Selling Local? Consumers Need to See Your Face

Photo by Jared Sych

owenAs farmers continue to look for ways to capitalize on the local food movement, some new hints were offered up earlier this week from researchers at the University of Florida.

In the southeastern U.S., Florida is considered the state with the greatest diversity of what most people would typically call local food, particularly fruit and vegetables. Diversity-wise, Ontario weighs in as the most comparable Canadian province, topping this country in agri-food production diversity and processing.

So when University of Florida researchers Tracy Irani and Joy Goodwin presented their research findings on local food in Florida at the annual meeting of the Association for Communications Excellence, in Indianapolis, my ears perked up.

And I’m glad they did. Their report was revealing, beginning with the issue of trust.

Local food grew in popularity in part because consumers didn’t trust food they believed was mass produced like other commodities by corporate America. Yet the researchers found consumers said they actually like the checks and balances that exist for large-scale agriculture, including processing.

“Consumers want to trust small producers, but quality control is a question,” Irani said.

However, they still don’t really trust big producers. So Irani suggests focusing on relationship building with consumers. Let them know you’re the face behind all food production, big or small, and that you care about their food. People may not trust whatever production or inspection system that’s in place, but ultimately, they do trust farmers.

And one way or another, she said, local food must toe the line when it comes to the overall traits consumers want — that being quality, convenience and price.

When it comes to price, she urges transparency. Consumers may shell-out more for local food if farmers can adequately explain why it typically costs more to produce.

That kind of communication is part of a branding exercise, which she urges local-food farmers to pursue. There’s a saying in marketing (and journalism): show, don’t tell.

In other words, don’t just tell consumers they should buy local, show them who they’re buying from. Put your photo on packaging and make it part of your branding. Consumers care about that as much as they care about where it came from.


Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy


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