With contributions from
In the latest FoodThink research study, 70% of consumers said they trust their friends and family more than any other source, specifically for information about how their food is produced.1 Friends and family have always topped the billing, taking the top spot in FoodThink studies since 2012,2 but what does “friends and family” really represent these days? What is an accurate definition of “word of mouth?” And how should it be factored into food marketing?
The experts at Signal Theory have some advice for food brands about how to navigate the landscape of trust that word of mouth so clearly dominates.
The Definition of Word of Mouth Is Not What it Once Was
We can no longer take the concept of friends and family at face value. When three out of every 10 people in the entire world are monthly users of Facebook alone,3 word of mouth becomes much more than just the words from the mouths you know. The definition of word of mouth has become much broader, as have the communities we spend our time among. “Social has expanded the concept of word of mouth to online communities. Most of what we look for when we research something starts on some sort of social platform and builds from there,” explains Signal Theory Content Strategist Chase Fortune.
Having said that, brands recognize that the traditional concept of family resonates with their audiences. “Our social circles have evolved into digital ones. People make references to their online groups as families in their own right. Even already-credible experts in their fields are seen as more credible once they align themselves with “moms,” for example. Ironically, being a scientist isn’t always enough,” says Media Manager Kelly Birch.
“Even already-credible experts in their fields are seen as more credible once they align themselves with “moms,” for example. Ironically, being a scientist isn’t always enough.”
How to Leverage Consumers’ Trust in Friends and Family in Food Marketing (with Some Cautions)
Although consumers trust friends and family more than they trust brands themselves, brands can lean on specific tactics to equip them with accurate information.
Whether you’re looking to use celebrity endorsers, social media stars or micro-bloggers as part of your marketing strategy, consider these factors to help choose the right influencer for your brand.
There is more to selecting social influencers than evaluating follower numbers alone. It’s important to monitor how quickly they’re acquiring those followers to help decide whether you’re engaging them at the right time. But Chase Fortune advises that even above that, brands should consider quality over quantity. “While audience size is important to maximizing reach, influencers who have a smaller audience but high levels of engagement are likely to return a higher ROI,” Fortune says.
In order for a partnership to come across as authentic, content from both parties needs to work well together. To some brands, that might mean that visuals and voice are complementary (though not necessarily similar). To others, the subject matter will take precedence. Whatever “working well together” means to you, make sure you can see your brand content fitting in with theirs. If it seems like a stretch, their audience will pick up on that and cast doubt on the partnership’s authenticity.
It’s also important to study how an influencer’s audience generally interacts with their content. Are they positive brand ambassadors themselves? Or are they likely to stir up trouble?
Do you believe your influencer might continue to support your brand and use your product after they’ve stopped being paid? Of course, this is not something you can enforce but if the alignment feels genuine, then you’ll be off to a strong start. “If it rings true that they are genuinely aligned with your brand and will continue to support it afterward, that’s the best sense of a good partnership,” says Birch.
It’s important to understand what brands your potential influencer is currently associated with as well as the brands they’ve worked with in the past. This research could uncover potential conflicts of interest or lead to additional questions regarding the influencer’s authenticity that you’d want to address before entering into a contractual agreement. Though exclusivity might be too much to expect, if there are other relationships that make you question the influencer’s authenticity, you may want to rethink whether or not they are the right choice.
E. Exit Strategy
Sometimes, unfortunately, it may be necessary to cut ties with an influencer. As presumptuous as it may seem, it’s important to have an exit strategy so your brand can remove its connection to an influencer if the worst were to happen and their endorsement of your brand was no longer something that aligns with your brand’s mission, vision or standards.
F. The Golden Rule of working with influencers: Be comfortable relinquishing some control.
“If you have too much at risk and you’re uncomfortable letting go of control, then you shouldn’t do it.”
Influencers are a great vehicle for communicating real opinions and experiences of your products. But they need to be just that: real. If you are too prescriptive about what influencers must say and how they say it, you’ll lose out on authenticity and their social clout.
You should, however, educate them about your products so they can present them fairly. But, if you are in any way concerned that your processes could be misrepresented, or that an inside look into how your products are made could open you up to negative opinion, you must be prepared to back those things up. Communications Strategy Director Penny Hurd warns “If you have too much at risk and you’re uncomfortable letting go of control, then you shouldn’t do it.”
Understanding what the community is saying about your brand and those of competitors can improve your perspective on things like product perception, consumer usage, and needs and trends that you can impact.
“[It can feel intrusive when] suddenly the brand appears at the first mention of their name.”
