Why Human Well-Being Should Be Your Top Food Marketing KPI


As a marketer, you’re good at your job if you narrow in on a singular problem, lay out a targeted strategy, and identify a specific KPI. While this process is the baseline to proving the value of your role, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. When you zoom out from your calendar of product launches and campaigns, you start to see that marketers – and I would argue, more specifically, food marketers – play a much greater role in the world around us.

Marketers are the curators of society and culture. We help build products and services, bring them to market and ignite communities around them to drive culture. If we know this to be true, shouldn’t we also have metrics of success that focus on the well-being of the very cultures we’re trying to impact?

A Shift in the Marketing Perspective

This past year brought us the unfortunately unifying experience of a global pandemic. As a result, we all gained a clearer vision of the importance of prioritizing people over performance. This new perspective shook us marketers out of our shape-shifting routine – moving from consumer in the morning, marketer during the day, and back to consumer at night. The danger of keeping these two roles separate lies in distancing ourselves from what people really need in an effort to perform against our objectives for the day. A silver lining of COVID-19 is seeing a breakdown of that separation.

This begs the question, should it really take a global pandemic to shift our focus and efforts to the common good? Shouldn’t that always be what we as marketers are striving for?

The Impact of Marketing on the Industry’s Most Pressing Conversations

Perhaps you’re skeptical of placing such an altruistic duty on your marketing department. However, as an industry, we are uniquely positioned to be the gatekeepers of good. Our role currently resides at the center of some pretty important industry conversations. Here are three areas where we’re making an impact right now.

1. Product Development

What we bring into the world could never be more important than it is today, as evidenced by the deep orange skies I see out my window from the California wildfires. The issue of climate change and environmental wellness continues to grow in urgency, and our brands and corporations have both scale and clout to make a meaningful change toward greater sustainability.

Even as consumers adopted a survival mindset at the onset of the pandemic, products carrying a sustainability claim continued to grow. They captured a 17% market share during the first half of 2020, according to research from IRI and the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business. More than half of consumers said in the study they are buying as many or more organic products than they did prior to COVID-19, and seven in 10 said they are buying as many or more eco-friendly products.

“Consumers recognize that they can influence brands to ‘do the right thing,’ and in these days of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and climate change, doing the right thing has never been more important,” said Tensie Whelan, founding director and professor at the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business.

The Oberon Group, a New York-based hospitality company, is an example of “doing the right thing” even in the face of industry turmoil. The group operates a portfolio of carbon-neutral or carbon-negative food and beverage establishments and has a supply chain that focuses on carbon drawdown, regenerative agriculture and sustainable packaging.

Deputy director Halley Chambers of The Oberon Group said, “COVID-19 undeniably impacted our ability to operate. However, with such a clear central mission, making decisions about how and what to serve is actually easier, because it needs to align with our long-term goals.”

With the boom in takeout and delivery, the group had models in place that ensured zero-waste production, such as serving to-go beverages in reusable containers that customers can keep and only using recyclable, compostable or reusable materials for food takeout. They launched sustainability programming on their social media accounts and sharpened their focus on sharing their message with the industry.

“This has allowed us to connect with a breadth of people, industries, and leaders, and to really show the connections between, and strength of, a truly sustainable economy in which businesses are focused on sustainability goals, alongside traditional profit motives,” said Chambers.

Roberta Barbieri, vice president of sustainability at PepsiCo, shares a similar sentiment. “COVID-19 and the increasing threat of climate change is further bringing to light the importance of building resilience and sustainable practices into the global food supply.”

On the flip side, Swedish vegan food brand Oatly is experiencing the consequences of losing sight of the “right thing.” The brand, which prides itself on being plant-based and sustainable, recently received funding from private equity firm Blackstone. The brand is now navigating unfortunate customer backlash and boycotting based on claims that Blackstone has ties to two Brazilian companies that allegedly contributed to Amazonian deforestation.

Oatly defended its decision on Twitter, saying it understood Blackstone was an “unexpected choice,” but it would help “expand our sustainable mission and create more plant-based products.”

The Takeaway for Food Marketers?

We live in a world where brands have to make tough choices. Performance-based decisions that aren’t aligned with the brand’s or the customers’ values can no longer be justified. As food marketers, it’s our role to maintain the brand’s values across the entire “farm-to-table” product journey. We must make decisions that align with our customers’ needs, and our KPIs need to measure how well we’re fulfilling them.

2. Tech and Innovation

The tech industry represents how we produce and optimize products to achieve, ideally, a better future. The irony is that as a relatively new industry, and one whose sole focus is creating things that don’t already exist, tech puts surprisingly minimal resources toward understanding the long-term societal impact of their decisions. The industry continues to face hot debates around privacy vs. surveillance, artificial intelligence vs. personal freedom, and algorithmic accountability. The leaders in this industry are engineers. It’s their job to figure out what’s possible; to answer the question, What can we do? They are not trained to ask, What should we do? As marketers, we understand that culture can shift based on one seemingly small design decision. (Anyone else still bummed Instagram didn’t get rid of the Like button?) If you’re interested in more of this type of conversation, I recommend the new Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma.”

