Shift Happened. Now what?

Linda Eatherton, Managing Director, Partner in the Global Food & Beverage Practice & Global Practices Development at the Ketchum agency

The “new consumer” presents challenges and opportunities for dairy

Recently I was asked to share insights and observations about the changing consumer landscape and the implications these changes hold for the dairy industry. As global lead of our food & beverage industry groups, I am always working with our teams to look beyond trends to mine for the insights that can shape innovative strategies and deliver business results.

There is absolutely no doubt that the consumer marketplace has been totally upended. Seismic change washed over our businesses when we entered into the Age of Social Media. Within the blink of an eye, power and control flipped from corporate America to ‘the people.’ Literally anyone with a device had become not just a publisher but also an influencer. Democratized information platforms have put brand and business destinies in the hands of ‘the people.’ To many in business this is a source of pain and, to some, utter frustration. We can no longer control information. What is fake and real news? Who and where are the real authorities. What happened to facts and science?


The New Norm

Welcome to the ‘new norm.’ We are never going back to the way it was. The genie is out of the bottle. Our challenge and opportunity today is to be equally aggressive in shifting our way of thinking; our perceptions; and, most importantly, shifting away from tried and true strategies. Our generation is literally writing the Marketing Playbook of Tomorrow TODAY. We cannot expect yesterday’s thinking or tactics to work when nearly every variable in the equation has changed.

We also cannot look at consumers the way we have year after year. Gone is the ubiquitous Women 25-54 target. Primary shoppers come in all ages and stages of life. Mothers with children span ages 19 to 45! Purchase drivers are equal parts price, value, taste and VALUES….and no two people share the same set of values. We simply can no longer afford to generalize or genericize messages to a mass, faceless market.

Our proprietary research series, Food 2020 saw the shift coming. In 2008, we detected the rising importance of values to be of nearly equal importance to value among shoppers worldwide. In 2013, we spotted a type of consumer that was not an activist, nor advocate for any group or agenda, yet who was leading conversations about food in every country around the world. We dubbed these consumers ‘Food eVangelists’ because they each were notably driven to demand answers to questions about food, production and processing. And, they were collectively dissatisfied that they were not getting clear, straight answers from the food industry.

At that time, they profiled as highly educated, younger in age with above average incomes; primarily women. Our assumption was this was the ‘food elite’ or ‘food snob’ who was an annoying small percentage of the population (11% in the US). When we revisited the study in 2015 there had been a significant shift. Those profiling as Food eVangelists were now not only greater in number (14% of US population), specifically a 27% increase in 2 years, they were evenly spread across economic, age groups and genders.

  What we were witnessing was The Shift. Consumers were moving from a passive, reactive and faceless mass market of shoppers to individuals driven by bigger ideals and higher expectations. They were beginning to recognize power and how to use their power to exact change. And, they were demanding to be heard.

Today we know Food eVangelists are our core consumers of tomorrow. Their children read labels and ‘direct’ their parents as to what they will and won’t eat. They have open conversations about environment, health, and how food is made. They are analyzing labels; asking questions about ingredients. Their children, armed with even more technology than their parents, are not going to mellow as they grow to adulthood. It is for this reason, that we advise our clients to look at today’s Food eVangelist not as a problem or small influencer group, but to think of them as stakeholders in the business. By shifting our perspective from problem to solution we can embrace the Food eVangelist and embrace them as partners in our resetting the food industry on a positive path.

It is critically important to listen, observe and engage with these stakeholders on a daily basis to truly get an accurate read of what’s on their minds. In doing so, we are learning that words we’ve long used for decades in business or prescribed for use by regulations have significantly different meaning to consumers.

