Food and agriculture’s silent majority

The majority of consumers who do not participate in conversations about food and are often indifferent on controversial food and agriculture topics are referred to as the silent majority. The vocal minority has been described as a group of consumers who contribute to a disproportionate amount of conversations about food. Manufacturers, especially those working with genetic modification, must differentiate consumer and science consensus from the small group of people with the louder voice. Science and researchers across the globe tell us that genetically modified foods are safe, however many food manufacturers implement meaningless and misleading labeling to appease a small group of very vocal consumers. Guodong Gao, et al. addressed the issue of vocal minority and silent majority in a 2015 research article in the MIS Quarterly, specifically looking at how online conversations can be skewed to a certain perspective. They found that a large amount of conversation was being driven by a disproportionately small amount of consumers. Online especially, the vocal minority is driven by self-selection reporting and the influence that already existing comments can have on other individuals.

To best understand how the vocal minority can drive marketing and business decisions we will look at three case studies: non-GMO sourced ingredients, cage-free eggs and natural coloring in cereal.

Years ago in 2001, Jerry Solcum, a farmer from Mississippi and International Marketing Chair for the United Soybean Board (USB), stressed in food biotech discussion panel covered by an article for PR Newswire that activists groups advocating for non-GMO sourced ingredients are a “very vocal but very small minority.” Solcum stated that food companies and retailers must recognize the difference between actual consumer needs and the demand of anti-biotech activists groups – the vocal minority.

Food companies and retailers must recognize the difference between actual consumer needs and the demand of anti-biotech activists groups.

In a more recently article, Ben Cooper of just-food reports about major companies switching to cage-free eggs such as McDonalds, Wendy’s, Starbucks and Taco Bell. Even large food companies such as Mondelez International, ConAgra Foods and Nestle are making the commitment. ConAgra says it is making this decision to “satisfy growing consumer demand for cage-free eggs.” However, Cooper takes a careful look at what the actual concern of the mainstream consumer. Glen Hickman, CEO of Hickman’s Family Farms in Arizona says, “I think we’re responding to a vocal minority and if we do this correctly we won’t penalize the rest of the consumers who may be ambivalent.”

Hickman and Cooper both believe that the unconcerned majority of consumers will be penalized by large food companies switching to cage-free eggs by higher prices that they didn’t ask for. Cage-free eggs are more expensive. If a majority of companies switch to cage-free eggs, however, economies of scale will allow the price to increase only marginally. Cage-free doesn’t necessarily mean better welfare. When many discover the true requirements for chickens to be cage-free it appears to be a marketing loophole.  Is cage-free really more humane? The majority of farmers, including every farmer I know personally, has any intention of harming their chickens – even farmers raising traditional caged chickens. The point still stands that the majority of consumers will begin exploring more expensive food options because of the vocal minority.

Large cereal manufacturers such as General Mills and Kellogg’s have committed to eventually coloring all of their cereals naturally and removing artificial coloring such as Red 40. Each company cites a consumer desire for more natural coloring. If General Mills Kellogg’s have responded to this consumer concern then why do sales continue to slump? There are many factors that could contribute to cold sales, however one might be that the marketing decision to remove artificial colors from cereals was driven by the vocal minority. Mintel market research shows us that 54% of consumers prefer taste and flavor over any other cereal product attribute. With taste driving a majority of sales and natural qualities coming in third, it’s no wonder the companies who have continued to producing good tasting cereal are growing.

Overall, companies will see growth in the long-run by focusing on the silent majority and mainstream consumer desire. Changing products to cater to short-term food fads and the demands of a vocal minority will only drive away large groups of loyal customers. Focus on the market which shows a demand for good tasting and value products, not necessarily expensive products with meaningless and misleading labels and claims.

Check out this info-graphic about sweeteners that summarizes the vocal minority concept:


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