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Understanding Fear-Based Marketing Campaigns: 3 Questions to Ask

Posted by IFCO Systems
November 03, 2016

With the 2016 US Presidential Election right around the corner, negative and fear-based marketing campaigns have been commonplace in recent months. It’s no surprise that negative campaigns are widespread in politics. Efforts to discredit the opposition can sometimes boost the popularity of the claimant, however such initiatives can also backfire and tarnish the reputation of the accuser rather than just the target. Even worse, negative political campaigns can have a broader effect, causing public distrust for the entire political process.

When it comes to business of perishables, negative campaigns similarly can result in overall harm to not only the targeted competitors but also to claimants and the industry at large. This damage can extend to the customers we serve when they are given poor nutritional advice and misinformation about fresh food. The unanticipated collateral damage of fear-based campaigns can be extensive.

While many cold chain participants are not marketing professionals, we can help support the health of the industry and consumers by scrutinizing fear-based marketing closely to determine the risks that come with claims about using one pallet rather than another, reusable plastic containers versus corrugated, or non-organic produce versus organic.

When you encounter fear-based campaigns, start with three questions:

  1. Does evidence show that real world harm is caused by using the feared product? The quickest way to debunk a fear-based claim is to determine if there is real world evidence of harm caused by the feared product.
  2. Is there credible research to back the claims? Sometimes, as in the organics versus non-organics debate, research is taken out of context, to the potential harm of consumers. Likewise, rigorous laboratory swab results of feared packaging are meaningless if the methodology for selecting the samples for testing is not scientifically valid, and based on an understanding of actual supply chain practices. Look for studies with third party oversight to gain confidence in the validity of research.
  3. If there is no real world harm, and questionable research, is the campaign potentially damaging to the industry and consumers? In politics as in business, fear-based messaging is designed to trigger deep rooted emotional responses to manipulate voters and buyers alike. The best approach to stop the spread of fear-based campaigns is by not buying into it. By being prepared for fear-based messaging, you are in a better position to make an informed decision.

Case in point, new research from Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Center for Nutrition Research concludes that fear-based messages "used by activist groups and some organic marketers that invoke safety concerns about non-organic produce may be having an adverse impact on consumption of fruits and veggies among low-income consumers."

One of the major findings of the study was that misleading messaging which inaccurately describes particular produce items as having "higher" pesticide residues has lead low-income shoppers to report that they would be "unlikely to purchase any fruits and vegetables - organically or non-organically grown."

The research supports the conclusions of another peer-reviewed study by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future. The Johns Hopkins report determined that conflicting messaging, including information about pesticide residues, was problematic for consumers who might feel overwhelmed by contradictory information about healthy eating.

“Given the potential implications of competing messages about healthy eating,” the study stated, “it is important that those who want to improve food production techniques and those who want to improve nutrition cooperate to create consistent messaging about healthy eating.”

A 2008 article in Harvard Business Review issues a similar caution on the dangers of negative campaigns:

Unlike politicians, companies hardly ever run negative ads. Pepsi ads don’t tear down Coke; they build the brand image of Pepsi. Why? Because a tit-for-tat war of words would turn off consumers of both brands.

Food safety is of utmost concern to everyone in the produce industry, and as studies suggest, to employ fear-based campaigns based on dubious data may provoke customers to steer clear of all fresh fruit and vegetables, to the detriment of community health.

It is worth considering that the issue of fear-based marketing extends beyond politics, or in the case of perishables, simply the organic versus non-organic produce. For example, fear-based allegations still periodically emerge that one of pallet is more likely to result in contamination than another, or that one transport packaging material is more hygienic than the other, in spite of the reality that neither type of pallet or produce transport packaging has been implicated in food safety cases. Such unfounded allegations do nothing to protect consumer safety, and they can potentially undermine confidence in the perishable supply chain. Such campaigns are undertaken to the potential detriment of the entire industry, and most importantly, to the public we serve.

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