The Vital Role of Marketing in Supporting Our Food System

Marketers have the power to help supply and demand—and harm it

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Advertising and marketing are the most direct links consumers have to many industries, and marketers are the ones crafting the messages they hear. The stories we write can transform consumer landscapes, shape industries, grow or shrink brands and support or hinder livelihoods.

In perhaps no industry is this truer than food and agriculture.

Articles, studies and public policies show just how impactful food advertising is on society’s changing tastes and preferences. Our ability to sway public opinion not only alters what America eats, but it can also foster skepticism about common agricultural concepts.

When we advertise food brands, we’re not just selling products—we’re painting a picture that is often the only image consumers ever see of our food system. If we don’t get it right, we run the risk of perpetuating misconceptions that impact the entire system, from the crops that are grown and where ingredients are sourced to which products show up on store shelves.

It’s an important time to ask: Are we getting it as right as we can? While there’s no shortage of data on consumers and agriculture audiences throughout our food system, there are far fewer firsthand perspectives being shared.

For a holistic view of food, we went on a unique journey to capture a broader perspective and consider how marketing’s influence impacts the food system by conducting dozens of interviews with an expansive group of individuals, from farmers to entrepreneurs to butchers to eaters. It’s evident that there are opportunities for us to come together and do better.

No such thing as Old MacDonald

There is a shared frustration among today’s farmers with the misrepresentation of the food system in advertising and consumerism in general. Megan, a fourth-generation Illinois farmer who grows conventional and organic crops and livestock, described the public’s outdated view of farming as “Old MacDonald.” The reality is that technology has advanced agriculture practices—iPads are in tractor cabs, and there is an emphasis on using precise technology across the entire crop cycle.

Her message and that of fellow farmers is clear: Farmers believe there is a growing disconnect between consumer preferences and the reality of how food is grown and delivered, and marketers play a role in creating this disconnect.

What seems like a benign fact—that many people today have never met a farmer—in reality opens the door to perpetuate myths and misunderstanding. With our impact on messaging, it can play a role in bridging the growing divide between consumers, their preferences, farmers and how they produce food that will, in turn, make our food system better. This is becoming a cultural imperative, one that can impact sustainability, nutrition and food access in a positive and inclusive way for consumers and farmers alike.

On the consumer side, there is genuine demand, and then there is demand generated by marketing efforts. The biggest challenge, as pointed out by a dairy nutritionist, is how to get food companies and processors to be better partners with farmers, a message that is often deemed unsexy. Farmers who deal with this complex supply and demand issue regularly want to know: Did the consumer ask for it, or did the messaging give them the idea to ask for it?

Harvesting a real, supportive narrative

We as marketers don’t just respond to consumer demand; we create it. We can guide consumers to make fully informed choices for themselves based on the full story.

This means we need to:

  • Advocate for a holistic view of food production and distribution. Lacking a single definition of success, our food system is at once achieving and missing its goals. There is no one food system, but rather countless individual food systems. With so many consumers experiencing vastly different food systems, it can be challenging for individuals, brands and the government to align on solutions.
  • Tell the full story of our preferences and the food we eat. Consumers hold a lack of knowledge on where their food comes from or what food is best for them, a reality that leads to an underappreciation of the farmer and a lack of desire to make change. Educated consumers are more capable of stimulating demand for food that benefits everyone: themselves, farmers, well-intentioned brands (of which there are many) and the planet.
  • Act responsibly in how we influence consumers. Food brands today have access to knowledge and expertise that the average consumer doesn’t. Guided by the messages they see in marketing and elsewhere, consumers are making decisions for their families and themselves. Brands need to spread the wealth by not just selling great food products but recognizing their role in educating consumers about the realities of a food system they helped create and continue to build.
  • Foster unity and understanding within the food world. Our food system is extremely complex, and collaboration is as imperative as it is overlooked. Entities have insights and thinking that others can learn from, yet the intense siloing of our food system has left ideas off the table and innovation on the bench.

For an industry we all rely on, we owe it to ourselves, our brands, our farmers and our consumers to get the message right.

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This story first appeared in the Oct. 11, 2021, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.