carton of eggs ThitareeSarmkasat/iStock/Thinkstock
WHAT WILL THEY PAY FOR? Consumers say they want eggs from cage-free hens. Will they pay the extra premium it takes to raise these chickens and produce those eggs?

Will consumers put money where their mouth is?

What consumers think they want based on environmental ideas may not be what they really want!

Understanding what consumers think is critical for companies supplying food products, and for farmers hoping to serve niche local markets. However, deciphering consumer attitudes may be tougher than it sounds.

Which consumers do you listen to? If a few very loud consumer groups demand changes, will you sell more product if you meet their demands? Or are they not representative of all consumers? Even more frustrating, maybe they don’t understand what they’re really asking for.

Decades ago Coca-Cola decided to change the time-honored Coke formula to produce a new taste for a new generation. Consumers didn’t react as expected to New Coke. The backlash was so intense that the company reoffered the original formula, calling it Coca-Cola Classic. That marketing misstep still stands as an example of how dangerous it can be to let opinions of one segment of the market drive your entire decision-making process.

It’s happening again with the poultry industry. Over a decade ago, consumers demanded certain restaurant chains only buy eggs from producers who provided ample cage space for hens. Once that demand was met, the same consumers demanded cage-free eggs. Some chains have complied, indicating all eggs will be from cage-free suppliers just a few years out.

The only problem is that corporate decision-makers didn’t ask the chickens or the people who raise them. Switching an entire industry to cage-free egg production is costlier than it might sound in a corporate boardroom. Experts acknowledge the industry may not be able to change fast enough to meet the deadline and still stay profitable.

Latest example
As long as corporate food companies indicate they’ll respond to consumer demands, the demands will continue. The results may be familiar.

The latest example comes from the Trix Rabbit, that imaginary bunny on the Trix cereal box. Nadia Berenstein, writing for The New Food Economy Newsletter, notes that in January 2016, “lemony yellows, orangey oranges and grapity grapes” in the Trix cereal box were replaced with “more autumnal, somber hues.” Lime green and wildberry blue were eliminated.

Why? General Mills listened to consumers who didn’t want synthetic dyes in their cereal bowl, and opted for tinting the famous corn puffs with natural ingredients like carrot extracts and radish juice. The green and blue neon colors were so intense, food scientists couldn’t find natural replacements. General Mills insists it was simply listening to consumers, and consumers didn’t want these chemicals in their cereal anymore.

Apparently, they didn’t listen to all consumers. By October 2017, General Mills brought back all six fruity colors and called it — you guessed it — Classic Trix. The reformulated version is still sold, too.

The whole “clean label” idea of fewer chemicals as ingredients is a separate discussion all to itself. It’s a debate that won’t go away.

Meanwhile, we’re left with a lesson. Listening to consumers is crucial. But factoring in common sense and taking all positions into account before acting is critical. It’s good policy for food companies, and for farmers who want to fill a local niche. Make sure enough people will put their money where their mouth is before you invest heavily in a venture.

And while doing your research, maybe taking a lesson from the Trix Rabbit would be a good thing!

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