Or, to rephrase Oscar Wilde, ‘all publicity is good publicity’. But is it? That was what was bothering Tom Treverton as he was putting together the programme for his trade conference at this year’s Allergy + FreeFrom show. And it was bothering him particularly in the context of the freefrom food industry which comes in for a good deal of somewhat dodgy media coverage especially over the cost of freefrom foods. So he asked me if I would use my chair’s opening talk to address the question. Interesting one…..
My first thought was to actually track down who, apart from Wilde, had actually made the claim. Google took me, quite quickly, to Alan Sorensen, economic professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business who had published some research on this very matter back in 2010. Not that he had originated the phrase (apparently that was Phileas T Barnum of Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth in the late 19th century) but his research suggested what I was already thinking:
- All publicity is good publicity when no one has ever heard of you – but –
- Big brands are harmed by bad news – ‘the whiff of bad publicity lingers longer’
- If no one, or very few people have ever heard of you (or your group/movement) then almost any coverage is going to be good. At least it gets your name out there which may lodge in a few people’s memories. The chances are that they will not actually remember what it is that they saw, heard or read but the next time they see, hear or read the name, they may at least recall that they have come across it before.
- If you are totally unknown, some slightly shocking coverage may actually force people to notice you and even engage with you. This at least gives you the opportunity to talk to them – even if initially you are having to correct misunderstandings.
I am sure that those of you live with some sort of dietary restriction have had many conversations with people who were initially dismissive of your condition. But when you explained to them what actually it meant for you, they became far more understanding, sympathetic and even supportive. The same applies on a wider scale.
- But…. First impressions are incredibly hard to dislodge. How often have we all had a poor first experience in an eatery or with a supplier – and just never gone back and given them a second chance. So, if the publicity focused very specifically on your product or your brand and rubbished it, that may do you more harm than good.
So – first thoughts. Yes, if you are virtually unknown any sort of generic coverage will be good. Even if it is negative as it will raise profile and possibly allow you the chance to engage.
But….. If the bad publicity is very specific about your product or your brand, then it could do you long term damage.
What about big brands?
By definition everyone hates big brands, especially if they are multinationals, and loves small brands – especially in Britain where we love to support the underdog. So bad publicity about a big brand will be seized on with glee.
And such is human nature that if the company concerned has a good reputation, then its fall from grace will be that much greater and create that much more shock – and gloat potential. If a relatively small and not hugely respected brand (such as Skoda – although I may be underestimating Skoda’s reputation) had fiddled their emissions reports then it would have been shocking, but soon forgotten. But because it was Volkswagen, not only one of the biggest car manufacturers but one of the most widely respected for its probity…..
Also remember that….
Good new about nice people is intrinsically boring. Scandal, tragedy and villainy make for far better headlines and juicier stories. So given the option a journalist will always go for the latter.
If you want to know what relevance all this might have for the freefrom food industry, read on….
It could be argued that up until relatively recently, freefrom food fell into the first category. Just getting people talking about it was good whether the reasons for the talk was good or bad. But as the industry gets bigger (set to hit half billion pounds turnover next year) has it got beyond that point and could negative publicity now damage it?
As I see it, there are two story lines which are trotted out fairly regularly and which do the industry no favours.
- FreeFrom food is created by the evil multinational food industry who are preying upon those poor, misguided people who have already been taken in by those ‘complementary quacks’ (another favourite story) who are putting them on dangerous and bizarre restricted diets.
This scenario does, of course, ignore the facts that most of the freefrom industry is still made up of micro-to-small producers working passionately and extremely hard for very little money and that many of those chossing to follow freeform diets do actually feel very much better when they do so.
- The evil food industry exploits both the genuinely sick and the sadly deluded by massively overcharging for so called freefrom foods.
This scenario ignores the quite genuine extra costs involved in making many freefrom foods although there certainly are cases where freefrom foods are ‘loaded’ and are therefore disproportionately expensive.
And then there are two more story lines which as yet do not get much coverage but could do the industry a lot of harm.
- 50% of those who buy freefrom foods do so because they believe that they are healthier – but are they? They are definitely getting ‘healthier’ but there is along way to go and there is no doubt that some freefrom brands are significantly higher in sugar, salt and fats than their non-freefrom equivalents. In some cases, there are technical reasons why they need the extra fat or sugar be in order to achieve the same mouthfeel and texture as you would get with, for example, gluten – but in some cases there is no such excuse.
- How safe are freefrom foods? If you get either the FSA’s or the Anaphylaxis Campaign’s recalls alerts you will realise what a horrendously large number of products get recalled on an almost daily basis because either of allergen contamination or incorrect labelling – both equally dangerous as far as an allergy sufferer is concerned. As yet this gets very little coverage outside the industry and specific allergy groups but is potentially a very damaging story.
So, what to do about it? Well, on the assumption that the industry is now to big to benefit from bad publicity, the consensus is that we (or at least the freedom industry) need to be making more pro-active efforts to manage publicity. How? Well, probably through some sort of a freefrom trade association with its own PR wing…. Watch this space!