In the past few weeks, some of the nation’s largest and most successful retail food companies have made some humongous PR and marketing blunders. These colossal whoppers cost them sales and credibility with consumers, as well as tarnished their brands. In most of these cases, these were self-inflicted wounds that could have been avoided by simply doing a little research. They found out too late that listening to the loudest voice may not be the right choice.
Subway was the latest to make this misstep. In a hurry to put the Jared sex scandal behind them, they caved into pressure from activist groups pushing their anti-antibiotic agenda. They released a vague and poorly-worded statement on their new policy on the use of antibiotics in livestock production. The reaction from their suppliers and their customers was quick and negative. The world’s largest sub sandwich chain soon found themselves on the defensive fending off customer concerns about the safety of meat that might come from sick animals. A few days later they amended their policy and ordered up a foot long crow sandwich for their top executives.
“Almost every company has its critics, and by critics, I mean those pains in the rear who only like to whine and be contrarian purely for the sake of it,” says Carol Roth, business author and CNBC contributor. “These critics have been given an unprecedented platform on the web. Whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, or even in the comments section of a blog, anyone can say anything at any time and with any frequency.” She added the problem for companies is that, sometimes, those critics can be mistakenly taken as representing the opinions of the masses when they are really just a handful of loudmouths that misrepresent themselves, or are at least perceived as the mouthpiece of a larger subset of customers. This is especially true when it comes to the antibiotic and GMO issues in food.
Far too many companies spend more time reading social media than reading scientific research or simply talking with the farmers that produce their products. Roth says people complain and make negative comments on-line more than they give positive feedback, “Many of the folks who complain actually don’t have a lot of purchasing power and some of them aren’t your customers at all.” She said many consumers don’t like to make positive comments on social channels because they do not want to get attacked by those who disagree. Many ag activists and farmer bloggers have found this to be true. When they try to explain the benefits of biotechnology or proper animal care, they are vilified by the loudmouth activists.
Roth urges companies to stop using social media as their primary source of customer feedback, “Reach out to other customers to get a broader scope of feedback. If you aren’t sure what your customers think, ask a meaningful number of them. Customers are more likely to give you feedback if it is asked for (and if they feel like offering it will ultimately benefit them).” She says this kind of research should not be done in a public forum. Likewise, ag supporters may have more luck sending their feedback and concerns directly to a company rather than engaging in pointless arguments in social media.
Those of us in agriculture may also want to pay a little less attention to the squeaky wheels on Facebook and twitter and look to more broadly-based consumer research. We may find that on key food and agriculture issues the loudest consumers may not represent the majority opinion.
By Gary Truitt