Communicating food messages across four generations

By David White, Ohio Livestock Coalition

For the first time in history, four generations of grown consumers are working and communicating side-by-side — Traditionals, Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y — and they all have different preferences when it comes to food and farming issues. Each group has their own set of values, expectations, perspectives and communication styles.

This presents a major challenge for Ohio agriculture. The first challenge is that we are facing an unprecedented number of individuals who are three to four generations removed from the farm and do not understand what farmers do and where their food comes from. The second challenge is that this is the first time we’ve had to develop and communicate our messages across such a wide generational gap to share our stories and educate them about farming. Acknowledging that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, it is critical to understand who these generational groups are, what they value, and the best communication medium to reach them.

The Traditionals, or the Silent Generation, were born prior to 1946. These individuals grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. They like hard work and are private people. Although many have retired, that hasn’t stopped them from going back to work. Traditionals value respect for authority, hard work, loyalty, discipline, tradition, duty to country, thriftiness, and building a legacy. Communication tools like email and smartphones are too impersonal with this group to keep their trust. Traditionals want and need personal, one-on-one conversations to keep them feeling connected and engaged.

Born between 1946-1964, the Baby Boomers make up the majority of the cultural, political and academic leadership class in the U.S. and are reaching retirement age. An economic boom led Baby Boomers to experience a lifestyle with more money and possessions and a higher education than their parents. Baby Boomers are also called the “sandwich generation” because many boomer families are taking in their parents to care for them, and have older children who are coming home after college to live due to the weak job market. Baby Boomers value career achievement, personal fulfillment, hard work, and equality. When it comes to communicating with this generation, many Baby Boomers have started adopting technology and may engage using digital media. That being said, they generally prefer in-person communications.

Generation X includes individuals born between 1965 and 1979 who grew up during the end of the Cold War and the Reagan era. High divorce rates combined with an increase in working mothers meant many Gen X-ers grew up as “latch-key kids.” They saw the sacrifices their Baby Boomer parents made for their careers and then saw many of them laid off during economic recessions. For these reasons, they commonly distrust authority and are independent, skeptical individuals who strive for a higher degree of work/life balance and flexibility to do their work as they choose. Gen X-ers value personal security, freedom, the ability to live for today, and independence. When it comes to communicating with this generation, they are generally more comfortable with Web-based communications, especially email, and many have jumped into social media.

Born between 1980-2000, Generation Y is the most connected generation of any preceding group. They have grown up surrounded by new technologies. Gen Y was among the first adopters of desktop computers, laptops, social media, smartphones and tablets. Much like Gen X-ers, they want balance between work and life and strive to achieve something by their efforts. Living in the moment, asking questions, responsibility, self-directed careers, short-term rewards, and having a voice are all values of Generation Y. When communicating with this group, remember that they created the social network and prefer to consume information in short, concise chunks. Email, text and social media are the communication channels used most often by Gen Y.

So, how does agriculture sort through the many different communication channels and generational preferences to choose the best? It’s important to first identify who the target audience is with respect to perspective, expectations, and how consumers want to interact.

In terms of the communication medium, newspapers will still reach an older audience, but a twenty-something will rarely see it. However, nearly every generation will start their search for information on food and farming issues by asking friends and family or searching online. In fact, 2012 Center for Food Integrity research reveals that the majority of consumers’ primary source of information on food system issues is friends and family, website, and their local TV station.

Although each generation has distinct characteristics for the way they would like to receive information, collectively, they all believe that shared values are important. Therefore, when communicating with consumers of all generations, farmers should use values-based messages instead of leading with science and facts. A couple of examples include: “My family and I live, work and play in the same communities where we farm, so we care about protecting the environment.” “Because Ohio’s livestock farmers and their families eat the same food as we do, they care about the safety of the food they produce.”

Additionally, it’s important to recognize that there is no single “silver bullet” message to build trust with consumers regarding farming and food issues. To build trust and confidence with consumers of all generations, we must be proactive in opening the door for communication, and that means having conversations instead of just delivering messages.

Conversation is powerful. It can change opinions, enlighten, and inspire additional conversations. Ohio’s livestock farmers can participate in productive conversations by engaging with consumers, acknowledging their questions and concerns, share meaningful details about how you raise food, and make it clear that you want to earn their trust.

Focusing on what’s important to each generation is crucial to making your message matter in all forms of communications.


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