retail news in context, analysis with attitude

There was a story on MNB last week that a new survey from Ketchum's Global Food & Nutrition Practice suggests that only about one-third of Americans, and even fewer Europeans, say that brand names play a role in their choice of food products.

Rather, 74 percent of global consumers aid that taste was important, 73 percent said quality was important, and 70 percent said that price was important.

I expressed a certain skepticism about the accuracy of these findings.

MNB user Dave Tuchler wrote:

I share your qualified disagreement about the low perceived influence of brands per the Ketchum report - - brands are still extremely important in driving purchase decisions.

My company regularly surveys consumers internationally about some controversial food ingredient topics. Generally we find that consumers are reluctant to admit (either in surveys or focus groups) that they are either a) influenced by non-objective things like brand names or celebrity endorsements, or b) that they would buy/serve food products that might be seen as making them 'bad parents' (e.g., "of course I don't have Sugar Blast Cereal in my pantry").

Our general findings:

- Taste is always issue #1 and an ante for any product, regardless of the health benefits.

- While consumers may not admit they're influenced by brands, they use embedded brand equity as shorthand to give them information on the things they state as important: quality, price, taste, etc. But they don't want to admit that they're swayed by something as simple as a brand.

- Consumers very often act very differently than they claim to. While there may be a stated resistance to a certain ingredient when asked in absence of any other benefits or tradeoffs, in the store a shopper will often buy based on benefits (e.g., reduced fat or calories) but never check the ingredient line.

Net - if you ask a question in a vacuum (like importance of brands) you'll get an answer that only works in a vacuum.

Having said that, consumers are increasingly checking the objective facts like calories, etc. -- and this will increase in importance going forward. As evidence, yesterday The Coca-Cola Company announced that they will be showing sugar content on the front of their beverage products.

Responding to last week’s piece about the “Ten Things The Food Biz May Not Want Consumers To Know,” one MNB user wrote in about growing consumer cynicism about the food industry:

Maybe the food industry should start spending their money on making foods that are actually good for us rather than paying people to keep quiet or discrediting them. Then maybe those retailers should start selling foods that actually have nutritional value.

It is a growing perception among consumers.

MNB user John Thompson wrote:

I could not agree with you more. I found it interesting that the first seven points were subjective points somewhat void of a political agenda, then her last points were nothing but political statements and really work to discredit her motives.

Setting the stage for a we against them battle and attempting to create a scandal where one does not exist, has not proven to be a successful strategy to bring about change. As a society we are more aware of what we eat. Increasing the communications on our need to become a healthier society and letting people ultimately choose is the key to success. Our industry needs to lead the way in this communication and work to regain the trust that it once had in the days of corner grocery markets and local ownership.

We took note last week of a Washington Post piece challenging the conventional wisdom that modern technology – computers, cell phones, email, text messaging and the like – has weakened family connections in the US.

Rather, the Post wrote, a study published by the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests that, in fact, “families have compensated for the stress and hurry of modern life with cell phone calls, e-mail and text messages and other new forms of communication … In the poll, 60 percent of adults said that the new technologies did not affect the closeness of their family, while 25 percent said cell phones and online communication made their families closer and 11 percent said that the technology had a negative effect.”

I noted in my commentary that the Pew study reflects my experience, and that text messaging has become a valued and welcome way for me to stay in touch with my kids; I never used to talk to my parents when I was in college (long distance phone calls were expensive!), so this is a welcome evolution.

MNB user Gary Harris wrote:

I’ve had similar concerns about the intrusiveness that some folks (my 30 year old daughter included) allow technology to have on their lives. (‘Off’ button, it does have an ‘Off’ button doesn’t it?) But I also know how much more connected we are as a result of that. The spontaneous text message I get when she and her family have seen or done something cool is a real treat. I also know how much my son and his family appreciated having a satellite cell phone set up that allowed him to keep in touch with all of us while he was deployed to Korea for a year. And I know that when he was in Iraq in ’03 that e-mail allowed me to say things to him that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate in person. Every significant development in the history of humanity brings with it the capacity for good and evil. As for most things in life, it’s what we do with them that makes all the difference.

