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Why Consumers Don’t See the Benefit of Genetically Modified Foods, and What Marketers Can Do About It

Why Consumers Don’t See the Benefit of Genetically Modified Foods, and What Marketers Can Do About It

Sean Hingston and Theodore J. Noseworthy

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The international debate over genetically modified (GM) foods rages on. Activists say that consumers deserve to know if their food contains any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because of suspicions that they can cause allergies and illness. Consumers feel that GM foods are unnatural, immoral, and unsafe, which is ironic because some 70% of processed foods in the United States already contain GMOs. The European Commission has gone a step further and implemented strict GMO labeling laws that have severely curtailed sales in that region.

In a new study, we demonstrate that consumers’ moral opposition, which is predicated on the benefit that natural foods are inherently good, causes them to discount any benefits of GM foods. By making simple wording changes that reposition GM foods as man-made, marketers can circumvent moral debates, help elevate perceived benefits, and increase consumer preference for GM foods. Our study further provides additional insights that can be used to design products, shape marketing messages and product launches, and boost sales.


Numerous studies (as well as billions of dollars of product sales) demonstrate that consumers prefer “all-natural foods” to their processed counterparts, believing that natural foods are free of artificial ingredients, pesticides, and GMOs. Yet federal regulations attest to nothing of the sort, allowing food producers to use the word natural as long as no artificial or synthetic ingredients have been added that would be unexpected for that food.

We hypothesized that consumers’ tendency to stigmatize GM foods, because they are often viewed as natural objects that have been tampered with, would be reduced when the GM food was conveyed as being man-made in the first place. This hypothesis builds on prior research, which finds that man-made objects (unlike natural objects) are evaluated in terms of their intended function. Thus, we also predicted that providing statements of intent would strengthen consumer interest and the likelihood they would purchase the man-made products.

We used four studies to test our hypothesis. In the first study, we tested consumers’ reasoning about a GM energy fruit and found that when it was positioned as man-made (with appropriate packaging and label), it was perceived positively. That response increased with a statement of intent, which for this test was to reduce consumers’ reliance on sports energy drinks that can cause low sodium levels. In a second study, we manipulated the color of a fruit at a farmer’s market to make the product look man-made. Consumers experienced less moral opposition to the clearly artificial GM fruit (blue-dyed apples), which were accompanied by a statement that the fruit reduces farmers’ reliance on pesticides. In the third study, we manipulated product placement to nudge consumers to view products as man-made or natural, placing GM-labeled cereal among either energy drinks or fresh produce. The statement of intent was that the oats in the cereal had more vitamin B6 and produced higher yields without fertilizer. Once again, when the consumers saw a man-made product with a statement of intent, among other man-made products, their moral opposition to the product was reduced, which also allowed consumers to perceive the product’s functional benefits.

Our fourth study sought to explore moral opposition more fully. The product was plums that were packaged to look manmade and presented with a statement of intent (enhanced cleansing properties). We monitored shoppers in a grocery store and performed a taste test, telling shoppers that the product was either naturally grown or GM either before or after showing the fruit. Shoppers were more likely to try the GM-labeled plum (45%) when packaging was presented before the fruit was identified as GM than afterwards (27%).

Our study showed that changing marketing and positioning will help food manufacturers make the case for GM foods and still meet regulatory requirements to label foods with GMO ingredients. By positioning foods as man-made and providing credible statement of intent, producers can boost sales, even when products look unnatural. However, consumers must see the product as man-made before learning that the product has been genetically modified. This research has implications for how producers label, package, and place foods in stores as well as how they market and advertise them.

Driving sales is essential, because GM foods are needed to support population growth. Fortunately, marketing and positioning are well within producers’ control. Our study provides detailed insights for marketing and sales strategists who want to connect with consumers, understand their psychology, and stress key product benefits in a way that will overcome moral opposition — and open wallets.

Read the full article.

From: Sean Hingston and Theodore Noseworthy, “Why Consumers Don’t See the Benefit of Genetically Modified Foods, and What Marketers Can Do About It,” Journal of Marketing, 82 (September).

Go to the Journal of Marketing​​​

Sean T. Hingston is Assistant Professor of Consumer Behavior, DAN Management and Organizational Studies, Western University.

Theodore J. Noseworthy is Associate Professor of Marketing and Canada Research Chair in Entrepreneurial Innovation and the Public Good, Schulich School of Business, York University.