Consumers and food behaviour:
focus on the “nudge”

The “nudge” serves as a means of satisfying consumers. This 2018 Alter’Native Food talk considers the impact of technology on behaviour.

Improving food behaviour thanks to nudging and positive inducement

How to use positive inducement and transform brand offerings into more responsible consumption choices, to guide consumers in their decision-making. This is a question addressed by this Alter’Native Food conference talk, at SIAL Paris 2018.

About “choice editing”

Responsible consumption is on a roll, with booming sales of organic products, products deriving from fair trade, and products capable of reconciling health and environment concerns, such as vegetarian products. Yet the path to attaining high levels of responsible consumption is still strewn with difficulties, with the fault for this being laid at the door of the consumer, who is perceived as “schizophrenic”. In other words, consumers may be ready for responsible consumption, but this is not manifested in their behaviour.

Yet the problem needs to be considered in a different light, since the brands have always considered that demand will influence supply, whereas it is important to transform the supply in order to influence the consumer’s demand. To illustrate this, Sophie Labbé quotes Henry Ford by way of example: “If I’d listened to my customers, I would have given them faster horses and not a car.

“Choice editing” is a way of progressively - but radically and totally - eliminating non-virtuous products from a processor’s or retailer’s offering.

This also consists in making less virtuous products less visible during a transition period. A third possibility consists in adapting promotional efforts to change consumer choices. These three elements can lead to broader democratisation of responsible consumption.

What are the challenges of positive inducement?

Today, a brand can launch “green” ranges to improve its image. Yet this generally addresses a community of believers, and these products focus solely on the sustainability criterion as a point of differentiation, to the point of forgetting to communicate to the consumer that the products are also good according to other classic choice criteria. The marketing budget also tends to be concentrated on flagship lines and not on these niches, which explains their failure.

The difficulty today of differentiating between what is good and what is less eco-responsible constitutes a true challenge. For the consumer, it is not clear how to take a stance with respect to issues such as animal welfare, environmental impact, or the rights of workers along the chains of supply.

Even if consumers are sufficiently enlightened to appreciate these issues, credible certification is sometimes lacking. What is more, the presence of such certification will not necessarily make choices easier, as you need to be able to differentiate between self-proclaimed labels and objective certification. It is therefore very complex to work out what is what.

The purpose of choice editing is to set aside the notion of leaving the decision to the consumer. Consumers are quite prepared to see the scope of their choices altered, with several studies showing that 28% of brands are perceived as genuinely improving people’s quality of life. Furthermore, 78% of opinion leaders expect companies to propose responsible offerings in place of the traditional offerings, and indeed consider this essential.

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The importance of conviction for brands and free choice for the consumer

When brands manifest convictions with respect to their business, and they convey this in their offerings, this may also become their sole way of doing business. An example of this is the Monoprix supermarket chain, which decided to ban the sale of eggs from battery farms.

The consumer’s free will is also important, but is it really treated as part of the equation? It so happens that “choice editing” constitutes a soft method of revamping the architecture of the choice presented to consumers, to “nudge” them into making the right decisions. In other words, getting them to make the default choice.

There is a great deal of resistance to the idea of the nudge, from brands that are afraid to commit to the idea of free will. When you commit to a positive inducement approach, the options presented to the consumer are, admittedly, reduced at first. Yet, ultimately, “responsible” supply is not limited to just one or two products, but encompasses a plethora of offerings, expanding the choice available to the consumer.

Most consumers trust the retailers to point them in the right direction. It is important to move towards the marketing of the supply, which is more relevant for attaining the mass consumption market where responsible purchasing is concerned. Yet this cannot be done without the effort to educate the consumer.

The contribution of neuroscience and behavioural science to changes in food behaviour

Our basic modes of behaviour can be explained by our origins. From a certain point of view, we are animals that lived long before the emergence of our societies of plenty. Back then, we would eat fatty, salty foods through anticipation of shortages, as food was harder to come by. Our physiology is therefore not suited to these societies of plenty.

Food in modern life also has a social aspect. It is a pleasure that is easy to access, but for which an imbalance has set in. So, while we would not wish to return to a society of want, the “nudge” comes across as a viable alternative solution.

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Just how efficient is the nudge?

There are several types of nudge; here is a list of them:

  • The default choice is the most efficient nudge. In Germany, when an energy supplier wanted to propose three different tariffs to its customers, this comprised a “green” default option and two alternative options. Among the customers, 94% of individuals chose the default option, with only 4% switching to the other two options.
  • The fun aspect also works. Environmental responsibility is plainly a serious issue, but if you add a spot of fun it works better.
  • Empathy is also a useful lever. A US electricity company put smileys on its bills to encourage people to make an effort with respect to their results.
  • The placebo effect is also a means of action, such as the red buttons that are meant to get traffic lights to change to green for pedestrians: despite often being disconnected, they succeed in getting pedestrians to wait patiently for longer.

First and foremost, what prevents us from feeling involved is a lack of information. Secondly, the more open we are, the more we get others to open up. Specifically, classic nudges facilitate automatic reflection, for more efficient decision-making and to make life easier for the consumer. Intelligent nudges spur people on to show greater curiosity and make serious questions seem more interesting.

In matters of food equilibrium, everything depends on the fact that pleasure is more important than displeasure. The more the inconvenience and effort involved, the more complicated things get. By default, we will choose quantity, since we experience the fearfulness of shortage linked to our evolution. Yet when we develop the fine food culture at home, quality and intensity of pleasure considerably reduce the attraction to quantity. In other words, pleasure is the great lever that makes it possible to change with minimal effort.

Speakers: Sophie Labbé, UTOPIES and Jacques Fradin, Doctor of Medicine

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