Health Is Not Nutrition

Let’s look at the word and the idea of ‘health.’ In the 50s and 60s, health meant physical health. In the 70s and 80s, consumers would define health as both nutrition and physical health when rising obesity changed our perspectives. In the 90s, we leaned into healthy lifestyles. This decade defines health as wellness and wellbeing of mind, body and spirit. Health has become the ‘new wealth’ and is being defined as the ultimate currency of value. Our recent research The Influence of Wellness Study clearly indicates that wellness is both measured by physical (72%) and emotional health (71%). We are learning that when these two metrics are ‘out of balance’ the message is fraught with dissonance. Think about ‘greenwashing.’ Great products that were able to provide better-for-you benefits with lower environmental impacts claimed to do and be more than they could deliver; many leaving out essential facts that were not useful to the story. The imbalance between the physical attributes and the emotional ‘noise’ was so great that it obliterated reputations and sales. Our research confirmed that consumers believe 77% of marketers ‘exaggerate’ benefits; whether intentional or not it is generating more noise and more disharmony.


The key is to remember that the definitions of what drives consumer purchase today are fickle and fleeting. To be an effective marketer today one must be able to constantly gauge the subtle shifts and shift with them. In 2016 Fortune’s Fast Food Nation Report  indicated the top 3 health drivers for Millennials were cage-free, GM-free, and no allergens. Today, we see that those drivers have morphed to humane animal treatment, environmentally responsible and socially responsible. The specifics as to what each actually means or includes is constantly evolving. Consumers put definition to these ideas in ‘real-time.’ Regardless what the legal or industry definitions may be, it is incumbent upon us to always be dialed in to how they are defining these and other terms to ensure our messages and conversation are truly relevant.

Virtual Friends & Family Become Tribes

We all know today’s consumer is heavily influenced by friends and family. That is also true of the wellness seeker. But, here’s something to ponder. Who are their friends and family? When you dig a bit deeper you learn their hundreds of Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter followers are actually the real friends and family they are referencing. The average Facebook user now has nearly 400 friends, while the media has around 200. That’s a lot of friends, family and voices to reconcile. We see topics and areas of interest creating unique alliances and alignment within the community. We call these ‘tribes’…literally like-minded, aligned groups who tend to aggregate and associate with a leader.

  Cults Rule and Are Led by Cult Leaders

The leaders of these tribes are literally ‘cult leaders’…individuals driving cultural conversations and attitudes.  While we may have negative connotations to the idea of a cult or cult leader, remember the root word of culture is cult (to create a following). These tribal leaders are today’s influencer community. Most are everyday people, not stars or Hollywood icons. They have generated a following around ideas, innovations and interests. They are each thought leaders and trend-setters in their own way. Many of these trend leaders establish their earliest followings on the east and west coasts. Several studies have shown the early adopters of concepts like sustainability and clean labels started on the coasts. And, in nearly all cases the ideals and ideas take root in middle America within less than 3 years.

Who Is Your Tribe? Where Is Your Cult Leader?

When we think of the dairy industry we must ask some very important questions and challenge our thinking going forward. Do we have a tribe? Who are the tribe leaders driving conversations on the west and east coasts. How are we engaging and aligning with those tribes and their leaders? Recognizing that some of this engagement is already happening, it may well be time to consider a disruptive approach and tap the tribes and cult leaders for a total re-invention.

We know there are brands and foods that have totally ‘re-invented’ themselves. LaCroix flipped from a stuffy elite fizzy flavored water to the ‘it’ icon of fashion, fun, enjoyment and the anti-soda movement. Red Bull languished for years as the caffeinated drink alternative to coffee until it blew up all conventions and re-aligned the brand with extreme sports, extreme lifestyles and extreme experiences. And, avocados were the poster child for fat and calories to be used only for guacamole. With combined industry resources it made its case as a source of good fats and won a vote of recommendation in the 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines. Avocados from Mexico saw the tipping point coming and put all resources against blowing up the guacamole routine, starting with significant investments in Super Bowl advertising. Permission was being granted; it was time to make every eating occasion time for Avocados from Mexico!

What these brands and products had in common was expert ‘listening skills’ leading them to tribes and cult leaders they might not have ever heard before. They blew up all conventions and built followership by tapping into the social memes and themes of the day. They were nimble, agile and willing to show up entirely differently. In doing so they allowed themselves to be disruptive instead of being disrupted by others.