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Extension > Agricultural Business Management News > Finding Common Ground with Consumers

Friday, August 18, 2017

Finding Common Ground with Consumers

by Betty Berning
Extension Educator

Local, non-GMO, organic, gluten-free.  These are some of the words you might see if you look at a package of food at the grocery store.  Some of it might make you chuckle.  What exactly is non-GMO soda, anyway?  And wasn’t oatmeal always gluten-free?!  Why are food companies using these words?

The answer is simple.  Consumers are asking for it.  According to the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), a non-profit organization whose members and partners range from farmers to food companies, today’s consumer is different from the consumer of the past.  Their research indicates that the consumer of the past valued price, taste, and convenience, while today’s consumer is looking for more.  Health and wellness, safety, social impact, experience, and the overarching theme of “transparency” are values of younger consumers.
This explains why there are more organic and natural offerings at the grocery store.  It also explains the to be a boom in agri-tourism (berry-picking, pumpkin patches, wine tasting, etc.).  Consumers want to feel connected to their food and feel like they are buying from a trusted friend.

For traditional/conventional farmers, these trends can be maddening.  Farmers work hard to provide a high-quality product.  They are very proud of their product (and rightly so!)  Farmers consume their product and are happy to serve it to friends and family.  One can understand why farmers might feel frustrated when consumers do not seem to trust the product they have worked so hard to create.

Like it or not, consumers buy your products.  They need you and you need them.  Before I worked in Extension, I worked for a food company.  The consumer’s voice is greatly valued at food companies.  Our goal was to sell a product that consumers wanted to buy.  We did not just make a product and expect consumers to buy it. 

Our products were created based on consumer research.  We listened to our consumer, asked questions, and then we responded.  Our response was to launch a product and market it.   Marketing did not mean telling consumers all the facts about why a product was good for them.  Marketing meant highlighting how the product met the needs and values that the consumer had previously expressed to us.  We related to our consumers through our advertisements, social media engagement, and customer service.  We wanted consumers to feel like they were buying a product from a trusted friend. 

I spoke with Natasha Mortenson, Public Relations Director at Riverview Farms, about the topic of consumer engagement.  She and I have engaged with consumers, but in very different ways!  As we talked, we quickly discovered that regardless of how you are engaging with consumers (as a farmer, processor, food company, etc.), the strategy is similar.    Natasha’s process was simple:  1. Listen, 2. Ask questions, 3. Relate and express where you have common ground, and 4. If you can, come up with an analogy to explain why you do what you do. 

Think about common values that you have with most people.  You are most likely a member of a local community and farm with your family.    Like most Americans, you are probably trying to provide for your family.  Your farm could be considered a “small business”, as opposed to a corporation.  You care about your cows’ health and well-being.  Consumers value these principles, just like you do! Sharing these common values help consumers feel connected to you and provide a sense of transparency.  

I would encourage each of you to connect with consumers, which is as easy as talking to your non-farming family and neighbors.  Understand their needs and preferences by LISTENING, even if you don’t agree.  Ask for clarification or more information if you don’t understand or disagree. Talk to them about your needs and share your farm’s story (not just facts).  Finally, try to identify common values. 


Facts are important, but people are more inclined to trust facts once they trust you.  Remember that quite often we have more in common with others than we might realize.  We often want the same things, whether it is safe food, clean water, or healthy animals.  Listen, ask questions, and then highlight your common values.  Be patient and good luck!

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