The problem is that innovation is happening faster than our application of moral assessment. The idea of ethics playing an important role in technology was introduced back in 1977 by philosopher and physicist Mario Bunge, who coined the term “technoethics.” But it’s only been in the last couple of years that larger companies like Microsoft and Facebook have taken the need seriously and started to create internal frameworks around moral operations. And always a fast-follow … academia has finally applied the topic to their curriculum. Stanford introduced a new undergraduate course last year, “Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change” taught collaboratively by philosophy, political science and computer science faculty. Harvard, MIT and UT-Austin now have similar courses.

If technology and innovation play a big role in your business, now might be the right time to consider your hiring practices. Eric Berridge, cofounder of tech consulting firm Bluewolf, explains in his popular TED Talk, “While the sciences teach us how to build things, it’s the humanities that teach us what to build and why to build them.” Only 100 of Bluewolf’s 1,000 employees have degrees in computer science and engineering. Their chief technology officer is an English major.

Some say the pandemic is causing an uptick in the public’s trust of technology. Tech writer Steven Levy asks the question in Wired, “Has coronavirus killed the techlash?” making the case that these tech companies matter even more to us now. We’re using Facebook for the purpose it was intended, giving us comfort and connection while social distancing. Google has moved quickly to be the hub of COVID-19 testing information. And Amazon is the only way many of us are staying stocked with food and vital supplies.

Other industries where tech is springing to action are restaurants and hospitality, remote learning and mental health.

The latest mental health app on the market is Woebot, an AI app that mixes humor and cognitive behavioral therapy tools to track users’ mood and provide clinical support.

Rev.com is a voice-to-text service that saw a great application of its product within remote education. The company figured out how to integrate its transcription capability into Zoom to assist students who struggle with English as a second language. It offered this service for free to K-12 educators.

To aid the struggling restaurant industry, San Francisco-based CardFree is giving three months of its mobile and online ordering software to restaurants for free. The goal is to cut out third-party delivery apps and help increase restaurant owners’ profitability.

The Takeaway for Food Marketers?

The tech industry is starting to make important strides toward greater responsibility, and we can be valuable partners in the process (or harmful enablers, for that matter). We bring cultural context, communication expertise and creativity into the mix, and that point of view shouldn’t be undervalued when defining what success looks like in this industry.

3. The Media Industry

The media industry is how we communicate. It’s a complex ecosystem that delivers our message to the customer – and it comes with its issues (insert fake news comments here).

While the industry navigates turbulence around misinformation vs. free speech, we do our best to protect our brands’ reputations. This can feel like quite the moving target these days, as we navigate where to spend advertising dollars and what alliances to form. These alliances can be a publication, network, social media platform, influencer partnership or otherwise.

Consumers have become a lot savvier when assessing these media alliances and are ready to hold brands accountable. Facebook can attest to this after spending most of the summer under boycott from hundreds of brands that pulled their advertising dollars from the platform to participate in the #StopHateForProfit movement.

(I turn to Facebook for another example intentionally, since I don’t believe the mystery has been solved as to whether it is a tech or media company. This is for another day.)

The goal of the boycott was to shine a light on the hate, racism and misinformation that takes place on the platform and pressure Facebook to put better moderation practices in place. Brands such as Verizon, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Ben & Jerry’s, Coca-Cola, Pfizer and Conagra, all who benefit greatly from the reach of the platform, made the hard call in pulling their spend.

Ben & Jerry’s, who has been more vocal this year in support of important social issues, was quick to comment on their decision to join the movement. CEO Matthew McCarthy said, “The reality is, anything that’s right for the business, but wrong for our values, is wrong.”

Although Ben & Jerry’s is a food brand, not directly related to the issues of racial justice and hate speech, they understand the importance of keeping themselves and their partners accountable to their communities. They realize their role and higher duty to support positive societal impact.

“What we want to do is to try to make ourselves right at Ben & Jerry’s — we always aspire to do the right thing. And we want our partners to do the same thing,” McCarthy said. “So to me, it’s not just about signing on to boycott, which certainly, we may do. It’s about what are the actions that we’d like to see happen so that we can collaborate with partners who want to progress the change that we support.”

Unilever, the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s along with 400 other brands, also participated in the boycott, causing Facebook’s share price to drop 8% after Unilever’s announcement. Although this dent in stock price is more than recoverable for Facebook (the company generated $69.7 billion in advertising revenue in 2019), it proves that brands and their advertising dollars can make a difference when there is a collective effort to do the right thing. And the right thing is what consumers want and expect.

You can review Facebook’s most recent actions to “stop hate” here.

The Takeaway for Food Marketers?

Don’t let a specific channel or medium be a sole determinant in how you’re deploying your message, nor how you’re defining success. Be ready to adapt. Culture and media can change literally overnight, and brands that show a willingness to sacrifice an immediate KPI for a long-term view of success will achieve a longer shelf life.

It’s Time to Redefine Your Brand’s Measure of Success

Our world is continuing to shift its perspective and efforts to more responsible forms of living and operating. This is happening both personally and professionally. For those of us in marketing – the curators of society and culture – we should be part of the team that’s leading the way. We have a unique power to be the gatekeepers of good.

How are you defining success for your brand? If this article has given you any pause, I challenge you to redefine it.

Related Posts

EHY Edit Team