Are we going to keep zigging? Or is it time to zag?

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, March 8, 2019

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — In Part 7 last week, we looked at some of the questions still unanswered by DMI regarding GENYOUth. As noted, a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) created in 2009-10 and signed in 2011 by USDA, National Dairy Council and the NFL has not been provided.

Data requested on the “before” and “after” purchases of dairy by FUTP60 schools has also not been provided.

The question about total funds provided by DMI in addition to what appears on the GENYOUth 990 form has also not been answered. However, the 2016-17 DMI audit reflects amounts that are almost double what appears on the GENYOUth 990s.

And the question about Edelman’s role in the formation of GENYOUth and any knowledge or concern DMI may have about Edelman’s role in the EAT FReSH Initiative was simply not been acknowledged, let alone answered.

This is the concern that is perhaps most vexing, and here is the what the public record tells us.

Richard Edelman sits on the board of GENYOUth and as previously mentioned, he is credited with recruiting GENYOUth CEO Alexis Glick in a marketing publication’s story about her taking this position.

The Edelman firm is listed as a corporate sponsor of GENYOUth, including the board seat held by Richard Edelman, but the firm is not listed as a donor of funds on the GENYOUth IRS 990s, except that Richard Edelman, himself, is on record donating $25,000 in both 2016 and 2017.

Edelman is widely considered the world’s largest and leading public relations and marketing firm with offices worldwide. Based in Chicago, the firm, according to the writings of Richard Edelman himself, has been involved in work for DMI (Dairy Checkoff) for 20 years.

The firm is listed among the 41 corporate sponsors (logos pictured below) of the EAT FReSH Initiative. This Initiative is an extension of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

And, in Edelman’s own words in a May 2018 blog post, “Edelman has partnered with FReSH to help accelerate transformational change in global food systems.”

As reported in Part 6 of this series, Danone and PepsiCo are just two companies among the 41 corporate sponsors that are Edelman clients, and both companies planned new plant-based non-dairy “look-alike” product launches to coincide with the EAT Lancet Commission and EAT FReSH launch in the first quarter of 2019.

Edelman is best known for its annual Edelman Trust Barometer shared with the world’s leading business CEOs each year at the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland.

Purpose driven marketing is their thing.

DMI will not acknowledge our question about Edelman’s role in the formation of GENYOUth. Our question about the link between Edelman and the marketing of the EAT FReSH Initiative was also not acknowledged.

However, on the secret Dairy Checkoff facebook page, we have received screenshot copies of answers given to farmers who have asked the checkoff staff questions about this. In those one-to-one facebook group replies, DMI staff are stating on the one hand that “Edelman is not involved in EAT Lancet.” On the other hand, stating that, “we should be glad we have someone representing us there.”

So which is it? And who is representing whom?

What we found in the public record is that Edelman is not, technically, on record as “the” marketing firm for EAT Lancet. The situation is far more subtle, and clever, because Edelman “loaned” their Amersterdam office account director, Lara Luten, to the EAT FReSH initiative for at least one year prior to 2019’s EAT FReSH launch.

This was confirmed in Richard Edelman’s blog post at the company website in May 2018 where he did a series of questions and answers about the work Luten was doing with the EAT FReSH Initiative during her second 6-month “secondment” with EAT FReSH.

A “secondment” is defined as the detachment of a person from his or her regular organization for temporary assignment elsewhere. 

In the blog post, Richard Edelman asks the firm’s Amsterdam account director on loan to the EAT FReSH Initiative what has been most interesting in her work with FReSH.

Her answer: “The current (2018) preparations for the EAT Stockholm Food Forum and the EAT Lancet Commission Report. But also: Setting a basis for communications for the FReSH team.”

That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

He asks her what she has learned from this partnership that can be applied to other work, and Luten replies: “Working in a pre-competitive environment on a project (EAT FReSH) that is driving impact by leading the change. I’m also gaining in-depth knowledge about the food system (its topics and stakeholders) that will definitely be useful for other projects.”

So not only was the Edelman firm involved, but their involvement is “leading the change.”

