Connecting with Consumers on Farm Animal Welfare

When controversial agricultural issues hit the public spotlight, there is a natural tendency by the industry to rush to “tell” and “educate” the consumer to get them to the right conclusion.

One step in the process that should never be overlooked is to stop and listen first, says Theresa Dietrich, a consultant specializing in consumer research.

To truly connect you need to truly understand,” says Dietrich. “We need to know who we are dealing with and what their perceptions and concerns are in order to know what strategies will be effective incresponding to or influencing them.”

If you’re just talking and not really listening, you’re likely to do more harm than good, she says. “You might as well be talking to yourself or not at all.”

Insights from research

So what is really understood about today’s consumer mindset? Dietrich has pursued a number of consumer studies, including focus-group style exercises, which provide some insight.

For typical meat eating, urban consumers, there are several issues that come to mind when they think about issues surrounding farm animal care, she says. Top of the list is the ethical housing and raising of animals, including issues related to animal density, sanitary conditions, confinement and space. Other questions surround what animals are fed, how they’re cared for, transportation concerns and the use of hormones and antibiotics. Additional topics raised include the concept of “factory farms” versus family farms, food safety and environmental concerns.

“The factory farms one is often used as a catch-all topic for nearly all of the concerns,” says Dietrich. “Overall, one of the important takeaways from the research I’ve been involved with is that these consumers do in fact have distinct feelings and concerns that come to mind and often they have formed opinions on these issues.”

The attitudes, perspectives and opinions from these consumers may not be ones that those in agriculture would agree with, says Dietrich. Some may even be outright factually incorrect. But to dismiss them on that basis would be a mistake.

Seek first to understand

“The discussion with the consumer is more effective if it is about understanding and constructive dialogue, not an argument of right and wrong,” she says. “You might not agree with their opinion, but regardless of whether it is right or wrong it is their opinion. We need to get past that and focus on what we can we learn. What do these opinions tell us that can help us improve how we make business decisions, how we conduct ourselves and how we engage and communicate with these consumers?”

There are two big reasons why the consumer mindset should be a major focus for those involved in animal agriculture, says Dietrich. The first is the general overall increase in negative media around the livestock industry. The impact of this on consumer thinking needs to be monitored and countered. The second are the challenges livestock products face in a marketplace influenced by these perceptions.

“The first point is undeniable,” says Dietrich. “Not a week goes by that you don’t see something negative in some type of published media surrounding the industry.” YouTube has literally hundreds, possibly thousands of videos that depict examples of the negative treatment of animals. There have been several examples of documentaries that have hit mainstream viewing such as “Food Inc.” that have not been complimentary towards the industry. There have been several books written such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” that conclude that to stay healthy people should “Eat less. Mostly vegetables. Little meat.”

It’s unclear whether there are clear links between negative media coverage and declining market share for livestock products, she says. “But it’s obviously a potential we need to be aware of and on top of.”

On the positive side, there are many opportunities for livestock industries to tap into attributes and messages that are attractive to the consumer, she says. As part of her presentation at the Livestock Care Conference, Dietrich conducted an interactive exercise with audience members to brainstorm ways to accomplish this. She kicked off the session by showing a series of videos from some of her consumer research, showing individuals discussing their opinions on the food system and livestock industries.

The exercise yielded a range of helpful responses and good discussion. Throughout the session, Dietrich provided advice based on what she had learned from consumer research.

The common tie among each of her suggestions was the importance of identifying the consumer mindset, asking the right questions, making the right observations and – most important – listening.

General attitudes uncovered

Some of the fundamentals Dietrich has identified based on her research include:

Closer connection: People increasingly want to have a closer connection to their food – knowing where it is coming from, and wanting to feel some connection to it.

Feeling goodPeople want to feel good about what they are eating.

Local and authentic are attractivePeople feel that locally helps “build their own little economic reality” while also being good for environmental reasons. They also want an authentic approach to how they live and how they eat, which is tied in with a belief that the nutritious food is natural food.

Factory farm image a big challenge“People generally believe that factory farms are bad and family farms are good,” she says.

Value trumps price (usually)Dietrich also believes consumers are willing to pay a fair price – for good value. “This can be taken two different ways. They can pay a cheap price for basic products or they can pay a premium when they are getting a premium quality product.”

Article courtesy of Alberta Farm Animal Care

Link Photo courtesy of Marji Beach

What do you think about connecting with consumers on farm animal care?

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