Blog: Is Social Media Making or Breaking the Food Industry?

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Following our “Is Social Media Making or Breaking the Food Industry?” session at Social Media Week London yesterday, Justin Kirby has written an accompanying article for our media partner The Drum that explores some of the themes he and fellow panellists discussed:

I think it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll hear a number of similar themes being discussed in The Drum-sponsored Like Minds sessions this week as part of Social Media Week London – despite some brands, industries and marketing disciplines having been quicker to embrace social media than others.

For example, as a strategist at a US digital agency, I’m seeing more brands thinking about clarifying their purpose as a result of the impact of social media. This is something I’m seeing across all industries, but as I mentioned in the Like Minds session yesterday, it’s particularly important with food given it’s such an emotive industry.

Earlier this year Trendwatching.com reported on the nagging guilt caused by the negative environmental and social impacts of too much of the food we consume. As a result, they see consumer demand for brands to intervene on their behalf. That’s why we’re seeing them increasingly using content as the means to winning the hearts and minds of consumers, as well as the changing role of publishers and broadcasters in helping them with this.

Unilever’s seven-figure sponsorship of the Guardian to promote its sustainability agenda is an example. Another is Chipotle’s ‘Scarecrow’ animation that won the Branded Content & Entertainment category award at Cannes this year, which along with its ‘Farmed and Dangerous’ four part mini-series on Hulu helps promote its anti-agribusiness differentiation from its fast food competitors.

Perhaps less well known is Intermarché’s Les Fruits et Légumes Moches (Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables) bid to reduce food waste by buying the imperfect and uncalibrated produce its growers usually throw away, and selling them at 30 per cent off. This included creating a range of new products like soups and fruit juices to show they are just as good as the ones made from more ‘perfect’ produce. This was promoted through a campaign celebrating the beauty of the Grotesque Apple, the Ridiculous Potato, the Hideous Orange, the Failed Lemon, the Disfigured Eggplant, and beyond.

Not only did the initiative help raise awareness about the issue by reaching millions socially and through the media who picked up the story, but Intermarché also had a 24 per cent rise in store traffic at a time when they and others are facing increasing competition from the German discounters Aldi and Lidl.

The soul searching going on in the food industry isn’t just confined to the social, environmental and ethical considerations. In some instances, it goes deeper into what they do, how they do it and why. This part of trying to understand culture and people better, which is why we are starting to see brands look more at the Thick Data insights about what motivates people to do what they do and their needs.

The Thick Data is gained through qualitative research methods, such as ethnography, and is becoming used as the lens for analysing Big Data. As Christian Madsbjerg of Danish management consultant ReD Associates and co-author of the new Harvard Business Review ‘Moment of Clarity’ book explains, the marriage of Thick and Big Data is unlikely to be happy one because they come from very different positions philosophically and methodologically. But the marriage will be essential because, “if you assume that your customers are fully aware of their needs and intentions, you will continue launching products that lack interest or excitement”.

That said we will still see social listening play an increasingly role in research and innovation, but what we are beginning to see is how it can shape the initial assumptions or hunches about where to find those hidden truths within the ‘Thick Data’. This will help brands create more imaginative products that consumers not only want, but will also talk about.

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