That is according to PR guru Iain Twine, who spoke last week at Food Vision Asia in Singapore about consumers’ new relationships with how brands communicate.
The regional chief executive of Edelman in Southeast Asia and Australasia has cautioned F&B executives to understand better the principles of “echo chambers”, and urged them not to be sucked into believing that consumers will always react in a traditional way.
More than anything, though, brands must instil trust—a commodity that can take years to build and just minutes to wipe out, especially in a climate whereby people are losing faith in institutions.
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which each year surveys levels of trust in companies, NGOs and governments in 28 markets, the F&B sector enjoys the trust of 60% of consumers, though this level could easily go downhill at the drop of a hat.
The sector is traditionally among the top three most trusted industry groups, behind technology. Within it, fast food is the least trusted segment of all, while farming and fisheries comes top. Agribusiness also gets a high trust rating via the Edelman barometer, as do groceries, supermarkets and food retailers, though these often bear the brunt of consumer dissatisfaction and product failures.
Meanwhile, food and beverage manufacturers face some challenges in this regard, as does the beer and spirits segment, which rarely garners high opinions, especially in Asia-Pacific—“People don’t trust booze,” according to Twine.
“As you think about your businesses, how you position yourself, you have to keep working on your trust score. Even companies in agribusiness could still slip very quickly,” he said.
Failing to do so, though, will invariably prompt regulators to take a closer look at a particular segment, usually acting on a wave of public disapproval.
“If you slip, you’re into financial services territory,” he continued. “And if you ask anyone in financial services how much fun their life has been in the last five or six years, because they were caught behaving badly, their bad behaviour led to significant regulation and a significant reduction in bonuses.”
To prevent this from happening, communicating with swing-trusters would be the key, he added.
These consumers are similar to on-the-fence voters. They begin with a neutral or mildly positive perception of the brands they buy, and form the most sizeable attitude group in the F&B market. But they can turn on brands if they sense something they do not like, said Twine.
“Marketeers have to identify who this mass of customers is, and how to engage with them. But the problem is about echo chambers: the swing-truster is not in the boardroom but on social media.
“They don’t see the good work that is being done by the industry on safety and product development, and will react unfavourably to product recalls,” he added.
When a crisis happens to a brand, the swing-truster will most likely hear about it on social media—potentially within just a few minutes.
Now that two thirds of people trust search engines more than human editors, according to Edelman’s barometer, and they are four-and-a-half times more likely to ignore information that supports a position they do not believe in, it is now even more essential for brands to understand their audience and control the narrative.
“You still do need to engage with the traditional media and their human editors, but you also have to be aware of where people’s trust and perception lies, which is from search engines,” said Twine.
“And with one in two people saying they would trust politicians to make things better for them even if they exaggerated the truth, Donald Trump’s election strategy has become a reality.
“This in turn opens up ways for politicians who understand this trust factor to go after F&B companies and their products if they choose to. They can easily exaggerate; their version of the truth is already out there before companies have had time to respond. People are willing to listen and believe them,” he added.
To understand how to manage a brand in the media, F&B executives must look outside their own bubble. Twine describes this group as the “informed public”, who come from the top 25% salary bracket, are educated and well-read—though their numbers are very small.
In fact, the vast majority of consumers are part of Twine’s “mass population” group, which consists of everyone else. They have a different perspective to that of business leaders and are often in thrall of policymakers—especially in this part of the world.
Edelman found that 86% of the mass population believe the media should be more accurate and balanced in their reporting of F&B safety, nutrition and health issues. A further 78% agree that policymakers are responsible for encouraging healthier food and beverage choices.
“Readers want to be more aggressive and challenge brands more; as communicators and marketeers, businesses need to think of their position in this,” Twine said.
“With 70% agreeing that policymakers should tax foods that impact health, the industry is seeing the public’s attitude towards sugar taxes.”
And with politicians unlikely to gain any votes by defending the F&B industry, they are much more likely go after it, businesses should really consider how they approach their public affairs strategy and engage in “critical stakeholder mapping”.
“We are getting a big sense that the mass population want companies to be better behaved and engaged; more open and transparent,” Twine added.
“Trust is a forward-looking asset; reputation is backward-looking. You have to invest in and nurture trust.”