Blog | Building Consumer Trust Amid Consumer Skepticism
FoodThink Consumer Trust NAMA Ali Mahaffy Erika Chance

Building consumer trust is a major challenge facing much of today’s agricultural and food industry. Last week, Signal Theory Co-CEO Ali Mahaffy and Research and Insights Director Erika Chance took industry professionals through the problems impacting consumer trust and more important, how to fix them.

The webinar entitled “Four Steps to Address Consumer Skepticism and Build Trust” was hosted in partnership with the National Agri-Marketing Association (NAMA) – an association for professionals in marketing and agribusiness – and used our proprietary Signal Theory FoodThink research to highlight who and what is driving today’s lack of trust.

“Because the impact is on many, so is the responsibility to build trust.” – Ali Mahaffy, Signal Theory Co-CEO

Consumers’ lack of trust in food is a critical issue for the food industry to acknowledge. Rising health concerns and an increasing desire for food knowledge mean consumers are no longer happy being kept in the dark when it comes to where their food comes from. Coupled with the fact that the number of Americans using social media has more than tripled in the last decade, (81 percent now have a social media profile1), the journey to building consumer trust can quickly turn into an uphill struggle as stories and opinions are shared quicker and more frequently than ever before.

What does a lack of trust look like and exactly who is driving it?

1. Health Concerns

As Americans strive for healthier diets (70 percent say they’re trying to eat healthier than they have in the past2), it’s disappointing to learn that 42 percent of Americans believe food companies don’t make healthy food2. Brands’ reactions to this rise of health concerns have differed, as have the results, bringing with them recipe changes and brand repositionings of some of the biggest players on the world stage.

2. Millennial Consumers

Now the largest generation3 with a staggering $200 billion in purchasing power4 behind them, Millennials’ knowledge about food production is 11 percent higher than that of the average U.S. adult2. Add to that them being 49 percent more likely to go online to find out more about food brands5, and it’s safe to say that manufacturers need to be more transparent if they want to appease this knowledge-hungry group of 83 million people3.

3. Social Media and News Sensationalism

Urban legends about pink slime and mutated chickens are commonplace in social media newsfeeds, and their impact on consumer trust is not to be ignored – our research shows the majority of people have some type of reaction to these news stories. Scaremongering has preyed on rising health concerns and an overwhelming desire to consume these frightening stories (67 percent of consumers agreed that they hope the media continues to break stories about how food is actually produced2), which has forced food manufacturers to offer more than just a peek behind the curtain.

4. A Lack of Understanding About Food Production

An alarming two-thirds of consumers lack excellent or even good knowledge of food production2, and this has led to some interesting phenomena where people distrust things they don’t even fully understand. For example, 69 percent of consumers claim it’s important (either somewhat or extremely) for their food not to contain GMOs2, though many struggle to articulate why”. This lack of understanding, versus rising health concerns and a craving for more and more information, is further fuel to the lack-of-trust fire.

It’s not hard to see how America has wound up with only 51 percent of adults who trust the food industry to produce safe food5.

The solution lies within an open book

Commenting on a recent Escherichia coli outbreak affecting fresh produce, Ali Mahaffy offers the perspective that the responsibility of building trust with consumers does not belong to just one part of the industry:

“Beyond the retailer and the producer, who else has a stake in consumer trust and stands to lose out if trust is lost? The processor, the processing equipment manufacturer, the harvesting equipment manufacturer, other leafy greens, others in produce? Because the impact is on many, so is the responsibility to build trust.”

Signal Theory’s advice on how marketers can play their part in this is to make a PACT with consumers. A PACT that starts and ends with your brand values: understanding them, authentically living them, never wavering from them and clearly communicating them. Or, more coherently put – demonstrating Purpose, Authenticity, Consistency and Transparency.

In time, being confident and forthright in the ‘why’ behind your brand and and willing to share some of the magic behind the scenes, can build consumer trust in food.

Signal Theory’s portfolio of food and agricultural clients is home to many live examples of brands that are benefiting from this approach. In last Thursday’s webinar, Ali drew on case studies from clients including Cargill, Hemme Brothers and Shatto Milk Company to demonstrate how the PACT approach can begin to create a connection with consumers that lives far beyond the transactional.

Signal Theory’s FoodThink research is here to help food brands stay informed, educated and prepared to behave the way their industry and consumers need them to. It is a tool that has led us to remarkable work for remarkable clients, and building consumer trust is one of many proverbial hot topics that it can shed light on.

Are there other issues facing the food industry that are impacting your business? We can help. Visit to get regular updates from Signal Theory FoodThink, to talk to us about taking a PACT approach to building consumer trust or to download our library of white papers.

Statista 2017.
Signal Theory FoodThink 2016.
US Census Report, 2016.
Forbes, 2017.
Signal Theory FoodThink 2014.

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