Why Michelle Obama’s Business Case for Healthier Food Won’t Move the Needle

Michelle_ObamaMichelle Obama made a surprising appearance last week to celebrate the third anniversary of her “Let’s Move” initiative. No, I’m not talking about “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” but the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal.

It might not get even closer to the popularity of The Evolution of Mom Dancing, but Obama’s column, The Business Case for Healthier Food Options, can be important in helping her movement meet the goal of solving the problem of obesity within a generation. After all, business is part of the problem and in order to make it part of the solution, you need to show CEOs and Wall Street the business case for doing the right thing.

And this is exactly what Michelle Obama tried to do in her column, show that “what’s good for kids and good for family budgets can also be good for business.” While she made a pretty good case, I doubt the target audience of this column will take it seriously.

Here are the main reasons why the First Lady’s column will probably (and unfortunately) not move the needle in the business community:

1. She’s the wrong storyteller – as I mentioned last week, one of the issues that was discussed at the GreenBiz Forum in NY was that many times facts don’t matter as much as the storytelling. In other words, data doesn’t change decision making, compelling stories do. This is, I believe, a good example of this lesson. Investors and CEOs would probably be more convinced that selling fresh produce or reducing the amount of sugar in its products by 10 percent is good business for Walmart if it came directly from Mike Duke, Walmart CEO, rather than the First Lady.

Coming from Duke, this story would sound completely different even if it were basically the same story.

2. CEOs are familiar with other stories as well – Michelle Obama tells the success stories of Walmart and Disney that seem to fit because of their new policies promoting consumption of healthier food. However, this is not the whole picture.

Most CEOs have heard how Campbell Soup had given up on reducing the salt content of its soups in 2011 and added back the salt because its “health-inspired low-sodium push failed to lift sales.” They probably also heard about Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo CEO, who has been taking a lot of heat from investors in the last couple of years because of her efforts to shift the company “into a global enterprise with a product line that can prosper in a world where obesity is fast becoming the No. 1 health problem.”

My guess is that CEOs pay more attention to the financial downside of taking a progressive approach on healthier food. That means might be a good idea to present them with the whole picture, explaining why PepsiCo and Campbell Soup are the exception and not the rule, rather than just ignoring the financial downside of selling healthier products.

3. It’s also about taste and price – Obama’s column tries to portray the demand for healthier food as a clear trend in consumer demand. “Today, 82% of consumers feel that it’s important for companies to offer healthy products that fit family budgets, according to the Edelman public relations firm.”

The problem is that in the same study Edelman found out that 83 percent of consumers say it’s important that food and beverage companies provide healthy foods that taste great and 68 percent believe healthy foods are too expensive. For many CEOs these numbers are far more important – they believe that healthy food can’t be as tasty and affordable as “regular” food and therefore can’t really grow to be more than just a niche market.

The Campbell Soup example demonstrates it quite well, as does a chapter from Michael Moss’ new book on the food industry, where he tells the story about a meeting that took place in 1999 between executives of leading companies in the food industry to discuss possible threats from the growing concerns over obesity.

Moss wrote in the New York Times about how Stephen Sanger, then the chairman and CEO of General Mills, reacted to suggestions in the meeting that the industry should take more responsibility upon itself. “Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”

4. The voice of the consumer is still missing – As Professor Marion Nestle once wrote “even companies that want to make ‘healthier’ products cannot do it—unless the products sell. If they don’t, forget it.” She’s right – this eventually is about a very simple question that many companies, not just in the food industry, struggle with – would consumers make the right choice?

The First Lady tries to make the case that they would and already do to some extent. Yet, I suspect that to convince most CEOs you need more evidence, and this is where consumers get into the picture. If they will make better choices, companies will move forward. If not, companies will keep waiting. Therefore, if the First Lady really wants to convince business, she needs to convince consumers first. Otherwise, it just won’t work.

[Image credit: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, as well as the sharing economy, sustainable business models and design thinking. Currently he is involved in projects focusing on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, resilience and the sharing economy, future of design thinking, and whether Millennials can integrate sustainability into their lifestyles.Raz is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.