Is Activism Saving Big Food Instead Of Destroying It?

The actions of proponents of local and organic are having an effect on the food industry: It’s actually trying to do better.

Is Activism Saving Big Food Instead Of Destroying It?

Remember Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the damning exposé of the meatpacking industry that annually turns scores of junior high readers into (temporary) vegetarians? Today, we’ve got our modern-day versions like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as well as films like Food, Inc., King Corn, and Food Matters, all of which pull the covers off Big Food.


Since the dawn of the organic movement, some food activists have portrayed Big Food businesses as evil empires. Today, they’re often viewed as purveyors of factory-engineered, carelessly sourced, hormone-injected, pesticide-doused, confusingly labeled “Frankenfoods” (think high-fructose corn syrup, GMOs, CAFOs, and a dozen other acronyms) that are killing off family farming, the environment, and even your health for profits. Don’t forget the product recalls, foodborne illnesses, questionable claims, and dubious business practices that have turned consumers into suspicious shoppers.

Grassroots activism is partially responsible for Big Food being punished with sanctions, forced calorie counts, truth-in-labeling laws, and FDA crackdowns. It seems that hating large corporations is now mandatory for any foodie with an ounce of street cred.

Activism has also succeeded in making consumers rethink where their food comes from, how it’s produced, how it’s marketed, and how it’s sold. It has spurred the growth of artisanal microbrands, urban gardening, local farm-to-table movements and similar efforts. Witness the success of farmers’ markets, microbrews, retail outlets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and all things natural, green, free range, sustainable, and organic.

But instead of bringing down corporate America, the food activist movement seems to have actually re-energized Big Food and made its players stronger. How? By turning them into responsible global citizens. And their “good works” have resulted in more positive brand perception, and ultimately, profits.

Corporate social responsibility is now an integral part of a company’s global business strategy, and many brands are finding smart ways to express their commitment to it. This new mind-set has made it the right time for companies to introduce products and product categories that reduce waste, are free of chemicals and toxins, save resources, and encourage responsible choices. These new products help consumers feel satisfied that the products and brands they’re choosing align with their ethics and sensibilities (in addition to tasting good). That’s why big companies have gotten behind brands like Odwalla (Coca-Cola), Stonyfield (Danone), Naked Juice (PepsiCo), Horizon Organic (Dean Foods), and Kashi (Kellogg). Chain restaurants are also getting into the act. McDonald’s has initiated bans on certain producers and suppliers who are not meeting animal treatment certification standards, while Chipotle is seeking out organizations that promote hormone-free husbandry and anti-factory farming.

Many big brands have been engaged in corporate and social responsibility for some time, although in the past, promoting such efforts was often seen as bad form or simply “doing good while looking good.” The Hershey Company and several partners recently launched the Mexico Cocoa Project, a 10-year initiative to reintroduce cocoa growing in southern Mexico and improve the livelihoods of 1,000-plus cocoa farmers. Hershey has a long history of mixing business with philanthropy. More than 100 years ago, founder Milton Hershey established The Hershey Industrial School, now known as Milton Hershey School, an institution still administered today through a corporate trust that provides housing, education and medical care, at no cost, to more than 1,800 disadvantaged children.


Today, Big Food corporations can make a positive impact on a scale unattainable by smaller companies or startups. For example, ConAgra’s “No Kids Hungry” campaign has donated more than 2.5 million meals to Americans in need. Last spring, Nabisco’s Triscuit introduced packaging expressing the brand’s commitment to Home Farming, a partnership with nonprofit Urban Farming with an on-package gift of seeds. And Coca-Cola, a brand that’s all about image, has embraced the idea that the corporate soul is also the brand image, as seen in efforts like their global recycling and scholarship programs, and even their new take on marketing, as seen in a “security cam” video that went viral.

So what can you do in this new, more socially conscious world?

Today, we expect corporate social responsibility to be the norm, not an afterthought. Brands that align themselves with social causes are building loyalty among shoppers, and if you’re not following suit, you’re at a competitive disadvantage. Research shows that if your product doesn’t meet consumers’ ethical and moral expectations, 49% will simply switch to another brand, and 28% of consumers will not buy from you at all–even if there’s no substitute brand available.

Socially conscious companies are especially compatible with social media. We now live in a hyperconnected world where messaging is now measured in nanoseconds. You need to look no further than the uproar over pink slime to see that social media is now a recognized engine for food activism, giving users the tools to coordinate and collaborate. It knocked out of the whale meat business, stopped Wal-Mart from carrying genetically modified sweet corn (for a while, at least), and encouraged the FDA to reconsider genetically modified fish.

If you’re managing a brand, think about what it stands for, ethically and emotionally, and how it can help the world; make that message a central part of the brand. Also, think about what causes make sense for your brand to support.

For smaller brands, a corporate responsibility message alone is no longer enough to differentiate you from the big guys. However, your leaner size and reporting structure mean you do have an opportunity to deliver your message with more conviction, more attitude and more heart than a larger corporation.


Big or small, smart companies are now developing an arsenal of strategies to address consumers’ ethical concerns. Most important, they’re creating a culture of social responsibility that encourages customers to become advocates as well.

About the author

Michael is President and CEO of Pavone, a food and beverage advertising and marketing firm he founded 20 years ago. The agency is regularly invited to present consumer trend reports to leading food and beverage producers, corporations and stakeholders around the country.