Emotion over science: Experts argue better social marketing can overcome negative consumer palm oil sentiment

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Consumers are opting to buy ‘No Palm Oil’ labelled products in places where these are available due to the sense of ‘emotional protection’ this confers versus any real scientific knowledge, an expert panel has claimed. ©Getty Images
Consumers are opting to buy ‘No Palm Oil’ labelled products in places where these are available due to the sense of ‘emotional protection’ this confers versus any real scientific knowledge, an expert panel has claimed. ©Getty Images

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Consumers are opting to buy ‘No Palm Oil’ labelled products in places where these are available due to the sense of ‘emotional protection’ this confers versus any real scientific knowledge, an expert panel has claimed whilst recommending better social marketing as the best tool to fight this.

This was the opinion of the six expert panelists who convened virtually for the ‘Vertical Challenges for Sustainable Palm Oil’s Future’ panel debate, held as part of the international Palm Oil Trade Fair and Seminar 2021 organised by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC).

The panellists were: international civil society body Solidaridad Network Asia Senior Advisor Teoh Cheng Hai, the United Kingdom Field Conservation Manager Catherine Barton, legal firm FratiniVergano Partner and ASEAN states advisor Pablo Vergano, MPOC Science & Environment Division Director Dr. Ruslan Abdullah and EngageMinds Hub, Consumer, Food & Health Engagement Research Center Director Professor Guendalina Graffigna. The session was moderated by MPOC Deputy CEO Belvinder Sron.

Professor Graffigna spoke on data her team had collected conducted on consumers in an European population, namely Italy, who purchased No Palm Oil products, revealing that the main reason for consumers making this purchase to be very much emotional and not based on scientific knowledge or facts.

“There is growing literature starting to disentangle the beliefs of consumers regarding palm oil and palm oil products – in 2019 one study found that palm-oil free products are perceived to be ‘healthier’ and more eco-friendly by consumers, yet the same study also found a gap of actual knowledge regarding palm oil amongst the studied consumers,”​ she said.

“Many studies across the world are pointing out this consumer gap of knowledge, their motivations and irrational processes of decision-making that are the basis of them selecting palm oil-free products.

“There is a great deal of fake news around today regarding palm oil production and food products, and what we wanted to find out was why are so many consumers believing in and being misled by fake news and worrying about palm oil.

“In 2020, we saw some 49% of studied Italian consumers say they often or always buy palm-oil free products, and when we crossed this behaviour with several psychological variables, [we basically] found that there are very deep emotional roots behind consumer attitudes towards palm oil.”

For instance, the study found a 65-point match between palm-oil free product purchasers and consumers who believed agricultural fake news in the past three months, as well as a 54-point match with those that showed higher levels of anxiety on a clinical scale, and a 53-point match with high depression levels on a clinical scale.

“When we crossed people with higher clinical levels of anxiety, depression or worry, their palm-oil free purchases increased [which means that] there is a more psychological or emotional driver or choice going on here,”​ she stressed.

“So from my perspective, [solving this issue] is not only a matter of knowledge or scientific information to consumers, it is also a matter of things like fantasies, worries, the overall psychological sentiment of a population.

“Purchasing palm oil-free products is like a paranoic (sic) approach where they prefer ‘free-from’ products, a similar pattern as seen with lactose-free or gluten-free – people with these emotional dynamics tend to consider free-from products as healthier as these are more protective from a psychological perspective.”

Professor Graffigna also highlighted that social marketing may be the right key to getting positive palm oil messaging out there, which would potentially help to change consumer emotions about the sector as a whole, which is sorely needed at the moment.

“So far commercial marketing processes have been using consumer emotions to negatively represent palm oil so I think the antidote would be to use the same rhetoric to educate consumers about the positive features,”​ she said.

“Of course there is currently a gap of scientific knowledge (where a lot of efforts are bring focused currently), but we have seen how difficult it is to spread scientific knowledge after trying to do so for the COVID-19 vaccine during this pandemic – so it is not the right strategy to employ at the peak of a problem like palm oil is facing now.

“Passing positive emotions and facilitating consumers in the right direction would be the better strategy, such as engaging the community, social marketing, mass media, behavioural change and consumer psychology methods.”

Profit and envy

The palm oil industry has suffered multiple attacks over the past year particularly from the EU​, with many of these targeting the sustainability​ of the palm oil production process – but MPOC’s Dr Ruslan said that rising sustainability demands may be losing sight of the original criteria for sustainability (namely meeting present needs without compromising this for future generations).

“Sustainability demands are now generally catering towards those who are powerful, strongest, noisiest or most influential – but very seldom are meeting real ideals to fulfil actual sustainability criteria,”​ he said.

“Why have there been so many concentrated efforts made on palm oil? Well this commodity has slowly risen to become the most-produced oil worldwide (72 million MT) since the 1950s when it first came into the picture at 10th​ place (1.3 million MT). This rise is due to factors such as productivity and health benefits.”

Dr Ruslan emphasized that due to this successful rise over the past decades, ‘profit and envy’ have become key reasons the industry has come under attack.

“When converted into monetary terms, this substantial amount has become an envy to many other different types of oil producers so this could be a reason why palm oil [is under so much attack]. In the beginning, much focus was on the sustainability criteria to balance for people, planet and profit – but now, there is a lot more inclination towards profit [if you look at the demands].

“In addition, if you look at the main palm oil producing nations such as Indonesia (56%), Malaysia (29%) and Thailand (5%), [there is no doubt that these are nowhere near] as powerful, noisy or influential as importer nations like America and Europe – this power and noise is what can influence the sustainability demands over criteria.”

‘No Palm Oil’labels

Another major topic of the panel discussion was the rampant usage of ‘No Palm Oil’ labels in European countries, including by Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) members, most likely to boost sales despite hurting palm oil’s reputation.

“This labelling will hamper the uptake of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) but still many FMCG companies have been using this labelling, even RSPO members – RSPO has a Code of Conduct which requires support of CSPO use, but these members are flouting this commitment,”​ said Teo.

“For example, for the same brand of peanut butter produced by the same company, if you go to the Malaysian supermarket and look it will not have the Palm Oil Free/No Palm Oil label and carries the CSPO logo, but in Europe it carries a Palm Oil Free label – in clear conflict of its RSPO agreement.”

According to Vergano, the No Palm Oil labels are in something of a dubious position legally, as these may imply the claiming of better health properties just for not containing palm oil.

“There is clearly a pattern of marketing campaigns that mislead, sometimes even fraudulently. [There] are also clearly instances where the No Palm Oil labels are illegal under EU law because they imply that a product is better nutritionally or are implying a health claim,”​ he said.

“There is a very prescriptive list of health claims that can be used in the EU – so if a manufacturer wants to imply or communicate to consumers that a product contains less saturated fats than a palm oil product, what should be used is a ‘No/Low in Saturated Fat’ label, not a Palm Oil Free label.

“That is what is imposed by EU Law for producers to use – you need to show what is good about your product, not denigrate and attack a competing product.”

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