In mid-January 2019, at precisely the point in time when the EAT Lancet Commission report was released and the EAT Forum and EAT FReSH Initiatives were launched, Luten left her employment with Edelman to take the job as manager of communications for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

What is the WBCSD? It is described at its website as “ a CEO-led organization of forward-thinking companies that galvanizes the global business community to create a sustainable future for business.” It is made up of the 41 corporations, including the Edelman firm, that have launched the EAT FReSH Initiative.

In her new employment as WBCSD communications manager, Luten now carries on the public relations, social strategies and marketing she began planning, organizing and laying the groundwork for during the time that she was employed by Edelman “on secondment” to this 41-corporation group now launching the EAT FReSH Initiative.

It all fits together with how Edelman does business. This is not in any way a question of ethics. Plenty of marketing agencies work for competing accounts in the world of advertising and public relations. There’s nothing new about that.

There’s also nothing new about this concept of working in “pre-competitive” environments where products and marketing are developed in a way that all corporations involved can utilize in their own new product campaigns.

This is, in fact, a signature way that DMI has also functioned over the past 10 years. In addition to GENYOUth, the Sustainability and Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy began similarly with an MOU between DMI and the USDA, and it also includes the participation of dairy processors in a pre-competitive environment to develop and initiate innovations and sustainability measures. One example to come out of that pre-competitive environment is the innovation of ultrafiltered milk known as fairlife. Another example is the F.A.R.M program.

The goal of these pre-competitive collaborations is to give all corporate participants something they can use in a way that takes away a competitive edge.

What is concerning for dairy producers — who are mandatorily funding DMI — is that this has folded dairy promotion into a broader setting of corporations working in pre-competitive environments to pass back through the supply chain requirements about how things are done on the farm.

Toward that end, Edelman has actually played an even larger role in DMI projects over the past 20 years and especially in the past two years in coming up with the design of the Undeniably Dairy campaign. Again, purpose-driven marketing is an Edelman specialty.

And it seems noble to drive marketing with a social purpose. More companies today engage in purpose-driven social marketing, aiming to win consumers by showing what they are doing to address social concerns, such as the environment. In fact, they create problems to fit the solution they want to market.

In its own way, each corporate member of pre-competitive collaborations then capitalizes by introducing products that solve a real or “created” need in this realm of social purpose.

Here’s where it gets cloudy for dairy farmers. The government mandates that dairy farmers pay 15 cents per hundredweight for education, research and promotion. DMI administrates the use of the national portion of these funds and even sets the direction for regional funds — under the ever-more-micro-managing-oversight of USDA via two key MOU’s (GENYOUth and Innovation and Sustainability Center for U.S. Dairy).

DMI’s association with Edelman over 20 years has increased its alignment with purpose-driven marketing via pre-competitive environments with food supply chain corporations. On its surface, that doesn’t sound so bad.

But here’s another way to look at this trend. As one creative strategist, Zac Martin, stated recently in his opinion piece for an ad agency publication, “purpose” was 2018’s “most dangerous word.”

Martin defines “purpose” in marketing in the context of “brands aligning with and promoting social causes, almost always seemingly out of nowhere.”

This is most definitely the road we are on. We are being told that consumers don’t want to know what you know, they want to know that you care. We are told that consumers make brand choices based on the “why” not the “what.”

Some of this comes from the annual Edelman Trust Barometer and other research where consumers are surveyed about who they trust in their buying decisions.

But what information do consumers actually use when they buy? Price, flavor, freshness, perceived nutrition. 

Are we part of the problem? Are these alignments helping or hurting the promotion of actual milk?

Think about this. EAT FReSH is just the newest and most transformational example of how a “why” – climate change and the environment – are being used to sell new food products based on their fulfillment of a created “why”.  

What could be more perfect than to use unsubstantiated “science” to make untrue claims about certain food and agriculture impacts and then use that as a selling point for a whole new product answering the “why” that has first been created?

The EAT Foundation even has the new “planetary” diet patterns outlined (1 cup of dairy equivalent a day, a little over 1 ounce of meat/poultry/fish a day, and only 3 ounces of red meat per week, and 1 ½ eggs per week for examples). Within that context, the participating corporations are now coming out — simultaneously — with a whole bevy of new beverages, snacks and staples that do not contain any animal protein. Protein is played down and favors plant protein (incomplete proteins) and refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup is just fine.

