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Why Big Food Is Fighting Hard for Mom Bloggers’ Approval

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For big food companies, the "mom" market represents a $2 trillion problem — or opportunity.

Michael Hogue/ The Dallas Morning News/MCT via Getty Images

Moms rule. At some point in our adult life, we accept that more often than not, our moms' advice was right: Eat your vegetables, pick up your socks, and get enough sleep. When that advice is from a "mom blogger," that advice is often about what food you should feed your kids, and it reaches thousands of miles further than your own backyard.

According to women-focused publishing platform BlogHer, the mom blogosphere includes as many as 14.2 million highly connected mothers whose blogs offer personal advice on parenting, including everything from what to do when your toddler throws a royal tantrum to product recommendations for food and household items. Often, when the female reader is going through the same daily parenting drama as a favorite mom blogger, the shared pain and joy cements a personal loyalty — and unsurprisingly, advertisers are hoping to capitalize on mom bloggers' seemingly personal connection with their readers. According to the CBC documentary Monetizing Mommy-hood, that loyalty is worth as much as $2 trillion, and BlogHer research suggests that mom bloggers mention as many as 73 brands per week, with 56 percent of other moms buying brands based on blog testimonials. It's that massive "mom" market share that allows ads on leading mom blog collective MomBlogSociety to mirror those found on primetime television: Virgin Mobile, Marshalls, and VSN Mobile.

Mom bloggers mention as many as 73 brands per week, exposure that's worth as much as $2 trillion.

And mom bloggers are changing American perceptions and market spend on what foods are desirable — for many bloggers, healthy eating is the core of their personal brand. Mom bloggers, more than women in the general population, express desires to buy foods that are organic (69 percent), locally grown (49 percent) and eco-friendly (87 percent), according to Scarborough Research (.pdf). As a result, amateur bloggers often find themselves in the center of debates about GMOs, processed foods, and animal hormones — and despite some bloggers' lack of health or science credentials, the authenticity of the mom bloggers' collective voice is often its strength.

That cultural shift has occurred so quickly that the mainstream food industry is in a quandary — an $18 billion quagmire, to be exact. Earlier this year, Credit Suisse analyst Robert Moskow told Fortune that "Big Food" (America's top 25 food companies) lost $18 billion in market share since 2009. Big Food has a few choices: Give the new consumer what she wants, or try to sway mom bloggers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, corporations that are heavily invested in conventional agricultural methods are now courting mom bloggers over to their side. But which voice will the food industry ultimately listen to?

When companies offer a product that mom bloggers don't want, it's a grounding like none other. "We have inherited a food system that doesn't work anymore," says Robyn O'Brien, a food industry analyst, mother of four, and author of The Unhealthy Truth. O'Brien's world was turned upside down in 2006 when her infant daughter had a violent allergic reaction to eggs. In her 2011 heartfelt but straightforward TEDx talk, which has been watched more than 2.6 million times, O'Brien recalls that until that frightening moment, she didn't want to hear from other moms about what she should feed her child. Now, she advocates for a cleaner and more transparent food system on her eponymous blog, and considers the mom blog space to be a legitimate community to foster change. O'Brien's Facebook page, where she encourages readers to "#dumpthejunk" and calls for the "food industry's conscious uncoupling from Monsanto," has more than 86,000 followers. "I don't want to look back and point fingers," she said. "I want to build a new food system. There is so much wisdom and insight in these women, especially if you see them as allies and not enemies."

Kraft Foods learned this the hard way from Lisa Leake. In 2012, Leake — a mother of two whose family photos are prominently featured on her site, 100DaysofRealFood.com— began writing about why she rejects artificial food dyes, especially in Kraft macaroni and cheese packets, because of fears of hyperactivity, allergies, and migraine headaches. On March 5, 2013, she and Vani Hari (the blogger better known as Food Babe) started a petition calling for the company to remove the dye. "Kraft reformulated their product for the UK, but not for their fellow American citizens, and it's time we demand the same here in the U.S.," Hari wrote. By March 14, 228,000 signed on. The petition reached a final tally of 365,806 shortly thereafter.

