Once upon a time, the term evangelist referred to those passionate about their religious faith, but lately we have seen the term applied to new areas of life, such as Food eVangelist.
Food eVangelists, a small but globally powerful group who want to impact the way food is raised, packaged and sold, are quickly becoming less of a fringe online opinion audience and more mainstream consumers. This, according to the fourth global Food 2020 study, released by the global public relations agency Ketchum, which hones in on this particularly vocal group in 11 markets across North America, South America, Europe and Asia.
So who are these Food eVangelists?
They are people who read food labels, and seek out as much information as possible regarding new food products. Food eVangelists are considered “food involved,” according to Ketchum’s survey conducted across Germany, the U.S., the U.K., Italy, China and Argentina. Of those consumers who are “food involved,” 48% are considered food evangelists, making up 22% of the general population of those six countries.
The evangelists go beyond mere information gathering and actively push out their opinions either online or offline four or more times a week. They are not necessarily activists nor are they typically connected with an NGO (nongovernmental organization).
In terms of demographics, 48% of food evangelists are under 35 years old, 62% are female and 46% are parents. Their income is well above average. As a group, 69% say they’ve increased fresh food purchases and 59% are purchasing less processed foods compared with the previous year.
Globally, the incidence of Food eVangelists has grown 10 percent and now accounts for 24 percent of the general population. Italy and Argentina saw large increases – from 37 percent to 43 percent in Italy and from 29 percent to 33 percent in Argentina. The United States saw a 27 percent increase in two years from 11 percent to 14 percent, representing 45 million people.
“Food eVangelists are becoming a mainstream, dominant market force, exacting marked change on the way the food industry operates and communicates, and we predict they will become the ‘new normal’ among consumers,” said Linda Eatherton, partner and managing director of Ketchum’s Global Food & Beverage Practice. “While Food eVangelists have a desire to influence others, it’s important to remember that they don’t promote a specific agenda. Rather they seek information from multiple sources, listen to varying opinions, and make their own decisions.”
Eatherton continued, “What’s more, they are raising the next generation of Food eVangelists who, in many homes, are playing the role of ‘family conscience keepers’ and have significant influence on how the family defines healthy eating and the food purchases they make.”
Globally, half of all parents say their children take an active role in choosing the types of food the family eats (49 percent) while 39 percent say their children look at labels and shun foods with certain ingredients (38 percent). Additionally, one-third of respondents say their kids express a strong preference for organic or locally produced food, and 26 percent say kids stay away from processed foods.
“Not surprising, many children hold the same beliefs and preferences as their parents. However, what does appear to be new and growing is how actively engaged children are in making family food buying and eating choices,” said Eatherton. “The data clearly signifies that the children of Food eVangelists are poised to become the influencers of tomorrow.”
A Strong Preference for Local
Not long ago, healthy eating meant consuming a balanced diet; today it includes such factors as how and where food is produced, what the animals are fed and how they are cared for, and the values of the company.
Among the more notable findings from this study is the Food eVangelist’s increasing preference for locally grown and produced food. Nearly half of global respondents (49 percent) trust the quality of food from a local retailer more than from mass supermarkets, while 47 percent say food from smaller producers is safer than food from large ones. Those percentages jump to 66 and 58 percent, respectively, among Americans.
Just over half (56 percent) of global respondents say the world’s food supply would benefit from more small, local producers, and 54 percent say the best food comes from farmers with whom they can interact.
These preferences for local food indicate that some consumers place higher value on small, local brands and regard them as premium. They also reflect the Food eVangelist’s belief that simpler is better. They want foods with simple ingredients, few or no preservatives, hormone free and organic. In fact, when asked about the value of organic and simple foods, 60 percent of Food eVangelists said that it’s very important for them to teach their children the value of organic foods and 58 percent said the same about simple foods.
Further bolstering the preference for organic is the fact that in the United States between 2005 and 2014, organic food sales increased 170 percent, and organic sales continue to increase more than double the rate of total food sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In the United States, the number of farmers’ markets has grown from 1,755 markets in 1994 to more than 8,140 in 2013.1 Globally, the market for organic products in 2013 reached $72 billion, with 170 countries now reporting organic farming activities, up from 164 in 2013.2
There is good news for the food industry at large – Food eVangelists don’t expect perfection. “In fact, they don’t think perfection is possible,” Eatherton explained. “What they want is for food companies to demonstrate honesty and to provide access to many different information sources who are not representatives of the corporation.”
Responding to the Food eVangelist
In many cases, the food industry is responding to input from Food eVangelists and seeing some positive results. In recent years there has been substantial renovation of the value chain, with many high-profile brands announcing changes in the product formulation, ingredient lists or supplier demands.
Another indicator of progress is that Food eVangelists polled in the U.S., U.K. and Germany today have greater confidence in the safety of the food supply than they did in 2013. When asked two years ago how confident they are that the food they buy is safe and good for them, only 39 percent of those in the U.S. expressed a high degree of confidence. Confidence levels in Germany were 34 percent and a mere 32 percent in the U.K. Today, those percentages have increased, with 55 percent in the U.S. expressing a high degree of confidence, 47 percent in Germany, and 45 percent in the U.K. However, confidence levels in other markets are poor, with fewer than one in three people expressing high confidence (Singapore: 30 percent, Hong Kong: 21 percent, and Brazil: 25 percent).
The Food eVangelist is, not surprising, an active social media participant, but they turn to more traditional sources, rather than social media for information. Preferring traditional media sources such as national TV news (51 percent) and newspapers (48 percent) over a favorite blog (43 percent) or Twitter (34 percent).
“It’s apparent that the voice of the Food eVangelist is not falling upon deaf ears in the food industry and that some forward progress in reaching this group has been made,” said Eatherton. “Many brands have directly addressed consumer concern and become increasingly more open, and, as a result, we’ve seen an increase in trust and respect. This is the type of behavior that the industry must continue to nurture in order to win tomorrow’s core consumer Food e-Vangelists.”
A recent example of this corporate response was demonstrated when U.S. food giant Campbell Soup Company joined the chorus calling for federally mandated GMO labeling standards. In part, Campbell cited strong consumer opinion as a key factor driving their policy change. With 92 percent of Americans favoring GMO labeling, such overwhelming support can be directly attributed to ardent Food eVangelists.
1 – “Organic Market Overview,” USDA, Economic Research Service, April 2014
2 – “The World of Organic Agriculture” report by FiBL and IFOAM, February 2015