They’ve created the “why” (planetary boundaries that they have set) and now they can sell consumers the products (fake meat and fake dairy) that fulfill that social planetary purpose that they themselves have convinced us we need!

Looking at this ‘social purpose’ trend in marketing, Zac Martin states the following: “The fad (of purpose-driven marketing) seems to driven by the likes of Simon Sinek, who notoriously said: ‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.’ But Simon is wrong. It’s a claim made without substantiation.”

In fact, Martin observes that purpose-driven marketing to is made up of “feel good” stuff that promotes and aligns with social causes while doing little as a sound marketing strategy.

Undeniably Dairy feels good. Telling our “why” feels good. Do consumers need to understand more about what happens on a dairy farm, why we do what we do? Of course! But this does not substitute for sound marketing of the dairy farmers’ product: Milk.

Martin says this trend amounts to “brand noise” that is “a sign of desperation”.

He defines purpose-driven social marketing as “fabricating an experiment, presenting pseudoscience disguised as research,” and all the while appearing “authentic.” (Think EAT FReSH).

He makes the point that when everyone is zigging, maybe it’s time to zag. I could not have said it better myself.

This series of articles is not meant to question the good intent of good people doing what they believe is good for their industry. Rather, the point is to show the direction dairy promotion dollars have taken since 2009 and some of the guiding principles that are not working.

Going back to part one, the graph showing fluid milk consumption trends could not be more clear. What we are doing is not working — unless the objective is to sell less fresh fluid milk, especially whole milk, that returns the highest value to farmers and keeps dairy farms relevant in communities, especially in the eastern states, while selling more global dairy commodities, at cheaper prices, fueling rapid expansion of more consolidated and integrated dairy structures in the western states.

Dairy Checkoff has been aligning more closely to USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines when nothing in the Congressional Act establishing the Checkoff states that it must. Dairy Checkoff has been aligning in pre-competitive environments with corporations that turn around and push us right out of the dairy case with non-dairy alternatives that fill a social purpose of their own creation.

Dairy Checkoff has partnered with fast food chains that help sell more cheese, and yet one pre-emptive cheese company is a primary beneficiary, and rapid milk production expansion in certain states follows with that.

Dairy Checkoff has bought-in to the idea that rapid expansion of exports is a primary mission, when that actually lowers the farm-level milk price because the focus of those sales is the lower-value commodity dairy.

Meanwhile, the marketing largely ignores the best selling point we have: Nutrition and Flavor in the domestic market.

Now the pressure is on for Dairy Checkoff promotion to draw more farms into “telling our story.” As noble and wonderful as this may be, what’s the 15 cents doing to actually sell milk, to win back the milk market we’ve been losing in the process?

We have a simple product. It doesn’t have a list of additives to make it look, feel and sort of taste like milk, it IS milk.

We have a nutritious product. Nothing else on the market comes close.

We have a delicious product. But we have to market the tasteless version and train our children to dislike milk by doing so… because somehow we have ended up in a place where the government’s dietary police are in charge, and we either must obey, or we just think we must.

Telling consumers our ‘why’ can be a good thing, but with 15 cents per hundredweight forked over by farmers by government mandate, the question remains, what is being done to truly sell the “what” — the actual milk that comes out of the cow because of all the good things farmers do. 

Consumers don’t know squat about milk. That’s being proven over and over again, despite over $300 million a year in mandatory promotion funds deducted from farmer milk checks for promotion.

We’ve been zigging with the ziggers long enough.

Maybe it’s time to zag.

(The graph below shows us what has happened to per capita real fluid milk consumption since 2010 while we increased the amount of zigging, suggesting it is time to zag.)


This graph illustrates what has happened to fluid milk consumption and the steep drop-off since 2010 while the dairy industry has increased the amount of zigging with the ziggers. It may be time to zag, especially when we see that consumers — where given a choice — are CHOOSING whole milk more frequently since 2014 even though the checkoff message is still fat-free / low-fat.

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