Understanding the audience for whole grains

When it comes to achieving success in a category such as whole grains, the grain-based foods industry would be best served to adopt a mindset similar to that of a comedian, house band or public speaker: know your audience. In a June 26 presentation at the Whole Grains Summit 2015 at The Nines hotel in Portland, Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways and the Whole Grains Council, Boston, described four distinct audience groupings that the whole grains industry should be aware of.

The easiest group to reach, Ms. Harriman said, is those people who already are eating whole grains. While that may be “preaching to the choir,” Ms. Harriman said it remains important to reach out to this audience.

“We need to help them find more whole grains outside the home,” she said. “We have these people who really want to do it, but (they can’t) if you make it impossible for them to do it because you have a restaurant and you don’t serve any whole grain choices, or you put your products on the shelf but it’s not clear if it’s really whole grains or not. We need to make sure that the choices are there, and then we need to help encourage them to act on their belief in whole grain so that when those products appear on the shelf or in the restaurant they will sell-through.”

Ms. Harriman said the best way for the whole grains industry to reach restaurants and retailers is with bottom-line success.

Perhaps the biggest audience in the marketplace is those people eating mostly refined grains now, but who will switch if whole grains are delicious and affordable, Ms. Harriman said.

To reach this audience, Ms. Harriman said industry needs “to make trying a whole grain as risk free and barrier free as possible.”

As the quality of whole grains products improves, this task is becoming easier, Ms. Harriman said. Even so, she encouraged industry to produce more whole grains and do more sampling.

This audience also remains reluctant to make the switch due to the price gap that exists between refined grains products and whole grains products. Ms. Harriman said this is “the most important thing” industry needs to be working on.

“There are real reasons that whole grains may be more expensive, but we have to decide as a society whether we’re going to put up with this, whether we’re going to manipulate, purposely discount these things to get the market going to the point that we get enough volume that the price goes down,” she said. “We really need to be thinking about a price gap strategy. We can’t just wait for it to be parity. Somebody has to get out there and take real steps and say, ‘We’re going to make this happen,’ and see what happens to increase demand and therefore encourage price parity.”

The third audience group is those people who believe “we’re all going to die if we eat wheat/grains,” Ms. Harriman said. Although she indicated industry may not be able to make too much headway with this group, she said industry can keep additional people from falling into this group if they are on the border.

Ms. Harriman said the W.G.C. helps deal with this group by serving as an information source for people with questions about whole grains. The W.G.C. answers a variety of questions about whole grains each day through phone calls and e-mails to the group’s web site.

The final audience group is children, which Ms. Harriman described as “the next generation.”

“If we start this off right, then we don’t have to do all this convincing later,” she said.

To help reach children with the whole grains message, Ms. Harriman said industry needs to be educating parents, who in turn can model healthy eating for children. She also encouraged support for school health efforts.

“I think we sell kids short when we assume that they won’t like healthy foods,” she said. “So we need to find a way to reach kids.”