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 and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

6 responses

  1. Good analysis… I agree that big food companies ought to be convinced to make better products – some how. But at the end of the day, cultural demand is what drives these companies. I wonder if the first lady might be wise to seek to influence consumers directly rather than the CEOs?

    1. You want big food companies to make better products? Then buy them when they make them. Or better yet… Buy from smaller companies who sell what you want to buy.

  2. Michelle GW0bama doesn’t give a fig if her advocacy moves the needle. As long as she can afford questions as to why her husband gave us RomneyCare instead of the Single Payer Health Care we Liberals elected him to support and/or why her husband is still killing men, women, children and babies in the middle east and/or why her husband has voluntarily, on his own accord. as part of his own plan, put cuts to Social Security/Medicare on the table while supporting GWBush’s tax cuts for the wealth Mrs. GW0bama is quite happy to play her part. She knows the glorious life sell outs like her and her husband will have ahead after 2016.

  3. Michelle hasn’t done much since September in regards to this campaign, making me think that she has abandoned it. I’ve attached a link to a news report I read that stated,

    “I know a lot of my friends who are just drinking a jug of milk for their lunch. And they are not getting a proper meal,” middle school student Samantha Gortmaker told Keloland.com.

    Despite the fact that the new regulations have increased the cost of a lunch 20 to 25 cents per plate, it’s not pleasing students.

    Some are throwing away their vegetables while others are adapting to the rules by becoming industrious. In New Bedford, Massachusetts, students have created a black market – for chocolate syrup. The kiddie capitalists are smuggling in bottles of it and selling it by the squeeze, according to SouthCoastToday.com.”





  4. Great post Raz. I’d like to suggest a 5th point growing out of your observations about PepsiCo and “the financial downside of taking a progressive approach.” It’s the structural corporate emphasis on short-term profits as demanded by Wall Street and by shareholders who can’t see or aren’t interested in the long run. Until this tunnel vision is overcome, we’ll continue to see a hamstrung economy that devalues (or doesn’t value at all) R&D into downstream environmental and health benefits.

  5. Education is the pivot point around which will turn the business and economies of food production and distribution. The FLOTUS can try and try to spark debate, to produce educational materials, to set up programs, to institute curriculum in the schools… but it will require food companies to participate. The companies have the budget and wherewithal to distribute educational materials for massive and long term effects. To Wit: “The Food Pyramid” “Breakfast cereal is healthy.” “Bread is a food group” That is 1950s food industry propaganda and IMMENSELY effective.

    It is well known in food science the downstream dangers of HFCS, refined flour/gluten sensitivities, fructose, caged poultry/antibiotics in meats, aspartame, sulfites, nitrates, chemical additives, etc… There is ACTUAL evidence. The first lady does not need to show CEOs this evidence, as they are already aware of it. Big Tobacco was aware of its addictive carcinogens. The first lady needs Big Agri and Big Pharma and the Food Giants to act against their best interests (profit margin) for the public’s best interests (healthy diets). It won’t happen. The public won’t opt to purchase off-brand, expensive but healthy alternatives.

    The situation is far more complex than the article above, and the conclusion is wrong. I don’t see how providing our nation healthy food is only the FLOTUS’ responsibility, and not the responsibility of those who produce foods knowingly poisoning our populace. Criticizing her efforts without offering a better alternative merely bolsters the food companies’ conceit that the industry is so big there is no point in changing.

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