The Case for Measuring GMO and Other CPG Social Media Conversations

By Christopher Robinson

In the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry, being able to rapidly identify, evaluate and respond to consumer trends is crucial to sustaining growth and building a strong competitive edge. However, trend analysis is often easier said than done, especially when the scale of a trend impacts millions of consumers and/or if the topic is broad and constantly changing. One current trend that directly impacts the CPG industry is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. 

The World Health Organization defines a GMO as a plant or animal organism with genetic material that has been modified in a way that does not occur in nature. In the United States, genetically modified seeds are often used in the production of corn and soy, and the FDA recently approved genetically modified farmed salmon. The Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization that accredits products as “GMO-free,” states that as many as 35,000 products now carry its certification. It is safe to say that most consumers have likely heard the word “GMO” if not read about it in the news and/or seen a non-GMO claim on a product label.

For CPG manufacturers and retailers, GMOs present an interesting challenge in both scale and scope. Widespread consumer awareness of GMOs is the broadest “trend,” but it’s largely in-actionable. The trends that grow from the implications of the knowledge matter the most – but how is relevant information revealed? What if the right questions that companies need to ask consumers are unclear? In other words, how do you take a subject as broad as GMOs and break it down into actionable pieces that impact consumer decision making? CPG companies that master this challenge will be best positioned to assess and respond to consumer trends regarding GMOs. Those that can do this quickly and cost-effectively will undoubtedly use social listening as part of their analyses.

Pew Research Center reports that 65 percent of all adults now use at least one social networking site, and as many as 90 percent of those 18 to 29 years old and 77 percent of those 30-49 years old do. As consumers continue to take to the web en masse, they share their thoughts and opinions on anything and everything, including GMOs. The best way to grasp a massive trend like this is to use big data to break down the size into manageable and understandable parts. Social listening analysis overall provides a large, impartial window into exactly what consumers are saying about a given topic. As the analysis continues and distinct trends are identified, the window is narrowed to focus in on increasingly specific information. This methodology saves companies time as they won’t need to figure out all of the specific questions about this topic that they need to ask consumers. Instead, consumers are bringing the information directly to marketers. Social listening analysis also creates a view into what’s next, so that companies can identify emerging trends quickly and in real time.

Recently, IRI completed a top-level, social listening analysis of GMOs. The goal was to identify subtopics that consumers mention most frequently with GMOs regardless of category, product, brand or consumer demographic. Doing so allowed us to disassemble this broad topic of GMOs into more well-defined consumer sub-trends. This gave our clients more specific and action-oriented information.

IRI’s social listening analysis identified that “labeling” was the most frequently mentioned sub-topic of GMOs, far exceeding mentions of “banning” GMOs or specific types of food such as vegetables or meat. It appears that while the debate over the safety of GMOs in food continues, many consumers want labeling so that they can make fully informed purchase decisions.  

We also established that total mentions of “non-GMO” or “GMO-free” across social media platforms have grown 47 percent yearly, on average, since 2012. Building on this base of information, we can explore how consumers are talking about GMOs as they relate to specific categories, products and brands. We use IRI Social Advantage™ to not only break down large topics into more manageable sub-topics but also combine robust retail performance data with social metrics to help companies better identify and prioritize new products and features for key customer segments. All of this information is generally available within days.

Tracking the latest consumer sentiment online for major trends, identifying related sub-topics and then linking that online chatter to sales impact can help marketers better understand and leverage the GMO trend as well as other emerging trends that matter to CPG shoppers. The importance of this type of social media data and analysis for marketing planning, consumer targeting and shopper activation is something I think everyone can agree on.

Do you have questions on how you can use better use social media analytics to understand consumer sentiment around emerging trends and your brand or category? Email me at

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