CHICAGO — Research shows that consumers are concerned about
the underlying motivation of utilizing biotechnology in food production.
“One of the challenges we see is consumers question if the
bottom line is being put ahead of food safety,” said Charlie Arnot, CEO of the
Center for Food Integrity. “Technical information alone is not sufficient in
overcoming that level of concern.”
CFI conducted research primarily with moms in six focus
groups — two each in Boston, Los Angles and Minneapolis.
“They reviewed a series of videos from three companies —
IBM, a dairy farmer and BP,” explained Arnot during a presentation at the 2013
BIO International Convention. “We looked specifically at biotechnology.”
Annie Link, the dairy farmer from Michigan featured in the
video, milks 1,200 cows per day.
“The BP videos were about work done to cleanup in the Gulf,
and the IBM videos were the ‘I’m an IBMer’ series of commercials,” Arnot said.
“These were very different kinds of videos, and we wanted to understand what
kinds of motives were helpful in building trust in the companies.”
CFI focused on early adopters for the focus groups.
“These are the people who drive opinion within their social
circle,” the CEO noted. “We started by giving them an overview of biotech, and
one thing we know about early-adopting consumers, they want information from
sources they can trust.”
Information about food safety was presented in a couple of
“We started by acknowledging concerns and rights of
consumers and then giving them information,” Arnot explained. “Then we flipped
that and began by just giving them information.”
“What we heard clearly was don’t do data dumping,” he said.
“Instead, we heard, ‘Tell me you understand my concerns, acknowledge what is
important to me and then I’ll be more likely to listen to the
CFI identified three primary drivers for building trust —
influential others, competence and confidence.
“Influential others are family, friends and creditable
individuals whose opinions you respect and what they say about an issue
influences your level of trust,” Arnot noted. “Competence includes technical
capacity and science, and confidence is about perception of shared values and
“We discovered the perception of shared values is three to
five times more important than demonstrating our competency for building trust,”
he said. “We’ve had the historical communication equation backwards because
we’ve always started with the data.”
However, Arnot added, scientific verification still is
“We’re not suggesting we abandon science because we have to
have good information to back up the claims we’re making,” he said. “It’s also
about being economically viable because if you’re not profitable, it’s not truly
Can and should are two different questions for using
“Science tells us if we can, but society will tell us
whether or not we should,” Arnot differentiated.
“When we give people information about science or economics,
we increase their knowledge, but we may do nothing to influence what they
believe,” he said. “People are more likely to act based on how they feel and
what they believe than on simply giving them more information. We have to find
the right combination of connecting with values, providing information and
engaging in conversation.”
The focus groups made it quite clear that food safety is
more important than all other factors.
“Food safety is paramount. We have to be able to communicate
that both our products and processes result in safe food,” Arnot stressed. “If
we can’t cross that threshold, nothing else we talk about in regards to benefits
makes any difference because consumers are not willing to compromise food safety
for the sake of a perceived benefit.”
In addition, the research indicated the consumers need to
benefit. For example, the dairy farmer in the video talked about making sure the
cows were healthy so that they could produce safe and wholesome milk for
“It wasn’t about increasing productivity or efficiency. It
was about making sure their product was safe and healthy for consumers,” Arnot
“It means the messages that lack a perceived social or
consumer benefit are less impactful,” he explained. “We have to talk about
issues in ways that are meaningful to the consumer.”
Being transparent is crucial for those in the food industry.
“Consumers want authentic transparency,” Arnot said. “They
want to know the good, bad and ugly, and without that, they feel we must be
Betsie Estes, a blogger and mother of two from northwest
Chicago, participated in a CFI video that talks about food safety issues related
to GM foods with a plant molecular geneticist from the University of
“If someone doesn’t know what they’re eating, to me it’s
because they didn’t do the research,” Estes said. “If they care that much, they
should be finding things out on their own.”
Both message and the messenger are important to consumers.
“Celebrities increase visibility, but it doesn’t necessarily
increase credibility,” Arnot noted. “When we have the opportunity to talk about
shared values first and then add a technical credential, it increases the
influence. If you can add celebrity, that increases visibility, but celebrity
does not equate to credibility.”
“A lot of people get information on line, and they are
looking to other bloggers,” Estes said. “But that is not necessarily where
they’re getting accurate information, so maybe people aren’t looking at the
sources they should be.”
Choosing messengers that align with the target audience is
vital, Arnot stressed.
“We know communicating shared values will trump size if
you’re effective in communicating shared values,” he said. “Potential messengers
are people like me — someone from my tribe or my sect and someone who share my
interests, concerns and lifestyle.”
The credibility of physicians, registered dieticians,
researchers or scientists increases, Arnot explained, if that messenger also is
a mom because moms have a perceived value similarity.
“People are more likely to believe things from people that
look like them,” Estes agreed. “I think people are more willing to accept
information from people like them.”