Help Consumers With Their Problems, Before They Become Yours

Owen RobertsVenture capitalist Dave McClure made his mark in the branding world when he noted customers don’t care about your solutions, they care about their problems.

Reflecting back then on the year that’s passing, as well as thinking towards the one ahead, it made me wonder if McClure’s approach might work for the agri-food sector, too, which continues to struggle at home with perception and outside pressure.

A key to this approach is for farmers to accept the premise that consumers (Canadian consumers, for the sake of this discussion) are their customers.

I think they are, but I know it’s a debatable notion among some producers, who think the next person in the value chain – such as the person who directly buys their crops and livestock — is their customer.

It’s certainly important to care about your business colleagues’ problems. Imperative, in fact.

But ultimately, consumers buy or use what farmers produce, regardless of how many others add value or intervene. And as taxpayers and citizens, they also can influence the very way producers farm. To me, a strong case can be made for putting consumers near the top of the list of farmers’ customers.

So then, what are their problems?

I’d start that discussion by considering what is not a problem for consumers when it comes to food. And the first thing that comes to mind is supply, at least in terms of volume.

Canadian consumers have lots of food. Globally, that’s not the case, but for the most part, there is ample food available in Canada if you can afford to buy it.

That means well-intentioned statements proclaiming Canadian farmers produce an abundance of food – which is a pretty popular thing for farmers to say, especially around the holidays, when we eat in abundance — is not addressing one of consumers’ big problems.

So then how about affordability?

Well, it’s insensitive to broadly label food affordable in Canada, given the number of people who use food banks. But it’s not solely the cost of food that makes people use food banks, it’s the cost of everything, the cost of living in our modern world. And compared to many other countries, food in Canada is relatively affordable. There is certainly significant competition among grocery stores that keep prices in check.

Once again, then, if the price of food is not a burning issue with Canadians, saying you’re working hard to keep costs low is admirable but not addressing what they perceive is a problem.

Still further down the list is food safety. Some people think it’s a problem, but common sense tells you it’s not. Everything is relative, but given the amount of food we consume compared to safety problems with it, we’re doing fine. Indeed, bouts of food poisoning occur, and they can be nasty. But people who trot out statistics that suggest food is unsafe seldom present them in relation to the numbers of meals consumed. Overall, food is very safe, and people work hard to keep it that way.

But consumers do have some problems, though…at least two that I can think of. And farmers could help with both of them.

The first is food waste.  You may have read an earlier commentary I wrote for Real Agriculture that food waste has become a $31-billion a year problem. Up to 40 per cent of all food is wasted – that’s 40 per cent of what you grow and 40 per cent of what consumers buy.

How wholesome the agri-food community would seem if it launched a campaign to help consumers with this problem! Explaining the many ways to reduce food waste at home is not complicated. Just point out where waste occurs, then explain ways to reduce it.

The second problem consumers have is confusion.

Consumers have a high regard for farmers, but I sense they’re starting to lose a bit of faith. They’re inundated with activists telling them farms have become soulless, toxic-spewing corporations, that livestock are constantly abused on farm and that the only food that can be trusted is organic fare from farmers’ markets (or A&W).

Me, I don’t have any problem with organic fare from farmers’ markets. I don’t eat it much, but if someone wants to farm organically, so what?

I do, though, have a problem with activists feeding lies about agriculture to consumers. And I believe farmers’ could help people with this particular problem, because farmers know the truth. Explaining the truth is seldom complicated; you don’t have to try to remember what you said.

That doesn’t mean the communication process is easy, given the well-oiled anti-agriculture machine that’s working non-stop to tell its story.

But toeing the line is not an option. We’ve seen very recent and alarming evidence in Ontario that society and farming are falling out of step. And that’s a problem for both.

It’s time to reflect on what happened in 2014, and take measures to fix it in the New Year. Agriculture can help people with their problems, and needs a new approach to keep consumers’ faith.

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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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2 Comments

Terry James

Some good points raised here. And yes, we need to explain to consumers what we do, and why we do it, in a respectful manner. We also need to listen to them and try to answer their concerns. But I’m not sure we are in a position to tell consumers not to waste food. I think that is a role best left to other groups. Personally I think that waste occurs because food is cheap. In a society where obesity is a far greater problem that hunger, a little food waste might be a good thing.

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Owen Roberts

Thanks for the feedback, Terry. The research I’ve read shows food waste most often occurs because people don’t know how to prepare it, but certainly inexpensiveness must be a factor.
Is there anything farmers can do to help stem the obesity problem? It’s certainly one of consumers’ problems, one that I should have mentioned!

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