Consumers are greeted with messages about how milk is produced when they shop, still most purchases are based on convenience, price and taste.
October 19, 2016

Radical Transparency: Consumers' Trust Must Be Earned

 |  By: Jim Dickrell

More was always thought to be better, but when information comes at you in gushing streams from TV, radio, desktops, laptops, smart phones and social media, it all becomes overwhelming.

The challenge becomes even greater when dairy marketers try to convey science-based information on the nutrition, health and safety of dairy products. For every science-based claim the industry makes, there’s another counter message put out by food and animal activists. This flood of “facts” creates confusion in the minds of media-dazed consumers.

“[The message] is not about science,” says Barb O’Brien, president of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. “It’s about emotion.”

O’Brien says convenience, price and taste are now being complemented by who grows the food, how the farmer takes care of his animals, how the food is packaged, the transparency of the label and good corporate citizenship.

“We have to be radically transparent, authentically transparent, about who we are, how we work and how we put food on their tables,” she says. 

New conversations on the horizon.

The Innovation Center has developed a new strategic plan, bringing together nearly 30 of the top dairy companies in the country to candidly discuss how they take dairy products from the cow to the consumer. The objective is to help all phases of the industry better understand changing consumer dynamics and provide ways to proactively respond to both challenges and opportunities in the marketplace. There are two strategic imperatives to reaching this objective:

  • Ensuring dairy relevance—is the industry meeting the needs of consumers globally?
  • Ensuring dairy responsibility—is the industry able to both articulate and prove that it is doing the right things? 

The key is getting all these CEOs in one room at the same time so they understand how consumer thinking has changed, who consumers trust and what they care about.

“The next phase, starting this fall, will be to work with each company to communicate with their customers and more fully explain dairy’s shared values,” O’Brien says. The messages will talk about farmers caring for their animals and land, about the speed at which dairy products move from the farm to shelf to ensure freshness, and about food safety.

“It’s not about mass advertising that farmers see on TV and it’s not a campaign,” explains O’Brien. “It’s going to take all of us across the industry acting as steward of the category. It will be a full-court press.”

Because of conflicting media messages, consumers don’t trust traditional voices of authority.

Rather, they increasingly rely on people they know and trust, “a person like me.” In consumer research conducted last fall by Edelman, a global communications marketing firm, 75% of consumers said they made a brand decision based on a conversation with a peer. And two out of three were using peer-influenced media as their top sources for news and information.

Having one-on-one, adult conversations with consumers is an important way to build trust, says David Ahlem, California dairyman, CEO of Hilmar Cheese Company and an Innovation Center board member. “We need to spend more time understanding consumers and building trust,” he says. “We spend too much time on economics and science, defending our perspective, but we don’t ask what they are concerned about.”

Hilmar Cheese’s Visitor Center, which opened nearly 20 years ago, now hosts about 50,000 visitors annually. About a third are school kids, but they are accompanied by teachers and parent chaperones. And it’s the adults who ask the tough questions—about animal care, the use of technology, food safety and environmental sustainability issues.

"We need to spend more time understanding consumers and building trust.”

“Ninety-nine percent plus leave our Visitor Center with a favorable image of us and our industry,” Ahlem says. “And we do nothing special; we just show them what we do.” Ahlem says the key is to speak in the right terms. “Consumers and millennials want to know we have an animal ethic that cares about animals,” he says. In many cases it’s that simple.

One-on-one conversations will be key going forward.

One-on-one conversations might not convert the vegan or the dubious, but it can go a long way in countering anti-dairy perceptions, adds Brad Scott, who serves on the Dairy Management, Inc. Board and dairies with his brother Bruce, and dad, Stan, near San Jacinto, California. Together, they milk 1,100 Holsteins and process sour cream, ice cream mix and self-serve frozen yogurt, in addition to bottling milk, at their creamery in Chino.

They annually host visitors on their farm, such as their creamery plant customers, school tours and Fuel  Up to Play 60 facilitators. Recently, they hosted students from a local community college.

“Two of the individuals from the group were really standoffish, weren’t reacting like the others or buying in to what I was telling them during the tour,” Scott says.

But visiting with the two later, he learned one was a vegan and the other had been very skeptical about dairies from things he had seen on the internet. The latter told Scott that the tour was nothing like he expected.

“You don’t have mounds of fertilizer surrounding the dairy, you have shades over your corrals and birthing areas, and I didn’t hear hundreds of cows bellowing,” the visitor said. “In fact, I didn’t hear a single cow during the entire tour.”

That tour and that one conversation was well worth the time, according to Scott. “Did I change dietary habits? No. But we changed perceptions,” he says. “When they go back and talk with their friends, they’ll say, ‘This is what I saw, and it’s nothing like I thought it would be.’”

While it’s impossible to host every skeptical consumer on a dairy tour, the power of social media allows it to be done virtually. Having authentic, virtual conversations about consumer concerns can turn skeptical buyers into reassured customers.