Marketing that values consumer whims over science

Two recent media stories have highlighted the growing divide between science, and the realities of consumer marketing in the digital age.

One of the stories involved a decision by a consumer to launch a boycott of Lilydale poultry, when it was revealed that Lilydale Free Range chickens may be fed genetically modified grains and oilseeds. The second story involved the announcement by fast food chain Hungry Jacks that in future its hamburgers would only be made using beef produced without added hormones (ie HGP free).

In both instances, the sentiment behind the decisions appears to be a belief by consumers that poultry fed GM grains or beef produced with HGPs carries a risk of causing harm to the consumer.

The science on both these issues is absolutely clear, and unchallenged. The meat from poultry that has been fed GM grains or oilseeds is absolutely indistinguishable from the meat produced feeding conventional grains or oilseeds, and there is absolutely no evidence or scientific analysis to demonstrate any potential risk to consumers from the former. In fact, there is a likelihood that the GM grains and oilseeds may have less pesticide residues present than the conventional grains and oilseeds, if consumers are worried on that front. In relation to the use of HGPs in beef, the extra levels of natural hormones are indistinguishable in any analytical tests, the levels are many times less than are consumed in eating some cabbage leaves or a single egg, and HGPs typically provide a 10–15% productivity gain and hence significantly reduce the environmental footprint of beef.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times the above information is repeated, there will still be consumers and activist groups prepared to proclaim otherwise, and who will generate scare campaigns based on misinformation that consumer-facing companies will very quickly retreat from. Additionally, there appears to be an increasing number of companies which perceive some competitive advantage may be available from product differentiation based on things like HGP-freedom.

Despite the science, it seems there is little that can be done to reverse the beliefs of some consumers, or indeed the perceptions of marketers that there is a competitive advantage available by differentiating a product from its competitors – even if the basis of that differentiation is highly spurious.

This creates a real dilemma for the Australian agricultural sector. There are important productivity advantages available from the use of GM crops or HGPs in beef production, and in markets where price matters, these productivity advantages can be the difference between profit and loss. At the same time, there are premium markets available where consumers are prepared to pay much more for products that meet their preferences, irrespective of how irrational these preferences might seem to others.

Traceability systems such as the National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS) are becoming a very important tool in providing the sector with ways to address this dilemma. By enhancing product traceability, and enabling alternative production systems to coexist in ways that still enable market differentiation to occur, divergent market needs can be met by some producers without compromising the productivity of others. The expansion of internet accessibility and the rapid growth of computer processing capacity has also created opportunities for traceability systems to operate at much lower cost than was the case in the past.

The availability of traceability systems also makes it viable for marketers like Hungry Jacks to offer choices within their product range and to let consumers decide, rather than implementing blanket bans on certain technologies. Australian agriculture should be encouraging those involved in post-farm supply chains to adopt this approach, because it provides a much more reliable indication of consumer preferences, and avoids the productivity-sapping impact of specific technologies being banned.

Ultimately, however, the challenge that confronts the agriculture sector, its input suppliers and even the scientists that support the sector is to keep on calmly and rationally explaining the use of technologies in agricultural production, and most importantly to emphasise the benefits that they provide for consumers. This latter point is important, as both these examples highlight that consumers have absolutely no interest in hearing that a certain technology makes a farmer more productive. The primary interest of consumers is the direct benefits they can obtain from a product, and that is where the emphasis needs to be focused in industry conversations with consumers.