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(This is part of an ongoing series of posts we’re calling Brandcrumbs, which are bits and pieces of branding advice left over from our regular conversations about real-world brand positioning challenges.)

Brands in food and beverage processing have the challenge—and the privilege—of talking with consumers about three issues that tend to conflict us: food, technology, and science. Marketers who want to succeed in our industry must understand the conflicting attitudes—the loves and the hates—that we carry on these topics. We’re typically well aware of consumers’ hates in the world of food; if we want to truly understand consumers, we need to make sure that we understand their loves as well.

We hate food; we love food

If anthropologists from another culture listened in on some of our industry conversations, they might be forgiven for thinking that Americans don’t much like food at all. With our discussions about GMOs, clean labeling, artificial ingredients, sustainability, and social responsibility, we’re well aware that consumers hate certain aspects of food. Just as seriously, the consumer media’s coverage of stories like the WHO’s announcement that red meat causes cancer often gives the impression that everything is bad for you.

We should never lose sight of these concerns, but it’s also essential to keep in mind that the food industry provides things that people love. Delicious food, even when it’s something as simple as a snack bar or slice of bread, brings people joy. This is as true now as it has ever been, with increasing numbers of consumers taking interest in food from a cultural and intellectual perspective as well as for sensory or nutritional reasons. According to one media outlet, food is the new rock. For another writer, food is replacing art as the focus of culture. Food is even, perhaps, religion.

Takeaway: Although we need to bear in mind the aspects of food that consumers dislike or distrust, we also need to be attentive to the joy that our products bring people. Capturing that joy, not merely allaying fear, is a crucial component of food marketing today.

We hate technology; we love technology

With consumer culture turning toward all things simple, natural, and old fashioned, technology is the last thing most eaters want associated with their food. Companies that overtly combine food and technology tend to be among those consumers trust least: think Monsanto. More broadly, many consumers seem concerned about the accelerating presence of technology in our lives, as seen by debates about screen time, online privacy, and whether our cell phones are killing us. Consumer concerns about technology in food derive in part from this same anxiety—to some degree a reasonable response to what has been by any measure one of the most dramatic shifts in the history of technology.

At the same time, people love technology when it makes their lives better (as, in the final analysis, all technology was designed to do!) The quintessential example from contemporary culture is the iPhone, which (though some of its luster may have been lost recently) has created absurd joy in its devotees. Similarly, the manifold technologies of the Internet, for all the angst they may produce, have brought happiness to many people. To get even more basic, most of us have a favorite pen or a preferred shoe—and these too are technologies.

Takeaway: For food brands, the challenge lies in showing how technology can serve and uplift consumers, not just the industry, even in the realm of things we eat. Though consumers now see technology largely as decreasing the quality of food, it need not be so.

We hate science; we love science

Much like technology, we in the food industry are well aware of consumer concerns about food science—whether that means the production of GMOs or ingredients with long, technical names. We’re accustomed to thinking that consumers want their food associated more with the kitchen than the lab, and we brand accordingly.

At the same time, we accord science enough authority in our culture that “science says” is practically irrefutable. Furthermore, science (most people know when they are paying attention) has made people’s lives better in myriad ways, from the discovery of anesthetics to the creation of the hoverboard (well, maybe not that latter one so much). And even in food, consumers with an interest in home cooking or high-end cuisine are increasingly exposed to food science through science-oriented media outlets like Serious Eats or America’s Test Kitchen, or through chefs and cookbooks influenced by Modernist Cuisine.

Takeaway: This suggests that the kitchen/lab binary need not hold forever. Food and beverage companies have it in their power to assist in the rehabilitation of food science and to show how it can make consumers’ lives better and their food more delightful.

Although it may seem daunting to engage consumers on such sensitive topics, brands that can navigate these complex emotions will gain a huge advantage over their competitors. When others are simply avoiding topics like science and technology, there’s a real opportunity to take these topics on and rehabilitate their image. Though most of us are well aware of consumers’ hates, understanding their loves may prove the key to creating a rich and compelling brand.

Matt Miller staff photo
Matt Miller writes, teaches, and practices biodynamic gardening near Reeds Spring, Missouri. A MarketPlace alum with a background in academic research, he’s fascinated with how culture, media, and business interact—and equally with the best methods of cultivating healthy fruit trees.