Jason Stemm
Jason Stemm

It was 2006. MySpace was the most popular website, the Flip camera was the latest technology, and the iPhone was still a year away. I pitched the brand manager of a boxed rice and noodle product an online video contest. Little did we know, a major chip brand was crowdsourcing its Super Bowl ad. He was skeptical, but the CEO entered the meeting and recounted a recent introduction to YouTube by his teenage children. He recognized the powerful way they connected with videos, and he greenlit the project.

We have all read about and experienced the rapidly evolving communication space. While there are still generational differences, more people are putting down a newspaper and picking up a smartphone. Once connected, we are likely filtering the information through a few social networks, websites and news aggregators. Major media outlets are taking a “digital first” approach as they see the growth of inbound traffic through social channels. Further, Google and Facebook alone account for nearly three quarters of digital advertising and even a greater percentage of the growth. Advanced algorithms and retargeting are impacting the types and variety of information we consume.

O'Dwyer's Mar. '18 Food & Beverage PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Mar. '18 Food & Beverage PR Magazine

What has been lost in this increasingly programmatic world is the human touch. Technology is the interface. When we talk about a digital first approach, it is about creating experiences and exchanges that are enjoyable, meaningful and personable.

For example, food is a highly personal conversation for many people that is connected to health, happiness, experiences and memories. This is likely why NPD research shows that while food, and perishables in particular, is seeing gains in e-commerce, it still trails nearly every other category. They do expect this to catch up as new players emerge, and traditional players evolve to turn their expansive real estate into miniature distribution centers to solve that last mile challenge for food delivery.

The customer journey also is evolving, which means our touchpoints as communicators are changing. Awareness and research are happening through social channels and online. The point of sale can be anywhere. For food marketers, what it really comes down to is convenience, experience and connection.

It starts with the individual. Rather than targeting a demographic, we are looking for a type, a personality. Identifying the commonalities that consumers share gives us better opportunities to meet them in the right place, at the right time, with the right message.

The greatest challenge for professional communicators today is the battle for time. With increasing noise and decreasing attention spans, we should not be surprised at the prevalence of memes and click bait. Infographics and listicles are great ways to package and deliver information, but if you are not telling a compelling story, it is little better than a poorly written news release.

The human connection is where the magic happens. We can communicate the logical benefits (convenience, health) or the emotional benefits (joy, altruism), but when we combine the two into meaningful connection, we change hearts and minds. Technology is just the medium. Brands need to rethink this connection and experience. Our food choices and values make a statement. Where we shop and eat, the brands and characteristics we shop for and the foods we choose to serve our family and friends all say something about our values.

Challenger brands have had success connecting with purpose. While some are being gobbled up by multinationals, there are many that continue to grow independently. Their nimbleness and lack of a tried-and-true playbook for marketing have provided flexibility and innovation in product development and the way they go to market. Many are inspired by the lack of alternatives in the marketplace. Others are focused on removing ingredients and processes of which consumers are becoming more skeptical. Their offerings go beyond taste, price and convenience and strike an emotional chord with customers.

E-commerce, subscription marketing and expanding channels are not only changing the way we do business, but also the way we connect with stakeholders. For food products, that can mean a digital-first approach, while not forgetting the importance of the experience. People love to talk about food, ask questions of others, get recommendations from peers and experts, and discover new products and flavors. These conversations used to largely take place in stores and restaurants. Now someone may order directly from a recipe they discover online with one click and never enter the establishment. They may order lunch from a “restaurant” that doesn’t have a storefront.

Food is full of personal and shared experiences and memories. While technology use is increasing as retailers solve the last mile challenge, there is a consumer experience that brick and mortar retailers still have the opportunity to leverage. This is where internal communication and culture become paramount. Food retail can learn a lot from hospitality when it comes to employee training. Customers will interact most with employees on the floor, so invest in them. They have the potential to become ambassadors and resources that improve the shopping experience.

At the end of the day, as technology advances and strategies are adjusted, the basic principles remain. Connect with stakeholders in meaningful ways to tell a better story. A table-to-farm approach that starts with insight into the consumer and leverages technology to make connections along the way will deliver meaningful experiences that nurture advocates to share your story.


Jason Stemm is Vice President at Padilla, where he oversees integrated marketing campaigns that combine public relations and promotion programs, and provides strategic counsel for companies looking to build awareness and grow sales.