"The food industry had an opportunity to listen to what women wanted. They've been in denial."

Despite that Kraft had an existing dye-free formulation, the company waited until April 2015 to announce it would remove the dye in U.S. brands by 2016. In the meantime, moms voted with their dollars and switched to Annie's natural and organic line, which now accounts for seven percent of the market, according to Reuters. (In 2012, Leake tepidly endorsed the Annie's brand, writing that "there is only ONE variety of Annie's mac and cheese that even comes close to fitting the real food bill.")

Kraft's mac and cheese market share fell to 78 percent in 2014 from 82 percent in 2010. Though it still dominates the category, overall sales for all products declined enough that Kraft was forced to fire its advertising agency in 2014 and merged with H.J. Heinz in August 2015 to revive lagging share values. "The food industry had an opportunity to listen to what women wanted — real food and transparency," said Stephanie Holland, a blogger and founder of Sheconomy, a marketing company about women's influence on the economy. "They've been in denial."

But as the call for greater transparency gains bigger voices, the conventional agriculture and food industry has been working to build its own fleet of supported websites and mom bloggers who are in favor of conventional farming and food processing. Anna Lappe, co-author of "Spinning Food" — a report released in July 2015 by Friends of the Earth — outlines the campaigns Big Food is deploying to co-opt mom bloggers.

As an example, "Spinning Food" discusses concern over FindOurCommonGround.com, a website by volunteer female farmers and mom bloggers that promises to "sort through the myths" and help bloggers "gather third-party facts" about food. The site shows pictures of women holding piglets and shares farmhouse recipes like cornbread and game-day chili. Galleries urge readers to "experience farm life through our family photos."

"I'm very concerned about brands who go beyond advertising to messaging that shapes the narrative around what we think is safe."

According to Lappe, it's doubtful that mom bloggers — and CommonGround's 10,000 Facebook followers — are aware of the fine print at the bottom of the website indicating this homespun-looking group is the marketing arm of the federally funded commodity soybean and corn growers, commonly called check-off groups. In these sometimes-controversial check-off programs, farmers that belong to associations automatically pay fees to these groups, and the money can be used for marketing, among other uses. (Common Ground did not reply to request for comment.) "I am very concerned about brands who go beyond advertising to messaging that shapes the narrative around what we think is safe," Lappe said.

Ethically, all of this is perfectly normal, as long as bloggers are transparent about who is supporting them financially, says Dr. Ricard Wayne Jenson, professor at Montclair State University and author of The Ethics of Emerging Media. "I'm all in favor of more people blogging about their experiences and points of view," he said. "I think it helps us more fully understand complex issues." But critics point out that Big Food has launched other campaigns targeted directly at the mom bloggers producing content, and that strategy includes paid one-on-one conversations. Following a 2014 BlogHer conference in San Jose, two female farmers and Monsanto spokespersons hosted a mom blogger brunch. According to "Spinning Food," bloggers were paid $150 to attend. Later that year, Monsanto invited mom bloggers to visit a facility in Northern California. A Modern Farmer writer who attended the event reported that the follow-up blog coverage was mixed.

But either way, "the corporation folds those links into marketing, which builds authority, Google rankings, and traffic," said Kimbirly Orr, a digital media and public relations strategist and president of Knock Out Performance. Orr says companies have learned to space out content into strategic chunks so that posts go out every few days. From a social engagement perspective, each story builds on the other. "If the topic is controversial and continues to trend upward, most likely major media will pick up the story and keep it alive even longer," Orr said. "It's exponential."

For readers, food choices are no longer simple. In the past, companies made food they wanted families to eat. Today, families are telling food companies what they want to eat, and according to O'Brien, "the beliefs on either side of this issue are as deep as a religion." It's a turnaround that has caught the food industry by surprise: It's one thing to keep shareholders happy, it's quite another to keep moms satisfied.

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