SPAG Dialogue: The Policy Series – 2

Under normal circumstances, the health of the population is central to a country’s development and it is even more important as the world navigates through the pandemic. How are communications, marketing, consumer impact and behavior around food and nutrition faring?  The challenges to achieving sustainability in food and nutrition were formidable, taking into account that they were considered to be among the “essential” items. And, the new normal has impacted the business. What we learnt was that the government approached the situation positively and brands went out of their way to invent new ways of navigating – as the communication leaders shared their experiences.

#PolicyDialogue 2 put the spotlight on “Consumer Safety & Transparency: Food & Nutrition” as Aman Gupta, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, SPAG India moderated the discussion. The participants were – Ishteyaque Amjad, Vice President, Public Affairs & Communications, Coca-Cola India and South West Asia and President PAFI; Garima Singh, Head, Government Affairs, Mondelēz International and Pankaj Mahajan, Director- Corporate Affairs, Indian Subcontinent at Cargill India.

Challenges faced

Food and nutrition is one of the largest and diverse businesses in India, and looking at the way it is growing, it comes with its own set of challenges; and any growing business requires strong, structured policy forums. What role can policy makers play to build it, questioned Aman, as he flagged off the discussion. One of the key aspects that has emerged is that ‘trust’ plays a critical role specially in the food business. “When you face a crisis, trust becomes most important,” pointed out Ishteyaque.  And, as far as the food and beverages (F&B) sector goes, brand Coca Cola has had a “commendable journey”. India is probably the most diverse country, and each segment eyes the trust factor differently. Covid-19 has thrown up the most important issue of – “immunity”, and a special fact about India is that we have inherent immunity, as we have a younger population. As faith in the brand is critical, he affirmed that Coca Cola was moving in the right direction.

During COVID times, we have got used to the new “virtual meets” now.  Since food was very “essential” and literally required to the last mile, Aman wondered how did the food business sector act, facing the challenges to reach out to the consumer. How will this work out in the future? Complimenting the government generously, Garima stressed the point that “great amount of work and support has been given by the Government and there is a huge amount of collaborative effort at the district level as well”. The entire system has evolved to newer ways of working and matured too. Previously, they only used roadways for movement of goods, but today they are looking at railways and waterways within India – to ensure the food reaches the consumer. In this ecosystem, eCommerce plays an important role in the supply chain process. “You have to innovate and keep the taste buds of the consumer,” she added for considering today’s consumer, you have to be “picky and super-conscious”.

How the F&B sector is dealing with the challenges in the rural sector? One of the things we should be happy about is that agri rules, said Pankaj and this year when overall economy will contract by 5%, hopefully when the demand comes back, we should be able to contribute and uplift the rural economy.

Building trust is key

Today, the consumer is educated and as far as safety and transparency are concerned, does that put any additional pressure on the food and beverage players? What is the role regulators have to play to build the basic foundation of trust? From a business perspective, what is the relationship that the brand and consumer must have in terms of trust, wondered Aman.

It is important to be mindful towards the taste of consumer when a company is trying to innovate. “At Mondelēz we build trust by adhering to our core values like love for the consumer, and doing what’s right,” explained Garima. Following this responsibly, it builds trust with the consumer and every stakeholder in the ecosystem. “Trust is the basis of any relationship but sharing too much information on the packet of the product will confuse the consumers and perhaps will not support them to take the right decision”, she shared and added that companies are learning new ways of working, trying to make sure that the goods reach the consumers. Communicating and engaging with consumers at each step builds a relationship that stands firmly on trust, confirmed Aman.

What is the current perspective on the packaging side? Taking a step back, Pankaj outlined that this pandemic had put a focus on personal hygiene Packaging industry plays an important role in hygiene and safety of the consumer. Unlike consumers earlier, “today’s consumers are educated, aware of existing information and are well travelled, but safety and sustainability remains same. So it’s important to retain transparency for the consumer,” said Pankaj.  He explained how they worked around this to innovate and give a new choice to the customer at Cargill, from the food fortification side.

Role of research

What are the signals emerging in the food and beverages space? What are the changing consumer preferences, and what are the moves made by brands to adapt to the current unprecedented situation? Was there any real research happening?

Adding a touch of realism, Ishteyaque remarked that F&B is a fundamental necessity for human beings, as food and hunger are basic human needs. Recalling earlier times, when choices were limited and anything foreign was considered better, he stated that slowly the world has become flat and “today we have reached a stage where what is local, hyper-local is even better!” Referring to their brand Maaza, which is a mango-based drink which satisfies the taste-buds of all consumers. And in India, we must remember we find different varieties of mango – in UP they like “Desehri” Mango while Tamilnadu people will like “Neelam” and it varies in Gujarat and West Bengal too. The drink is crafted, taking into consideration different quality aspects to give a unique taste that appeals to all. Today, they realised that hydration needs of the consumer is many and varied and the question was – how do you give him an affordable drink?

Collaborating with stakeholders

Who are the other stakeholders involved and how were they collaborating? Most of us, as consumers, buy a food product for the taste. The supply chain for F&B is simple business, said Ishteyaque and at Coca Cola India, they had built their supply chain network all over the country, having a plant in every nook and corner. “If we really want to make India “Atmanirbhar” or go “Vocal for Local”, we really need to expand our industrial footprint across the country”, said Ishteyaque. It was a challenge for them at Cargill India and within 48 hours they were up and running within all their plants; and the support they received from the government, even at the district level, was unprecedented. “We went the extra mile and kept communication alive. This is continuing and we are seeing that the government is trying to convert this crisis into an opportunity,” Pankaj disclosed. This should transform the food and nutrition sector in the future.

 “Information overkill”

What about the perspective that keeps popping up, that Coke is wrong for health and that it is carcinogenic? “Today there is a lot of unwanted information, it’s information overkill,” revealed Ishteyaque. Their communication is transparent and they take the extra step to tell consumers all details about the calories etc, because it’s important for the consumer to know. The only caution is – don’t overindulge!

Another question that has been circulating is that Coke is the most polluting brand to plastic waste. And Coke has addressed this. Coca-Cola has a policy which is driven by ‘the idea of a world without waste’. They focus on three important parts while making any product, the design element, collection and partnership. Through the design element, they are trying to find newer solutions to bring down the plastic footprint. “In India our plastic bottles are recycled up to 90%; nearly 70% of our total waste is being recovered and recycled”, he shared.

Eventually, what is loud and clear is that anything about food and nutrition invariably affects us all. What is credible and commendable is that this space was indeed agile and quickly adapted to the changing scenario – to address consumer needs, without wasting any time. And, all indications are that the current change in consumer behavior is something that is going to stay for a long time to come.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

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Shree Lahiri
Shree is the Senior Editor at Reputation Today and hopes to move from one focus area to another in the editions that will be released this year. Having worked in Corporate Communications teams, she has experience of advertising, public relations, investor and employee communications, after which she moved to the other side – journalism. She enjoys writing and believes the power of the pen is indeed mighty. Covering the entertainment beat and the media business, she has been involved in a wide range of activities that have thrown open storytelling opportunities.

She can be reached at: @shree_la on twitter

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