retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

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Hell hath no fury like a crusading blogger named Food Babe and thousands of social media supporters. Just ask Subway and Chick-fil-A. Facing consumer pressure, these fast food chains this month announced changes in their signature ingredients.

Chick-fil-A said it would use chicken raised without antibiotics in all of its 1,700-plus restaurants within five years. And Subway agreed to eliminate an FDA-approved food additive – azodicarbonamide – from the bread served in its more than 40,000 sandwich shops.

The heat was generated by health food activist Vani Hari, who writes the Food Babe blog. Noting that azodicarbonamide was used in yoga mats and shoe rubber as well as bread, she started an online petition titled “Subway: Stop Using Dangerous Chemicals in Your Bread.” The petition garnered 50,000 signatures within 24 hours and her “Food Babe Army” stormed Subway’s social media platforms. A photo of Hari holding a bright blue rolled yoga mat in front of Subway got plenty of play and mainstream media attention, and even inspired a Jimmy Fallon joke.

Hari has long been after Chick-fil-A for its ingredients, and one blog post showed a picture of the classic sandwich with the headline “Chick-fil-A or Chemical-fil-A?” Company execs invited her to a four-hour summit to discuss nutritional concerns in 2012, and she said her No. 1 request was that it go antibiotic free.

Similar scenarios? At first glance, yes. But I think the most interesting business lesson here is the difference in the way each chain acknowledged consumer input and leveraged that in social media.

Chick-fil-A said its patrons clearly expressed a concern for antibiotic free poultry and “When the people who matter to you most ask you to do something important – you listen.”

The announcement was posted on Facebook, prompting some 28,000 likes and appreciative comments (plus calls for no MSG). It distilled the message for Twitter to “You asked. We listened. Our journey to serve antibiotic-free chicken has begun.” And Hari gleefully announced it on her blog, trumpeting “We did it again!”

On the other hand Subway, clearly under the most social media pressure, did not acknowledge consumer input at all and said the change was part of an “ongoing effort to improve its recipes.”

A representative told the Associated Press that the process was underway before the petition was launched, but did not provide to any media outlets details on when it actually started or when it would be complete.

So instead of basking in positive publicity, Subway is facing continued criticism on Food Babe for not being more forthcoming. And it made no mention of the change on its Facebook or Twitter platforms, where foes are still making derisive comments such as: “Can I bring my own bread – I mean yoga mat?”

I think Chick-fil-A made a smart play, generating immediate good will even though the changeover will take five years and turning an enemy into an advocate. I question whether Subway’s unwillingness to acknowledge consumer opinion was motivated by ego, stupidity or both. Such a lost opportunity.

We’ve seen similar pressures brought to bear online on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (foodbabe.com, again) and Gatorade (a 15-year-old girl from Mississippi), and no doubt this will escalate as consumers demand more “free-from” products.

There are those who say that the reason companies do not acknowledge consumer pressure is because they feel it will bring the crazies out of the woodwork, but I would argue this is old-world thinking. Sure there are crazies on social media, but their numbers are dwarfed by the articulate, educated consumers who fill their grocery baskets and have come to demand accountability and real-time response. In this new world order, Chick-fil-A definitely showed how to turn lemons into lemonade.


Comments? Shoot me an email at kate@morningnewsbeat.com .
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