Food production + Sustainability

RESEARCH STRATEGY GROUP has developed considerable expertise in giving clients clear, actionable, and powerful strategic insights to guide the development and launch of successful consumer sustainability campaigns.

Creating and enhancing perceptions of sustainability in the food production industry is particularly challenging. Food production has environmental impacts in so many areas from growing and producing the food, processing and packaging, and distribution and disposal of associated waste. Organizations need to focus their efforts in areas when they can reasonably improve sustainability and persuade consumers that they are doing so. Changing consumers’ perceptions requires a deep understanding of how they currently feel to determine which messaging will be optimal.

Recently a national marketing board for food producers worked with RESEARCH STRATEGY GROUP to better understand consumer perceptions of their industry related to sustainability and set the foundation for creating credible sustainability partnerships and initiatives.

The exploratory qualitative research program was focused on consumers in key segments of interest. The program was national in scope and involved the creation and management of a 7-day community of 100 recruited participants. RESEARCH STRATEGY GROUP moderators managed the panel to guide participants through several areas of discussion and questioning. Further in-depth interviews were conducted with a subset of community participants. The approach to the research was ethnographic in nature, focused on observation and questioning to reveal the underlying beliefs and attitudes of consumers. The ethnographic focus was complemented using a behavioural science lens and interpretation to understand cognitive biases. Video was used in part to preserve a visual record of research interactions.

The objectives of the research related to three key areas:

  1. Outlining the current state of attitudes and perceptions related to sustainability and the events/forces that shaped them
  2. Identifying which of these perceptions can be leveraged to create positive sentiment
  3. Mapping the unconscious motivators of action, and that influence perceptions of sustainability

The guided community discussions and in-depth interviews unearthed a rich body of learning. Our client benefited from comprehensive new learning about how target consumers feel about the issue of sustainability and the beliefs and motivations that inform their behaviour and perceptions.

It was quite evident in discussions that the target audience was feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the complexity of the issue.  They want to hear about broad solutions that give them hope that the situation will improve in the future. For them, sustainability means anything to do with reducing use of resources  and reducing waste associated with production. In terms of food production, they hope to see reductions of waste in production and packaging, and continued growth of buying local, when possible, to lower environmental harm associated with long distance transportation. In effect, consumers still use the concept of “reduce, re-use, recycle” to judge whether a company’s sustainable initiatives are and effective.

The larger cultural context for these perceptions and beliefs was also derived from the group and in-depth individual discussions.  It was clear that target consumers understand the world is an increasingly vulnerable place, that climate change is happening, and is a direct result of our actions. The pandemic has further brought these issues to the fore, providing ample proof of the fragility of our systems. It was clear that consumers felt that individual action was critical in arresting harmful trends and working towards a more sustainable future. Organizations are expected to provide support and leadership inspiration in these efforts to make change real and sustained.

While the target consumers see positive changes as possible, they often experience anxiety and a sense of loss of control about environmental issues. To alleviate their anxiety, they will often take small steps that lessen the worry, though the larger anxiety about the environment and the health of the planet persists. A key motivator for an action among consumers relates to the notion of reciprocity. People feel they should be in a better two-way relationship with the environment, giving back more to balance what they take. If everyone starts to give back more, real progress can be made through collective action. Small businesses focusing on local sustainable practices are seen as embodiments of this notion. Target consumers feel that supporting such businesses is an important concrete step they can make to help.

People feel that brands and organizations can only be seen as authentic in this space if they genuinely are trying to succeed in the long term. First, efforts must be sustained over time and not be one off actions. These efforts must reinforce trust and credibility in ways meaningful to consumers. If brands and organizations are to be seen as leaders and inspirational, they must reinforce the notion of integrity in action. Target consumers stressed that when a brand or organization partners with another to promote sustainable practices, the partner should also embody all the elements of brand authenticity or the partnership will not work in consumer minds. Consumers felt confident that the client organization could play a positive role in promoting sustainability and in promoting animal welfare.

The client was able to integrate the deep learning from our research into subsequent research efforts designed to further develop and refine sustainability partnership elements. From the consumer discussions we undertook, several critical creative considerations were derived to assist in the creation of impactful and positive partnerships – ensuring concrete action aligned with consumer messaging that will effectively engage the target audience.

We would love to talk with you about your sustainability challenges. Please get in touch with us!

Jim Peterson, Managing Director  jimpeterson@rsginc.net

Amy Knowles, Senior Vice President  amyknowles@rsginc.net