A global food producer confronts sustainability

Holstein cows in the pasture

Our Client: A publicly traded global food producer has produced high quality protein food products for generations.  The company, a household brand name, was confronting a rapid change in consumer attitudes for the entire protein category.

Business reality

The company was always conscious of the environmental impacts from its operations and endeavoured to operate with integrity and an environmental conscience.  Attitudes began to change, and consumers, stakeholders and communities became more outspoken about their environmental expectations for food producers.

The company had made dramatic improvements in their sustainability practices but were at a crossroads on how to communicate these efforts.  How should they speak to the market?

  • With all the media and stakeholder noise on this topic – what are existing and potential consumers REALLY concerned about?
  • What new messages would grow acceptance of their products?
  • What would it take to change the behavior of potential customers who had migrated to alternatives branded as “sustainable”
  • Could their brands take a leadership position in the category? Would consumers believe it?

All without alienating a loyal customer base that embraced the heritage of the company.   

The engagement

RESEARCH STRATEGY GROUP proposed a two-phase approach for the client.

The first phase would consist of an in-home applied ethnography study. This phase would reveal the breadth of consumer attitudes around shopping, meal preparation, ingredients and environmental and sustainability considerations.

The second phase would be a quantitative study that would identify the specific attitude and motivational triggers that the client should incorporate and deploy in their corporate and brand communications.  This study would also identity territories of irrelevant or de-motivating communications. Specific messages tailored for specific demographics would also be in scope.

Our work

Phase I

The RESEARCH STRATEGY GROUP engagement began with an in-home applied ethnography study. Our approach integrates behavioural science to identify opportunities to influence behaviour change to ultimately drive product/service adoption and usage, target new market audiences and understand the evolving needs and context of existing audiences.

Fieldwork was conducted across 4 regional markets in late 2018.  We engaged with 21 households.

By interviewing consumers in their home and where they shopped, we identified both how and when consumers think about sustainability when choosing ingredients and preparing meals.  Following real subjects in shopping environments, we observed the purchase motivations that informed the challenges and opportunities in developing messaging around greenhouse emissions specifically related to the protein industry.

The output of this phase was a set of corporate messages and on-pack claims (and logos) that were underpinned by the behavioural science learning. These claims were to be then incorporated into phase two of the research.

Phase II

The objective of the quantitative phase was to provide specific guidance on the most effective messages to be used for both consumer communications and claims made on product packaging.

Messages and claims developed from the qualitative phase were tested in our proprietary MessageModel approach. By measuring respondent willingness to trade-off various message components against each other, we determine the impact of each communication element and propose the optimal messaging strategy. At the analysis stage, we develop a model that allows clients to measure the impact of various messaging components and their combinations, analyzing different configurations to maximize the impact to a market or a specific audience.

Messages and claims developed from the qualitative phase were tested in our proprietary MessageModel approach. 2,055 respondents distributed across 2 cells:

cell 1 determined the most effective corporate messaging to enhance the company’s brand reputation.

cell 2 determined the most effective on-pack claims to fuel growth for the company’s products in specific regions.

The learning

The MessageModel exercise provided some remarkable insight.

Our client was provided direction on messages that would be have a halo effect by leveraging an emotional saliency theme.

While the environment is a global issue, messaging should reference to regional or in-country initiatives where possible. Consumers feel a more tangible connection to their region and aligning environmental efforts to those needs resonates more effectively.

Company communications should link company environmental initiatives with nutritious foods that nourish families. By linking environmental initiatives with the company’s ability to provide wholesome food for families then consumers are able to see a real immediate benefit.

In addition, our work identified messages that had a negative utility. While those messages had some affinity with the client, our research demonstrated that consumers were motivated by clear and uncomplicated messages. While technical terminology can be deployed in some specific stakeholders communications, it had a negative effect on consumers in this case.

The findings of these studies were adopted by the executive team. Working with their creative agencies the content was instrumental in the company’s new corporate and product branding communications. Several quarters after this launch – the company’s top line revenue grew over 10%.


About methodologies used:

Applied Ethnography

Behavioural Science