Ag's go-to messages not resonating

Published on: Oct 21, 2011

COMMUNICATION can be complex. Consider how a message can be presented in what seems like a clear, well-stated way, yet it can be heard and interpreted much differently than intended.

Case in point: A new poll found that what farmers and ranchers say is not resonating with consumers. In fact, agriculture's standard "go-to" messages aren't providing peace of mind for consumer audiences, and fighting emotion with science and facts has not moved the needle.

Keith Yazmir of Maslansky Luntz & Partners recently presented to a group at Charleston/Orwig his firm's research on the messages agriculture utilizes to communicate with consumers about food production and agricultural practices. The research was funded by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance and provides insight into the messages agriculture uses and what consumers are actually hearing.

Using the same research methodology employed in political debates to track changes in agreement or disagreement with an idea or statement, the reactions of influencers in the food industry were tracked as a farmer discussed current farming methods, phrases or ideas. The Instant Response Research uncovered emotional reactions to messaging in real time.

Participants included chefs, restaurant owners, food bloggers and food writers, among other food industry influencers.

Among the poll's key findings were:

* There is trust in farmers but lots of questions about farming. Yazmir said Americans question the practices used in farming and ranching. The negative words used to describe modern farming practices included: mass production, pesticides, big business, subsidies, chemicals, factory farming and animal cruelty.

* Consumers want wholesomeness, but romanticization of farming isn't the answer. Many campaigns try to attach the wholesomeness of the farmer directly to the food, but consumers separate products from producers. The conversation about food is very emotionally charged, and consumers, seeing beyond the romance, fear unknown farming methods and their potential long-term health impacts.

* Current messages aren't resonating. The polling exercise concluded that what the farmer is saying is completely different from what the consumer hears. The Table outlines some of the common phrases that are used to describe production agriculture today and what the consumer "hears" when the message is presented.

The bottom line, Yazmir said, is that agriculture's go-to messages aren't providing peace of mind for consumer audiences.

One common message farmers use is that agriculture delivers a "safe, affordable, abundant food supply." Yazmir said the testing exercise found that this message was outdated and did not resonate with consumers because the U.S. has had an abundant, inexpensive food supply for quite some time. He added that the "silver spoon" mentality of the U.S. consumer is a result of never being concerned about having a safe food supply available.

Rather than talking about food being safe and affordable, the conversation should focus on food's long-term impact on health, he said.

* The worst thing agriculture can do is answer a question no one is asking. The questions consumers are asking are not the same ones agriculture is answering, Yazmir said. As an industry, agriculture needs to find where the two conversations intersect and begin answering the right questions. Otherwise, he said, the disconnect will continue.

* Future-focused conversation topics tested positively. Poll participants strongly agreed with messages related to continual improvement to reduce the environmental impact and more open dialogue regarding the future of production agriculture.

An interesting discussion point that came up was how virtually every other industry has a license to talk about modernizing their product, but in agriculture, consumers want the wholesome, old-fashioned food that was on their grandparents' tables.

While agriculture has modernized, the language used in its messaging makes consumers uncomfortable with the modern practices that have been implemented. Yazmir advised not going into a lot of detail about current practices when talking to consumers as it may generate more concern than necessary.

* Bad actors must be punished. Farmers must recognize wrongdoing and stand firmly against it. Condemning those who misuse technology or mistreat animals sets the broader agricultural community apart from the bad actors and builds credibility. By saying, "Here's what we won't accept," agriculture begins to create higher standards within the industry.

* Common interests exist between farmers and consumers. There are topics about which both consumers and the farming community care deeply, and these areas should be a main focus, Yazmir said. While the motivation behind their interest may be different, the end result will offer benefits to both groups, he noted.

For example, with reducing the use of pesticides, the farmer is motivated by lower input costs, and the consumer is motivated by reducing potential health dangers. Also, a farmer is motivated to take better care of animals and land because it protects the farmer's greatest financial investment, while consumers believe it is simply the right thing to do.

Yazmir explained, "It's not personal; it's business."

While farmers are passionate about their farms and the tools they use to be successful, he said they need to remember that messaging related to farming and food production should focus on educating and appealing to the mother who is purchasing food for her family, ensuring that she is comfortable with how the food is produced.

Common phrases used to describe production agriculture today versus what the consumer hears when the message is presented

Farmer says:

Consumer hears:

Our methods are proven and safe.

Your methods tamper with nature.

We keep food affordable ...

... but at what expense to quality?

Most farms are family run ...

... but beholden to big processors.

We care about our land and animals.

You will take shortcuts to be profitable.

We need to produce more to feed the world.

You want to produce more to sell to the world.

We need a secure food supply.

You want subsidies.

We have the safest food supply in the world.

Pesticides, antibiotics and hormones may not be safe in the long run.


Here's our point

AS hard as it is to be told that what you are doing isn't working as well as it could, that feedback can be invaluable and essential when it comes to how farmers and ranchers communicate with consumers about agriculture and where food comes from.

If there are better ways to have the conversation, then let's find them. If there are better conversation topics to focus on, let's do that too.

Most of all, whether it's a pat on the back or a suggestion to do things a little differently because consumers aren't relating, feedback is a good thing and should be embraced with enthusiasm rather than resistance. Honestly, agriculture has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

For more information on consumer messaging and similar topics, visit

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