“Sometimes it’s better not to communicate about sustainability at all”

Seven years ago, Durk Bosma decided to work exclusively for brands and organizations that aim to leave a better world behind. Since 2019, he has been doing this through his agency, Future of Food Institute.

Interview by Robert Heeg, previously published on Data Insights Network

Market research and sustainability: is the sector sufficiently engaged with it?

‘Slowly it’s starting to happen. It’s not that this topic is very alive within the sector, but our clients, the marketers, are increasingly concerned with it. Marketing a sustainable message is just more difficult than regular marketing. After all, sustainable choices are often seen by consumers as a compromise: more expensive, less tasty, more hassle. And consumers prefer not to compromise. So how can you as a marketer persuade them to do so? That’s what marketers struggle with. And so they need insights into consumer behavior and how to influence it. In other words, they turn to research agencies to find answers for them.’

Sustainability used to be less of a hot topic. What was a turning point for you personally?

‘Seven years ago, I started thinking about how I wanted to spend the rest of my working life. At that time, I was working on two projects for organizations with mainly social goals. I realized that I could help them very well, as they had a great need for insight into their target audience. More importantly, I realized that I was much happier using my knowledge and skills to make a positive impact. I then decided to work exclusively for brands and organizations that aim to leave a better world behind in their own way. This led to the founding of my agency, Future of Food Institute, through which we only work for brands and organizations committed to a more sustainable and healthier diet.’

How can the insights sector become more sustainable?

‘Of course, it helps to buy green energy and encourage people to cycle to work. But you make a real impact in your choice of clients and projects. Don’t conduct research for sectors and industries you don’t support, like the tobacco industry, fossil fuels, gambling companies, and meat processors. Instead, focus on companies or projects that make society healthier, happier, or better in some other way.

The new task force Ethical Compass (Ethisch Kompas) will help agencies make these choices. There will be an ethical code that agencies can sign. Subsequently, they can communicate externally based on the criteria by which they choose their clients and projects.’

You help food brands innovate and communicate sustainably. Isn’t the purchase decision currently shifting back towards price?

‘Absolutely. Still, you can entice or steer consumers towards sustainable choices. You just need to make it clear what the benefit is for them. Sustainable can be very tasty, healthy, and financially attractive. Think of the 35% discount sticker in the supermarket. Very sustainable, because you prevent waste and save money. Or consider a diet with fewer animal products; it often turns out to be cheaper and healthier. The hurdle mainly lies in the perception that it’s less tasty or more difficult. Marketers can help overcome those hurdles.’

Consumers are more skeptical of sustainability claims. What does your research say about genuinely convincing green communication?

‘You can no longer get away with a generic claim that you are more sustainable as a brand. Soon, that won’t even be allowed; you have to make it specific. To do this properly, choose an aspect that consumers find important and can understand. You can use that in communication and brand building. But first, you need to understand what consumers mean by sustainability within a specific category. Is it animal welfare, pesticide use, or the plastic in the packaging? And for that, you need clear insights. But the most important thing is that you actually become more sustainable.

‘The purpose of purpose is purpose,’ said Mark Ritson. If you can use that to get consumers on board, that’s a nice bonus. And sometimes it’s better not to communicate about sustainability at all; precisely because consumers often associate it with a higher price or lower quality. A good example is the Dutch bread bakers; they collectively reduced the salt content step by step to create a healthier product. They didn’t communicate about this, specifically to let the consumer get used to it secretly. It worked excellently.’

Is the younger generation of researchers more driven by sustainability?

‘I see this development but this does not only apply to younger researchers. Within all ages, there are more and more people who find it important to do useful work to contribute to a better world. Employers who do not enable this are losing the battle for talent.’

About Durk Bosma

Durk is a market research architect with over 25 years of experience. He learnt the trade at Research International, where he saw how insights are applied by marketers at Pepsi and KLM. Since 2005, he has worked as an entrepreneur in the insights world; in 2019, he founded The Future of Food Institute, a market research agency specialising in consumer behaviour in the field of sustainable food. He wrote the market research book What is the Question? And was nominated as Researcher of the Year by the MOA in 2013 and 2022.

We believe that understanding consumers is key to making the food system more sustainable. Successful innovation and impactful communication require a solid foundation of consumer insight. 

We are the insights partner of choice for food companies and non-profits  that aim to have a positive impact on society and our planet. Together we empower consumers to make food choices that are good for them as well as for the planet.

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