The Consumer is Dead. Long Live the Consumer!



“It’s what the consumer demands.”

Whether it be new products on store shelves, changes to government regulation, or new on-farm protocols, this has become the trumping selling point for whatever it is that needs selling.

“The Consumer” is demanding oversight.

“The Consumer” wants a more sustainable product.

“The customer (read: consumer)” is always right.

But is “The Consumer” actually that demanding, or is too much focus being put on what a certain consumer wants, and everyone else is getting lumped in with them?

It is a question that has been simmering in the back of my mind for sometime, and came to the forefront when I recently heard professor John Cranfield speak at a meeting in Toronto on just who this consumer is.

Cranfield is at the University of Guelph, and is chair of the University of Guelph’s Department of Food, Agricultural & Resource Economics. What a consumer thinks and why they buy what they buy is a burning question he is passionate on trying to figure out.

One of the comments he made talked about the idea that “The Consumer” actually doesn’t exist anymore.

“The consumer is a figure in the post-war era of the 1950s to 70s and could largely be attributed to a middle-class working family. That has changed quite a bit, partly because some segments of the population are more interested in food,” he notes.

You have the ones that are seeking products they believe provide health and nutrition benefits. Think a paleo diet or gluten-free.

You have others who are buying products based on their moral compass. That can include everything from local food to meat raised in what they deem to be welfare-centric environments.

In the research Cranfield sees, however, you still have a group of consumers — usually the majority — that are largely focused on value.

“You have a large group that are price focused who don’t want the bells and whistles. Then what you are seeing and what you will continue to see is many smaller consumer segments, each with different wants and needs.”

In my mind, some of those smaller segments are forming based on important needs, while others are forming based on misinformation and a misunderstanding of what it takes to grow food and raise livestock.

It is why social media is a bit of a double-edge sword. It can provide a great opportunity for farmers to share their stories with consumers, but it provides that same sounding board for those trying to make some money selling off cleanses and causes.

“Part of the issue for farmers figuring out who some of these smaller consumer segments are, is the fact that there are consumers that are listening to people like the Food Babe, even if the Food Babe is dead wrong,” according to Cranfield. “The good news is that there are always people emerging that are giving sobering and fact based information.”

Cranfield references great voices like the Science Babe, Yvonne d’Entremont, and Dr. Joe Schwarcz as good examples of people with great knowledge and expertise that are challenging what they see as fallacies & myths that are getting propagated by people who don’t actually understand food production at all.

It doesn’t mean that these consumer segments are going away, though. They certainly aren’t going anywhere if misinformation continues to drive new products, labels and marketing tactics.

To take it one step further, it’s important to look beyond the now and try and predict where these trends will take us. What will a consumer look like in 10 years?

“I would hope more dialogue will emerge as the consumer starts to think more critically about the information they see and hear,” says Cranfield

But he notes we will continue to see more small segments of consumers, each demanding different attributes around health, functional food, and their personal beliefs in socially responsible eating. That will include segments like local, organic, humanely-raised animals and may even expand to include how on-farm labour is managed.

“We are starting to already see working conditions emerge as an issue in California. I’m not saying that it is because of poor conditions, but merely the perception of conditions to a consumer, even if workers are paid well, receive benefits and treated fairly. A consumer may have an expectation of something way beyond what any employer could ever do.”

Sounds similar to the conversations about some ways animals are raised and crops are produced.

In the end, I do hope that more sensible judgment will come to the table when we talk about what a consumer wants and needs, but that will only happen if people continue to step up to the table – including farmers – ready to open their farm gates and show what it does take to produce food today.

We need to build a bridge between modern agriculture and modern consumers – rather than the fence that others are trying to put between us.

And in the meantime, we need to watch when people tell us “The Consumer” is demanding something.

A consumer might be, but they might also just be the loudest one.

The next consumer likely wants something different.


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