Food companies and social media: disturbing trends

Chris Kenton wrote a blog post yesterday about a WSJ article on Gatorade’s new “Mission Control” center that includes 4 full time employees who monitor social media networks for Gatorade mentions and respond if necessary.  They have to make judgement calls on how and when to jump into online social conversations (which can be difficult as Nestle has experienced).  As the Chief Marketing Officer says in the article, they consider themselves a person in peoples’ social circles.  I am abhorred at the thought of food companies jumping into my e-conversations, and hope they don’t go too far.

Though it notes that they are still unsure if they sell more product because of these efforts (it is a new project), there is evidence that social media increases traffic and sales.  Of recent examples, McDonald’s reported a big jump in FourSquare check-ins with an inexpensive promo campaign that was picked up by media outlets.  Companies like Domino’s attribute social media to at least some increase in profits.  For the most part, early adopter companies are experimenting, some much more successful than others.

I find the trend of food companies jumping online to build brand loyalty and establish more personal connections with consumers deeply disturbing.

The evidence that our food environment needs to be changed has been extensively studied by Brian Wansink and others, who states:

“Our studies who that the average person makes around 250 decisions about food every day …”

He said it best:

“One thing we can start doing is start re-engineering our environment so it mindlessly works for us, rather than against us.”

He and others have established a social influence on eating and obesity and body image perception among these numerous variables of modernity that alter our eating.  If high calorie junk foods dominate new media as well, current trends will not change and likely become worse.  Our social circles become even larger online.

From my perspective, I would generalize food trends developing online into the following:

  • There are large communities of “foodies” and chefs/cooks who share recipe and food information.
  • The slow food movement has a significant following on the web.
  • Food companies are increasing their presence on social media mediums as they realize the potential for nearly-free advertising to many people.
  • Low-carb and paleo diet followers have an active community.
  • There are relatively few nutritional/health scientists/practitioners who are online.

Will social media help “convert” enough people to make measurable differences to eat better or are they simply communities of people with preexisting beliefs?

How do we re-engineer an environment that allows for easy health choices while allowing the freedoms we and brands currently enjoy?  It just isn’t possible.  What compromises could be made to at least make improvements?

Will food companies’ presence continue leading us away from healthy eating?  Will they take advantage of social media to individually target us for advertising or just support their customers?

  • http://twitter.com/ckenton Chris Kenton

    Colby: Thanks for reading my post on Gatorade. I agree with your concerns. I think what’s disturbing is the mentality that dropping in to consumer conversations to pitch your product somehow makes you a part of your target’s “social circle”. That’s a very transactional view of what community means–one that conveniently fails to take into account what really matters to the customer or what’s in their best interest. On the bright side, I think the power of social media lies in the ability for people like us to elevate these concerns and educate a lot more people about what businesses are doing and how it impacts their lives. Thanks.

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