Gawker recently turned food marketers' heads with a 2,500-word takedown of blogger, dietary guru and anti-GMO activist Vani Hari, aka "Food Babe." Author Yvette d'Entremont, who started a rival blog under the "Science Babe" moniker, asserted that Hari peddles easily disproved pseudoscience designed to frighten people into emptying their pantries of "toxins" and send angry emails to major food conglomerates.
Vani, a New York Times bestselling writer and TV talk show guest, responded with a can't-we-just-be-friends lament before casting d'Entremont as a "biased," pro-pesticide advocate promoting that most unpopular of agricultural villains—Monsanto. She even created a disclaimer for readers who visit her site from links in the Gawker post: "Coming from Gawker? Warning: I believe you should have both sides of the story before you make an informed opinion. Read the other side of the story here."
A larger trend is lurking beneath this spat over digital influence: America is facing a growing crisis of credibility in food labeling. And as consumers struggle to decide whom to trust—passionate bloggers or major food brands—agencies can get caught in the crossfire.
The credibility conundrum
The trend toward healthy, natural food has buoyed bloggers like Hari. She's made headlines and ignited hashtag wars by pointing a finger at allegedly toxic chemicals in products from brands such as Starbucks, General Mills and Chick-fil-A, despite having no relevant academic qualifications. It's also the reason why newer, more agile brands like Chipotle, Panera and Shake Shack are challenging longtime market leaders like McDonald's and Taco Bell in appealing to the American consumer.
As a result, the world of food marketing has undergone a painful sea change in recent years. Sarah Lewis, a registered dietitian and manager of nutrition communications for international PR firm MWW, says there's a lot of confusion in the market due largely to statements "from people who aren't necessarily credible." Consumers, she says, must "look at the science behind what these 'experts' are saying."
Yet, Americans might trust influencers like Food Babe more than they trust Burger King or an agency working on the food chain's behalf. And that may not be a bad thing. Fred Haberman, CEO and co-founder of Minneapolis marketing agency Haberman, reminds us that credibility is subjective.
"'Qualifications' is an interesting term: There are academic qualifications, government qualifications, and life experience," he says. "Some people suffer greatly due to gluten allergies before changing their diets, experimenting with different foods and improving their lives. Are they then qualified to comment [on dietary issues]? I say yes. Other consumers look to replicate the genuine experiences [self-made experts] have had."
Haberman, whose client roster includes health-food store mainstays Organic Valley and Earthbound Farm, often works with influencers who fall into the "life experience" category—particularly in the food space, where "moms who have gone through a transformational experience with their diets now have followers, influence and credibility," even if they've never studied nutrition in an academic setting.
"It is incumbent upon agencies and clients to do due diligence," he added, but the fragmentation of media ensures personalities ranging from Dr. Oz and Sanjay Gupta to Morgan Spurlock and Jamie Oliver will continue to hold great sway.
Communicating with consumers
The credibility crisis, however, can't be pinned entirely on experts with dubious credentials: Brands themselves bear a large share of the blame. Lewis says that on one hand, "saying you're a nutritionist doesn't really mean anything." But neither does much of the language in food marketing. Classic taglines and fad phrases like "Eat Fresh," "all-natural flavor" and "low fat" represent the very sort of miscommunication that inspired the rise of Food Babe and others like her in the first place.
Blake Mitchell, a partner at the Boulder, Colo., agency Interact who advises packaged goods brands, says "the American consumer is not very educated" on the science of food and lacks a clear understanding of the difference between competing terms despite—or even because of—the attendant media buzz.
Mitchell added that larger companies seem reluctant to hire new agencies and redefine their brands, but they no longer have much of a choice as competition in the market heats up.
In the chain restaurant space, one brand in particular has inspired more rebranding efforts and agency reviews than any other—Chipotle. Ellis Verdi, co-founder and president of New York ad agency DeVito/Verdi, likens Chipotle's influence to "an atomic bomb" that permanently changed the fast-food marketing business by shifting its focus from "fun" campaigns to ingredients, sustainability, and consumer choice.
Verdi, whose agency creates campaigns for brands like Legal Sea Foods and Tribe Hummus, worked with Chipotle in the past. "Their success comes from persuading customers that they're not fast food—they're better," he says. "You can see the influence in almost every campaign and piece of communication."
Influencers over agencies
Verdi explains the challenge facing such legacy brands: "If I tell you my product is high-quality, I am then stuck trying to balance that message against the '$1.99 this weekend only' promotions. If you as a client have $10 to spend, do you spend $9 on marketing and $1 on production or vice versa?"
At the same time, the new focus on quality represents a classic "soft sell," which demands greater long-term investment from food brands. That fact makes influencers even more valuable because, as Verdi puts it, "press beats advertising every day of the week" (and it's often less expensive, too).
Market analyst Mitchell argues that polarizing figures like Food Babe ultimately benefit the consumer even if they don't always get all the facts right. "They are pushing the needle to a healthier place, and people are more interested than ever in what they're putting into their bodies," he says.
In order to avoid getting burned by negative headlines, media outlets themselves may play a major role in regulating the food marketing industry. Lewis, who often advises clients appearing on network shows like Today, says, "Since I've been in this area, a lot of different networks are really cracking down on the people they're featuring. [Guests are] not able to bring paid products on the show; it needs to be more of an organic thing that they support."
Mitchell thinks the FDA will eventually follow suit, and that additional regulations on future campaigns will "stifle creativity in the long term." Still, he says, "The influencers will be around regardless. I don't see them going anywhere."
What's the solution for a big-name food brand grasping for relevance? Verdi has a simple suggestion: "Talk to me like a real person. If you have something to say, say it, and if you don't, then find something. But say it honestly, please."
In the meantime, the steady flow of misinformation from all sides will continue apace.