Thursday, October 30, 2008

Corn Syrup's Sticky Situation: Can You Change Consumer Perception?

Have You Heard? Corn Syrup is Good for You!

Alright, so that's probably not the complete truth. We all know high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) isn't the next "health food." But recent commercials released by the Corn Refiners Association attempt to convince consumers that corn syrup in "reasonable amounts" is completely safe. This campaign ( according to CRA president (Audrae Erickson), "is designed to correct the record...not a campaign to drive consumption (of corn syrup)" (per AP article posted on MSNBC).

See the commercials:
Corn syrup has faced public criticism, primarily due to studies linking obesity problems to sweetened beverages. Per the Mayo Clinic, "...research has yielded conflicting results about the effects of high-fructose corn syrup. For example, various early studies showed an association between increased consumption of sweetened beverages (many of which contained high-fructose corn syrup) and obesity. But recent research — some of which is supported by the beverage industry — suggests that high-fructose corn syrup isn't intrinsically less healthy than other sweeteners, nor is it the root cause of obesity."

Recently I've written entries about how deceiving consumers can negatively impact a brand. And although I think the corn syrup campaign message is misleading and also don't think it will be completely effective in "re-educating" consumers, I don't plan to turn this into another "what you shouldn't do" entry. What I am going to talk about is how the issue driving this campaign is a realistic marketing problem. For example:
  • What do you do if your product/brand has a bad reputation in the public eye – because the consumer is misinformed?
  • What does it take to change consumer behavior/perceptions about your brand/product(s)?
  • Will an ad campaign like this set consumers straight and be able to re-educate them/make them change their beliefs?
  • Is changing perceptions possible when the message isn't consistent? (i.e. various external sources are promoting different “facts” about your product)

Changing the way consumers view a company, product, brand, etc. is one of the largest challenges a marketer will face. It is difficult to break perception since it has been developed over time from a variety of influences – psychographics, knowledge, feelings, family, culture, etc. The good (or bad) new is that perceptions are dynamic, changing as the consumer becomes more or less familiar with things. And thus, as marketers, we try different things to change the consumer's mind. Most of the time we look to the 4-P's: Product, Placement, Pricing, and Promotion. For example:

  • Product: Is there a component of the product that is turning off consumers? Should we change the product all-together?
  • Placement: Is there any way to re-position the product so it will appeal to a different customer or fit into a different product category?
  • Pricing: Sometimes reducing the price will cause a consumer to purchase the product (although many times this may cause a temporary rather than permanent change in behavior unless competition is high and the products in the category don't have many differentiating factors other than price).
  • Promotion: You can change the affect a product has on consumers through pairing the product with a desired stimulus or put out appealing advertisements. You can put out advertising or materials that make the product or its attributes a compliment the target consumer's beliefs. You can attempt to re-educate a consumer.
  • A Combination of the Above: In an extreme case, some people would say the solution is to "brand, brand, brand." In other words, change multiple "P's"...update your image, release new information, redesign the product's packing, etc.

Now back to the "Sweet Surprise" campaign. The situation facing the Corn Refiners Association is unusual. The issue consumers have is with the product itself. The CRA can't add something to the product to make it more appealing - it is what it is. They also can't sponsor a study proving HFCS is completely safe because first, consumers won't listen to the results (CRA study = self-serving agenda) and second, consumers know corn syrup is not all-natural, it's chemically processed. Further, the CRA isn't able to change the consumer's ideals - you won't be successful in making processed/artificial the new ideal for food when the trend is going towards healthy, organic, natural, etc. Nor will you be able to make a consumer put "being healthy" lower on their list of priorities. Finally, corn syrup faces a non-compensatory consumer strategy. Lars Perner from the Marshall School of Business at USC quotes: “A compensatory decision involves the consumer “trading off” good and bad attributes of a product…Occasionally, a decision will involve a non-compensatory strategy. For example, a parent may reject all soft drinks that contain artificial sweeteners. Here, other good features such as taste and low calories cannot overcome this one “non-negotiable” attribute.”

Based on the television ads, the strategy the Corn Refiners Association has decided to pursue is to attempt to re-educate consumers. However, with all of the negatives mentioned above, what do you think they should do? Maybe it's time for the CRA to come up with a new product to market that actually benefits consumers (Innovation people! Give the people something they do want...consumer tastes have changed!) and give up on the stale, sweetener of yesteryear that is leaving a bad taste in consumers' mouths.

1 comment:

Catherine said...

high fructose corn syrup has received lots of negative comments but why our government doesn't do anything? Are they receiving money from these companies? This should not be tolerated. These companies should be banned if they didn't made changes with their products.