TV reporter.
July 25, 2019

Why You Should Care About Consumers

 |  By: Dairy Talk

What we have here, folks, is a failure to communicate. Consumers, who are three or four or more generations removed from farms, are clueless when it comes to producing the food they all profess to care and “know” so much about. The same can be said for farmers, who have little or no idea what living in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles or Minneapolis or New York City is really like.  

To bridge this gap, the American Dairy Association of the Midwest, has now done two annual forums to help farmers better understand urban consumers. This year, Dairy Experience Forum held in St. Paul, Minn., featured a panel of Gen Z consumers. (More on the panel later.)

Immediately following the panel, Forum attendees were herded into break-out sessions where they were to discuss what they had just heard and learned. The first question asked in the break-out session: How often do you think about consumers?

A dairy farmer, seated at my table, raised his hand first. He said he and his management team think about consumers almost daily. Each morning, they have a brief meeting to discuss the day ahead. And almost every day, they discuss issues important to both consumers and farmers: Animal handling, health/treatment protocols, cow comfort and care.

Earlier this summer, he reported, a livestock hauler arrived at the dairy to pick-up cull cows. As the hauler climbed out of his pick-up, he reached behind the seat for a hot-shot prod. The farmer’s daughter, who is the dairy’s herdsperson, stopped the livestock hauler in his tracks. Her message: “We don’t use hot shots on this dairy, and anyone who does will not step foot on this farm again.”

Another dairy farmer in the breakout session spoke next. His take on consumers was entirely different. He said he rarely if ever thinks about consumers. He’s simply too busy trying to make ends meet to worry what consumers think about, what they buy and why they buy it.

He also opined that programs like National FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) are a waste of time, energy and resources. FARM, he charged, wasn’t protecting operations from animal rights groups’ undercover videos such as a recent incident at Fair Oaks Farms.

Now, back to the Gen Z panel. The eight young consumers were recent high school graduates and starting college or thinking about more schooling. These young adults are still forming their consumer characters, but they certainly are social media conscious and highly aware (fearful) of peer pressure.

Because they are working at entry retail or service jobs or going to school, their funds are limited. Yet they are aware of brands, brand halos of sustainability or social responsibility and what brands their peers favor. They also use social media constantly, but do so mostly (only?) within their tight network of friends. They fact check stories and posts they view as suspect, but don’t seem to have go-to, trusted third-party sources other than their friends.

Most of the panel members like dairy products, especially ice cream. A shock to me and many at The Forum: Dairy’s health message has yet to penetrate this group. One young man even suggested it might be a good idea to promote dairy’s health benefits. Though one young woman says how farmers treat animals is important to her, the Fair Oaks video was not mentioned.

My sense was that these young people are still trying to figure who they are as they grow into adults. They are open to new ideas and brands and products. But you cross them at your peril. One young black lady said she will never again buy a brand involved in a “black face” fashion incident.

In other words, one blatant, offensive incident can turn off a consumer forever. So what you do on your dairy does matter. Ethics isn’t about what you do when people are watching. It’s what you do when people aren’t watching. You see, in this digital age, you never really know when they are.