#7, November 1999
Importance of Consumer Advocacy
ConsumerLoops have mentioned consumer advocacy as
an emerging social value, however, only recently
in the debacle over genetically engineered foods,
has it been seen in its potential strength for the
future. If there is one over-riding lesson
(amongst many) from the GM foods story, it is that
the application and implementation of new
technologies needs to be properly managed and
communicated to the consumer. Issues of speed of
transfer of information and knowledge have also
been fully demonstrated on a global basis. In the
future, all brand incidents will look like this
because of increased consumer advocacy.
1990, there were no GM crops in commercial
cultivation in the Western World. The first food
products started to appear in 1992. Tomato and
soya-based products were launched in 1996. The
area planted with GM crops jumped from 2 to 28
million hectares worldwide. Consumer disquiet was
gently simmering when Monsanto began its
information campaign to explain the science behind
GM Foods in April. 1998 became the point of
escalation and was quickly picked up on a global
basis. Initially, European disquiet grew faster
than American. However, in turn, American concern
has now grown substantially. There is now renewed
debate between all parties over various assessment
procedures for genetically engineered foods
exacerbating consumer confusion.
are some strong influences underlying increased
consumer advocacy. These are:
of trust and traditional forms of authority.
of information transfer and global impact.
call to action.
will look more closely at companies and their
brands. They will look at the integrity of
production and at other elements of the value
chain. The debate is less about quality but rather
more about the sanctity and integrity of the
processes used to get products to market. The
entire supply chain will be included in this. The
desire for integrity is expected to increase
because of the renewed focus on environmental
issues. The environmental issue is not going to
disappear, 1999 has seen too many catalysts.
of Trust and Respect for Traditional Authority
driver shaping consumer advocacy is the collapse
of consumer trust and increasingly, lack of trust
in traditional forms of authority such as
governments, many companies and other well worn,
formerly respected figures. The role of authority
is important as it could represent an anchor for
consumers and provide reassurance. Consumers are
seeing through the varied statements and policies
coming from totally different directions and are
realising now that they may have the power to
shape market development. Experts always seem to
be presenting differing and sometimes, opposing
Alan Mitchell wrote in Marketing Week (4.3.99):
and most crucially, we have learned that if we put
all these lessons together there cannot be an
honest broker rising above the melee of opinion,
idealogy, and interest to take a balanced,
objective view. After all, the facts the honest
broker relies upon, are in the end no better than
anybody else's. So deep inside, we feel gnawing,
debilitating, confusing waves of doubt. Where once
we saw science and the facts as the final arbiter-
as a new God - today, we have learned to become
agnostic, if not atheist."
need for transparency is a natural consequence
from the breakdown of trust and authority. Being
genuinely transparent from technology to marketing
will become increasingly important. A lack of
transparency causes suspicion and consumer
Speed of Information Transfer and Global Impact
speed of information transfer is generating a new
timeline shaping markets. Consumers seem to be
able to communicate information faster than many
companies. The sum of this communication flow is
the result of them making individual choices. A
message can be posted to a newsgroup in a nano-second,
a consumer recommendation that used to reach a
handful of friends in days now reaches millions
worldwide in minutes. In this way, consumers are
actively taking part in the marketing process.
There is no doubt that this speedy information
transfer has escalated the level of debate.
old debate about consumer environmental concern
was that it rarely led to action. This has been
finally laid to rest. Just look at Brent Spar and
the invidious position earnt by McDonald's. Also
powerful lobbying groups can facilitate consumer
action. In this case of genetically engineered
foods, the call to action has been seen in the
increased sales of organic foods. However, this
shift has also been complicated by various other
food scares especially in Europe.
as a Pressure Group
other parties, retailers seem to have been the
most vociferous and responsive to consumer
advocacy, even potentially adding fuel to the
flames and becoming a pressure group in their own
right. This is should also be seen against the
context that retailers seem to have been able to
hold on to their perception of trust. Retailer
after retailer has foresworn GM ingredients.
Across Europe, Greenpeace has now logged 25 major
retailers including Delhaize Le Lion, Auchan,
Carrefour, Edeka, Esselunga, Migros, Asda,
Iceland, Marks & Spencer etc which are taking/
have taken action to eliminate genetically
engineered products. One of the latest to react is
Aldi, announcing in October 1999 that it would not
use genetic engineering in its own label products.
Iceland in the UK has almost succeeded in
highjacking a range of consumer issues by prompt
action. The most recent case has them removing the
colouring agent from the chicken feed to turn egg
yolks a more natural yellow.
A Role Model?
are scarcely a role model for communication.
According to the Economist, European governments
"have a distressingly bad record of
suppressing 'inconvenient' scientific data and
when that does not work, of simply lying about
Monsanto particularly unlucky with its timing? A
spokesman for Monsanto, again reported in
Marketing Week (27.5.99) said:
were na´ve in thinking more information was not
now clearly carries a price. In October 1999,
Monsanto bowed to external pressure in one regard
and made a commitment not to commercialise sterile
seed technologies although it would continue to
work on other selective GM technologies to protect
its investment. Robert Shapiro, CEO of Monsanto,
conceded that the company had irritated and
antagonised more people than converted to its
are some hypotheses and implications to be taken
into consideration when looking at the potential
power of consumer advocacy in the future.
need to examine carefully how the desire for
integrity, trust and a need for transparency
could impact their brands and their products.
overall objective should be to enhance the
trust construct in their brands.
is a clear need to manage the communications
process for new technologies. Consumer
advocacy has proven effective in other areas.
introducing new technologies need to be more
consumer-aware and consumer-focused. Na´vetÚ
is not an excuse.
expectation should be that consumers have the
ability to vote with their feet. The growth in
organic food has been a case in point as a
protest against genetically engineered foods.
This call to action can be facilitated by
communications channels is a pre-requisite.
This means the total range of communications
including the various consumer 'hate' sites.
Public relations should play an increased role
in the mix of communications.
consumer advocacy is set to be a powerful force in
the market-place in the future as a result of a
combination of factors. Consumer power should not
be under estimated. For this reason, it would
appear that brands will have to evolve ways in
which they can enhance consumer trust. Through the
Loop has commissioned a multinational business
school to look at characteristics of trust,
specific parameters which make up trust and
cultural associations and linkages across brands.
The relationship and the power of the Internet is
also being included in this project as a key
driver. This is expected to be ready by the end of