How we did it and what we learned.

AAA 1by Jan Johnson, Principle, Millennium Research Inc.| Landmark Performance

Last month, I was asked to help kick off the 2016 Animal Agriculture Alliance Summit (#AAA16), “Securing Animal Agriculture’s Future: Action, Please!” with a consumer panel. We gained fantastic insight into how grocery shoppers – average consumers – think about their food and the choices they make about what they buy and where they buy it.

How We Did It

Hannah Thompson, communications manager, asked me to lead a focus group of consumers for the Summit. She wanted a variety of consumers who represented main stream urban and suburban America, or at least the ones that live around Washington, DC.

We developed what is called a recruiting screener, and a local focus group facility did the calling to find a mix of people based on age, gender, ethnicity, family size, household income, where they shopped and the key things they looked for in their groceries. We were looking for people who are the main grocery shoppers for their household.

Using this screener, the facility found the seven people who attended the panel focus group. Although I had instructed the facility to tell the consumers that they would be participating in front of a large group of people, they hadn’t been told, so it was a surprise to them. Good troopers, every one of them – nobody backed out, even though I gave them the opportunity. From there, I told them it would be just like any other focus group; we were looking for true, honest answers and the breadth of experiences and opinions that exist. I didn’t tell them who the people in the audience would be, or the name of the organization.

From the 12th-floor meeting area, we made our way to the main ballroom where the panel would be held. They were all looking for water – a bit of nerves, I think. They were also eagerly looking for anything that would give them a clue of who would be sitting in the audience.

The consumers on the panel were only told that the focus group was about grocery shopping. They had no clue what the questions would be before they sat down on stage.

What we discovered in 60 minutes:

  • Everyone has a unique approach to food shopping
  • Consumers are confused and skeptical of product claims on labels
  • Close friends and Facebook are main sources of information
  • Eating habits can be changed by a significant information event, whether it’s true or not
  • Multiple outreach methods are important
  • Classrooms can be a critical leverage point
  • Telling conventional animal agriculture’s story means telling it one story at a time

Everyone has a unique approach to food shopping


Label claims are confusing and consumers are skeptical of their meaning

We discovered that everyone on the panel has a unique approach to how they shop for food, from the very deliberate, well-thought-out plan of attack on three stores based on price and quality, to a laid back, “I get what I want wherever is the handiest.” Appearance and freshness are key drivers of product selection for everyone, regardless of where they shop.

I try to get free roaming, but a lot of the terminology confuses me. On eggs, there is organic and free range, and there is a lot of terminology that I don’t understand. I read somewhere what I was supposed to be looking for, but I forget what it was. I try to pick the ones that make it sound like the chicken was happy during its life. —Young female shopper

Consumers look at labels but are confused as to what they mean. Three people on the panel very carefully try to buy organic, because they feel it is healthier for them, even though they are unsure what organic really means. Labels like “free range” are not clear to consumers, because there is no standard definition of what “free range” might mean, and many brands have taken to labeling their foods in ways that capitalize on current trends, such as “gluten-free” even when the products have always been gluten free. This makes consumers skeptical of many label claims.

I am skeptical of the gluten-free craze going on right now, even though I order the gluten-free pizza crust. They have essentially made everything gluten-free and they are putting labels on stuff that has always been gluten-free.” — Young male shopper

“What does that mean?” was a common refrain among the panel in considering the various label claims that exist on fresh food products.

If it’s on the internet, it’s true. If it’s on Facebook, it’s even truer.

Facebook is a common source of information, even if the information was not generated on Facebook.

My initial response is, I don’t get my information from Facebook, but the truth is, I get my information from Facebook.—College professor

While the panelists acknowledge that one should have multiple sources and do their own research, shares by close friends or family lead consumers to stories that may or may not be true. These stories are generally critical of conventional farming practices. Stories that create the underlying suspicion that conventional agriculture is doing something underhanded to make food less healthy are common on Facebook, from injecting chicken with liquid to make it look plumper, to feeding chemicals to tilapia to make them grow faster. The message is just enough to make consumers doubt their choices, and in some cases, stop buying certain products for a while, or forever.

FOOD INC. was mentioned as a life changing experience for one panelist, who, since watching the movie, refuses to eat conventionally produced beef or pork.

In 2011, I watched FOOD INC. That changed my life regarding beef and pork, the mass production of these processing facilities. If I was able to raise a cow, I would eat cow every day. Not knowing what is being fed to these animals and how they are being processed makes me not eat them. I would eat the cow if I got to meet the cow, or visit the farm where it’s being raised.  I probably would eat the cow if I knew where it was coming from. —Young male shopper

So what is the agriculture industry to do?

It became clear that there are so many food messages out there for consumers, it’s hard to know where to start, characterized by this exchange between panelists.

There’s a controversy about corn. Everybody wants to hate corn. I don’t know if I agree with it, or why I am supposed to hate it.

I didn’t know I was supposed to hate corn.

Tackling the anti-conventional food industry will be much like eating an elephant: You do it one bite at a time. The most important thing is to get started and be consistent.

What we learned from the consumer panel

From the panelists, we learned that although they don’t think about where their food comes from very often, they do think family farms are important – the ideal way food should be grown and raised.

Telling the story of an industry isn’t as important or as compelling as telling an individual story, whether it’s a farm or an animal. Creating a personal connection – through video, social media, and shared values – makes it interesting and believable.

We are bombarded with messages on social media. We need to cut to the chase and be fact based. Deliver that message to the young people. –Middle-aged male executive

Come to my class. Classrooms are a great way to encounter people who might have open minds. —Female professor

It’s about integrity. She said Mom was a trusted source of information; that’s integrity. —Young male shopper

Integrity is the key for a successful message. Is it authentic? Do consumers want to trust the source? Is it emotional and believable?

I would rather see the quality of life the animal had before it became my food. Did it have a good life? Was it happy while it was alive? That’s what makes me feel better about the food choices I make.—young female shopper

Watch the full video of the panel: