By: Andy Harig, Senior Director, Sustainability, Tax & Trade, Food Marketing Institute

In Store RecyclingLiterary icon Maya Angelou famously said, “At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” 

In the hyper-competitive world of food wholesale and retail, it can be easy to lose sight of this simple truism. Every day, people are bombarded with numbers, charts, and graphs explaining the success of a program or arguing a certain perspective. At times it can feel like “data” is an end itself, rather than a means for improving a company’s connection to consumers. But, in today’s chaotic world, what individuals really want is engagement: Where does their food come from? Why are prices going up? What are you doing to protect the environment? How do you treat your employees?  How are you changing things for the better in the community?  

Consumers are craving an understanding of the causes behind the numbers.

Food retailers work hard to improve the lives of shoppers through in-store initiatives. Consumers seem to intuitively understand this, but how many retailers take the next step and proactively tell their story? Right now, American consumers devote a smaller share of their income to feeding themselves than they have at any point in history. This frees up hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars annually that families can use as savings, or to pay for a vacation, or just to make sure they can cover other bills. FMI strives to tell this story on the industry’s behalf, but far too few retailers reach out to their consumers and help them understand the work and achievement that lies behind these low prices and selection.                                                                              

When it comes to sustainability, the consumer need to feel a connection can be particularly powerful. Grocers are committed to improving lives outside of their stores by dedicating time and resources to enhancing their communities through sustainability efforts, but many retailers seem sheepish about sharing these efforts or hide them away in annual sustainability reports that very few consumers access. This reticence can be understandable – everyone was probably warned by their parents at least once of the dangers of tooting your own horn. 

Retailers do not want to see their serious efforts to make the world a better place written off as just another marketing project.  But telling this story can be a powerful tool that transcends marketing and educates consumers about the kind of company you are today and aspire to be tomorrow. For example, last year, grocers donated more than 1.3 billion meals to those in need through Feeding America. These donations weren’t just unsaleable product, but included cash donations and product that could have still been on a store shelf.  This is an incredible achievement that was only a single part of our much larger effort to reduce food waste throughout the supply chain.

Consumers want to know this fact – they want to feel like the store where they shop and where they get their favorite things shares their broader values. But they want to see behind the numbers to what these efforts really mean. Data is always impressive, but how food retailers tell the story of sustainability to consumers matters more than ever.

And, the need for storytelling around sustainability was an unsaid theme at the 2017 Global Sustainability Summit in Nashville, Tennessee. Successful businesses depend on the ability to tell a story that compels organizations forward and harnesses the authentic connection between a brand and a customer. Strategic storytelling transcends company narratives and has become a powerful skill that can better frame and impart experiences and knowledge to others.

How do we continue to build a sustainable future for the food retail industry? The needed technology is accessible, human capital is ample, but strategic storytelling may be an untouched resource.