MNB user Amy Buttery wrote:

I agree with your assessment of the way communication technology (texting, cellphones and email) are probably more likely to increase communication between parents and kids, and I too love hearing more often from my kids as they “touch base” with me. However, I’m not sure this is in all cases a great thing, because now we have young adults (I’ll talk about people 18-22, but the age could be extended based on the context) who are so accustomed to checking in or asking advice about mundane things that they aren’t making what I consider necessary breaks from parents, and parents too are failing to detach, becoming what are often called “helicopter parents.” Read the Wikipedia entry on the term for more. Of course there have always been intrusive, overinvolved parents, but the cell phone especially (sometimes described as “the world’s longest umbilical cord”) has contributed substantially to this trend.

I one watched my sister take a call from her daughter, a sophomore at college. The daughter was calling to ask for guidance on doing laundry in the dorm’s facility. My sister walked her through the whole process—at least 10 minutes on the phone. While I’m sure my niece found it helpful, part of living away from home is figuring out how to deal with the world without asking mom or dad about everything. (That same daughter, incidentally, would never have called her mom for advice about how to get home from a party when she’s had too much to drink—trust me, I know the people involved.)

Connection and communication are, on the whole, very good. But as with every major new technology, new communications technology is neither good nor bad but depends on how it’s used. And every major shift in the way we live holds both perils and pluses. It’s good to be aware of all the possible ramifications, I think.

Another MNB user wrote:

Ditto on text messaging bringing the family closer together.

I travel a lot and getting TM's throughout the day from my 15-year-old during her first year in High School, from my 24-year-old in his first year of a hopefully long career in Sales, and from my wife who keeps everything together in my absence reduces the stress of three and four-day trips around the country.

Two years ago, I would have NEVER paid $30/month for unlimited family texting. Now, it’s a no-brainer.

I agree. Unlimited text messaging is one of the world’s great bargains.

Another MNB user wrote:

Our son is 20 now and has had his own cellphone since he was 11. He lives at home while attending college. We communicate with him by phone (landline and mobile), text, email, and in person. We still sit down to dinner as a family at least 4 nights a week, where we talk about jobs, school, finances, schedules, entertainment (TV, music and movies). We have never restricted his use of communications devices (video games are another matter...) and because of that he has never abused them, or gone over his allotted minutes or text messages. He doesn't answer his phone when he's driving, even if he has seen me talk and drive (hands-free, we're in California). He was overseas at school for a year, and tech was a necessity to keep in touch. For our family tech is not a toy, it's a tool.

MNB user Marty Gillen wrote:

I'm with you on taking advantage of technology to stay connected with my children; one a senior at Penn State and one a sophomore at Brigham Young. It doesn't get much better when a "good mornin' Dad" text message pops up. All is good in my life when that happens.

MNB user Ben Del Prince summed it up:

I too enjoy the ability of my kids to reach me via text and e-mail. They know I can always be reached and am no further away then a couple of finger movements.

Finally, I got the following email from MNB user Craig Espelien that followed up on one that we ran a week or so ago that explained how a specific customer experience at a Dunkin’ Donuts was superior to one at a specific Starbucks:

I have been a loyal Starbuck’s consumer (great coffee, great selection of breakfast items) but was not surprised by the discourse earlier this week (or maybe last) on the experience one of the other readers has with having to wait for a traveler pack. Her experience did not dissuade me from continuing to support Starbuck’s with my business – until today.

I have a 7:00am design meeting every Friday and was going to treat the team to breakfast and coffee. There are two Starbuck’s on my way to the office – I went to both and was told the same thing – 15 minutes to get me coffee. The first told me my business was not as important as the rest of the customers who did not want traveler packs (she said it would take so long as they needed to brew additional coffee so they could take care of the other customers with the available coffee). The second told me the exact same thing – 15 minutes. I refused both times as I feel that if that is your business, it is a bit ridiculous to have to wait to brew coffee – especially at peak time of the day (in the first, the price was clearly marked – there was even a little display of the traveler and what came with it).

I walked out of both outlets and have vowed to never darken a Starbuck’s door again (I hope I can keep that promise – as I love their scones).

What’s the old truism about a chain only being a strong as the weakest links?

That certainly seems to be the case here.

The good news, I think, is when companies like Starbucks use this kind of exchange of information to address the problems and make things better.

It never is easy to hear these things about your own company, but complaints are always more important to hear and learn from than compliments.

KC's View: