly different when analyzed in relation to trusted versus distrusted companies, as far as who consumers choose to purchase from and who they will recommend.

Personal recommendations carry more weight than ever, and can be delivered via word of mouth, social media and website reviews or comments.

“Trust is something we can measure,” stated Terry Fleck, executive director of The Center for Food Integrity. “Transparency is an effective mechanism for overcoming bias and it is no longer optional. Everyone who has a cell phone is a cinematographer. There is no such thing as hiding anymore.”

As perceptions are reality, there are many factors built into the trust equation which must be balanced.

There is a general belief that industrialized food systems put profit ahead of public interest, specifically that “big ag” exploits people and animals. Consumers hold food companies accountable for social issues such as food safety, environmental impact, animal well-being as well as labor and human rights.

There is also a growing consumer concern on the impact on diet and health from GMOs, artificial ingredients and food processing.

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An opportunity for the agribusiness industry?

The study revealed that if a CEO shifts their focus from lobbying and short-term financial results to a more positive, long-term impact and job creation can yield some unexpected outcomes. If a CEO takes a more visible role in discussing societal issues and public policy — talking about the story and history of a company and the obstacles they’ve overcome — it can also help reduce or eliminate the gap in integrity in business leaders that exists in the public view.

There needs to be industry recognition of the main sources of consumer information. Websites now rank higher than television or friends/family as primary resources for consumer news and information. Company websites can include information on social topics and concerns, and can provide a platform for communication where people can submit questions and comments.

Effective communications and messaging are more critical than ever.

Study results show that sustained consumer trust in a business must be grounded in ethics more than economics or scientific viability. Ethical or emotional concerns of consumers cannot be sufficiently answered by agribusiness with a scientific response. It is preferable to say why, not how. Don’t abandon science and facts, but rather lead with shared values to help build that bridge of trust between influencer and authority.

When agribusinesses play a lead role in helping solve societal problems and deliver in such a way that states the compound benefits of the brand, they will reap the rewards via consumer buy-in; shared content and sharing of consumer personal information with that business; and, ultimately, the economic gains will follow.