What is just as important as social listening is being strategic about when to join the conversation and when not to. Media Manager Madeline Harris warns against giving in to the temptation to join just any conversation about your brand online saying “It’s important to know when not to insert yourself. It can feel intrusive when people are having a conversation among themselves and suddenly the brand appears at the first mention of their name.”
“It’s a fine line,” Fortune adds. “You need to know when it’s relevant to join a conversation versus coming across as inauthentic. That’s when your brand voice guidelines come into play.”
However, brands that insert themselves into conversations purposefully can create strong connections with their consumers. Though not food-related, clothing company ASOS recently demonstrated a great example of this. When a young lady was mocked for her choice of outfit by a potential online dating match, she took to Twitter to out her mocker. Watching from the wings, ASOS reached out in support and featured the woman and her picture in the dress’s online listing.
Product reviews can be a form of social listening in themselves. Knowing that one- quarter of consumers use product reviews from other users as a source of food production information,1 it is wise to take note of themes that appear in your reviews.
Brands hoping to generate reviews can participate in retailer and third-party programs that guarantee a designated review volume. They can’t, however, dictate the content of the reviews.
But this lack of control should be seen as a good thing for all.
Additional control, such as incentivizing for positive reviews, may be a violation of Federal Trading Commission rules and can carry hefty penalties. For good reason – besides the ethical implications, consumers will recognize the inauthenticity, leaving you with a damaged perception of transparency as well as questions about your real competency.
In short – don’t use incentivized reviews. Your brand is worth more.
Don’t Assume Less Trust Means No Responsibility for Food Marketers
It’s true that when it comes to trustworthy food production info, consumers trust friends and family more than food companies and manufacturers.1 But this doesn’t mean that brands don’t have a responsibility to ensure accurate information is being shared. Brands are still the owners of the truth, which is sometimes the opposite of the false realities that word of mouth creates. Birch expands on this, saying “Sometimes the messaging that’s shared between consumers creates realities that are not rooted in fact. Discussions between consumers may not be as accurate, safe or informative as the truth.”
Because the power of word of mouth sometimes conflicts with the truth, a brand looking to change perceptions around food production should consider a longer-term strategic plan rather than a stand-alone campaign. “ If you’re putting out something that requires a shift in the way consumers think, a 3- to 4-month window isn’t enough. It needs to be a part of the brand strategy altogether – that’s a 2- to 3-year plan,” advises Account Supervisor Kate Tucker.
Know the Differences Between Community Management and Customer Service
Whether your community management is completed by your agency partner or in-house, it’s important to identify the line where community management ends and customer service starts. Sometimes it will be blurry. But for your consumers to receive the most accurate information possible, it’s imperative you make that distinction. “Customer service and crisis management require a totally different knowledge base than day-to-day community management,” says Account Manager Paul Rainer.
If your food marketing agency partner is as invested in your brand as you are, then the community management you get from them should be high-quality. A well-established brand voice will make the process feel organic and will help you carefully decide when to engage in the conversation. But there’s only so much an agency-based community manager will be able to answer before needing to defer to the true brand experts. Of course, issues will differ based on the specific situation and the types of foods you produce, but delicate content may need escalation beyond your marketing and consumer care teams.
Signal Theory encourages brands not only to take a vested interest in its community but also to take responsibility for interacting with it. If you don’t want to, or can’t keep a pulse on community management in house, Harris suggests you “seriously think about how you can educate your agency partner so they can handle those really delicate issues.” Your community manager is the only person who will communicate directly with your audience 24/7, so consider where it benefits you most to have them sit – in house, or in your agency.
Is Word of Mouth a Blessing or a Curse in Food Marketing? More Like a Necessary Evil.
Maybe once upon a time – before the first iPhone was released and when Facebook was still restricted to college students – it wasn’t necessary to invest so much thought into word of mouth. But as our world has become a much smaller place, the word of mouth definition has changed, as has brands’ vulnerability and their need to be transparent.
While brands can’t afford to ignore word of mouth, they also shouldn’t fear it. Instead, let it remind us about the importance of purpose, authenticity, competency and transparency– without which a brand will not be trusted.
The silver lining? The high-speed availability of massive amounts of information presents opportunities to supply consumers with the truth by leveraging those that they do trust. Yes, it’s a shame that they look first to somewhat unqualified people, but brands that identify their place in the chain of communication can use digital word of mouth to their advantage.
For more insight into consumer trust in food, including the roles of purpose, authenticity competency and transparency, download the free white paper “Trust in Food: Creating Trust in an Era of Skepticism.”
- FoodThink from Signal Theory, 2018
- FoodThink from Signal Theory, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018
- Facebook, Internet world stats March 2019/ Statista May 2019