|Allison Mikita (L) and Jean Owen Curran co-authored this article.
Foods and beverages have to communicate a lot to win over today’s health-conscious consumers: the authenticity or naturalness of their ingredients, their unique and bona fide nutritional content and the role they play in supporting healthy lifestyles and dietary patterns. And, with the continued growth of functional foods and ingredients, and disruptive product formats and formulations, brands have never had to work harder to build consumer trust—all while establishing and maintaining a sufficient share of voice to reach them in the first place.
Amidst the cacophony of competing health and wellness solutions, it’s no wonder many shoppers remain wary of innovative new offerings and marketing claims. In McKinsey & Company’s October 2022 report, “Hungry and Confused: The Winding Road to Conscious Eating,” they found that while half of consumers across age groups cite healthy eating as a top priority, the same proportion of consumers say they have a hard time knowing what constitutes a healthy choice. And, perhaps maddeningly, the key to unlocking consumer understanding, trust and buy-in can also be a significant barrier: science communications.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Mar. '23 Food & Beverage PR Magazine
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Without question, objective data, peer-reviewed findings and other evidence-based proof points are essential to the development of credible health messaging. Despite the widespread perception that public trust in science has been eroding, a 2021 report by the Wellcome Trust showed that about 80 percent of people polled across 113 countries reported they trusted science either “a lot” or “some,” marking an increase from 2018. Yet, there are inherent tensions when it comes to communicating science effectively. Increasingly, it’s an expectation of the food and beverage industry to bolster credibility, and industry-funded research is presumed to be biased and unreliable. Consumers look to science for reasons to believe, and their purchasing decisions are often driven by emotion. As communications and marketing professionals, you need to share clear, accurate and often nuanced scientific messages that can tie into consumers’ emotions and values—and you’re also competing for their attention with puppy pictures and viral videos.
Though these are significant challenges, following a few science communications best practices can help ensure your science-backed food and beverage messaging cuts through the noise while strengthening your brand’s credibility.
Find common ground across target audiences
Oftentimes, science communications need to pull double duty, effectively informing both a general consumer audience and a highly educated and specialized stakeholder audience. Messaging must be thoughtfully adapted for these two vastly different groups. For each, you’re often addressing different knowledge gaps, driving different calls to action and certainly leaning into different lexicons. However, we have a tendency to underestimate the average consumer’s interest in data and research and to overestimate the level of engagement from our insider stakeholder audience. Science can be the gatekeeper to trust and allegiance for both, but both need a compelling hook, eye-catching visuals and simplified summaries. Everyone loves a good story. But regardless of the target audience’s level of expertise, the fundamentals remain the same: keep copy short and punchy, marry the message with design, and stick to the rule of three.
Blend science with emotion
It’s tempting to think that the data speaks for itself, or that publication in a top-tier peer-reviewed journal is the final stop on the science communications journey. Too often, science translation and promotion are afterthoughts or even missed opportunities altogether, when in fact, your research strategy should be developed in parallel with your science communications strategy. Evidence in and of itself isn’t enough. Data points need to be artfully woven together into a narrative to make them meaningful and relevant to your audience and to connect the dots between research findings and tailored takeaways.
Pledge allegiance to transparency
Science generated within the food and beverage industry ought to be held to the highest possible standards to demonstrate scientific rigor and credibility and address issues of bias. From how research questions are crafted to how funding and conflicts of interest are disclosed, any privately funded research should pass key sniff tests along the way. The American Society for Nutrition provides guiding principles for industry funders and other entities of interest to ensure scientific integrity in nutrition research. Transparency is the common thread through the guidelines, which should serve as the North Star for all credible research efforts.
Socialize the science
In today’s crowded landscape, effectively disseminating scientific messaging requires a multi-channel approach and a mixed approach of owned, earned, paid and shared media. Though science storytelling may have been confined to smaller, more specialized outlets in the past —and Twitter has long been the favored social channel for research news—those lines are blurring. A spectrum of consumer and trade outlets and more audio- and visual-based media (think podcasts and TikTok) can be perfect platforms for science translation and promotion. Ensuring the channel is the right match for your target audience and tailoring your content for each channel are key drivers of campaign success.
Lead with equity, diversity and inclusion
For science to resonate, it must reflect the needs and the lived experiences of a diverse and inclusive population. Whether you’re thinking about who you’re including on your research team or in your study cohorts, the influencer partners and spokespeople you work with to help spread the word, or the language you use to tell your evidence-based story, equity goes hand-in-hand with credibility.
Allison Mikita, MS, is Vice President and Director, Global ExpertBench at FoodMinds. Jean Owen Curran, MS, RD, is a Director at FoodMinds. They lead the agency’s Global Scientific Affairs & Communications strategic solution area, with an emphasis on nutrition, health & wellness strategy and communications.