Why Fear-Based Marketing Is a Mistake for Corrugated in Its Ongoing Tiff with RPCs

Corrugated versus RPCs debate fails to embrace the broader implications of using negative marketing.

The rise of the wood pallet for shipping from the 1940s onward allowed corrugated carton usage to become not only feasible but to flourish as the wooden box market plummeted. Box plants closed in droves. A few operations survived by focusing on industries that still relied on heavy crates, or switching to other product opportunities such as the rapidly emerging wooden pallet. Thanks to product support and protection offered by the pallet, along with the fewer touches associated with palletized handling in the supply chain, wooden containers were no longer needed for many products. Cheaper, lighter and more cube efficient, corrugated containers quickly became integral to the performance of consumer goods supply chains. The horizons for corrugated continue to expand today as it benefits from the rapid growth of e-commerce, modern global consumerism, and the associated need for boxes. Still, all is not well.

More Food Safety Concerns Expressed by Corrugated

The Canadian Corrugated and Containerboard Association released an announcement and its latest study on May 1, 2017: Reusable Plastic Containers used to ship produce a weak link in cross-­border biosecurity, pose a contamination risk. That announcement is posted here.

The Globe and Mail followed up with an article which made an honest effort to provide a balanced report, conveying information available from the RPC community, the corrugated study as well as from other stakeholders. The underlying theme of the story, one to which I subscribe, is that consumers are receiving conflicting messages.  It called the corrugated announcement “just the latest in a series of escalating hostilities between the paper and plastic industries – a feud that has pitted food scientists against environmentalists, leaving growers and grocers caught in the middle.”

I don’t know. I don’t know what’s real or not.

I have no idea.” – Jan VanderHout


The article included comments from IFCO, which stated that the corrugated food safety study is flawed, as well as a representative for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, who said she was unaware of any food-safety incidents related to the use of plastic crates. It also included comments from Loblaw, which said it had worked closely with manufacturers to improve sanitation, including new wash stations.

Problems with the Study Explained

Tim Debus, RPA President, was also quoted, suggesting that the corrugated group was using fear as a marketing tool. I’ll get back to fear, momentarily. Debus also offered the Globe his perspective on shortcomings related to the research. This explanation did not make it into the article, but it is enlightening to include here:

The study (uses) total aerobic plate counts (APC) as a basis for their evaluation of RPC sanitation, which then results in the assertion that such “insufficient sanitation…poses as a biosecurity risk.”  It is important to point out that food safety experts agree (see example white paper by the United Fresh Produce Association Food Safety & Technology Council) that “APC results do not correlate well with the potential for pathogen contamination, and are not useful predictors of product safety” (page 7), and that further yeast and mold levels “are not good indicators of potential pathogen contamination” and should not be used as an “indicator of safety” (page 8).

Due to the wide fluctuation of aerobic plate counts from sampling the environment, including both on raw agricultural commodities and their field-pack containers, the correlation of APC levels from single unit sampling to passing judgment on food safety or “biosecurity risk” is a questionable claim from the researcher, especially given the history of safe use of reusable containers in agriculture and the continued absence of actual pathogen detection on sampled containers.

The Globe article concludes as follows:

Jan VanderHout, who grows English cucumbers in the Hamilton area, said that when it comes to choosing between paper and plastic, “basically we do what the customer requests.” And so far, the majority of his customers (mainly wholesalers) are still asking for cardboard boxes.

As for being torn between the two sides – each touting its own research, with one championing food safety and the other environmentalism, Mr. VanderHout reacted with exasperation. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what’s real or not,” he said. “I have no idea.”

He’s not the only one confused. Other farmers have raised concerns, a spokesperson for the Canadian Horticultural Council said, and the organization will now conduct its own study on both cardboard and plastic boxes. That study will be released this summer.

Why Fear-Based Marketing Hurts Everyone, Including the Fearmonger

The problem with a fear-based marketing approach, the strategy of scaring customers away from a competing brand, is that it will likely generate widespread suboptimal results, including for the proponent of such a plan. For this reason, it is seen by several researchers as a questionable way to do business. My favorite quote on the subject is from a Harvard Business Review article:

Unlike politicians, companies hardly ever run negative ads. Pepsi ads don’t tear down Coke; they build the brand image of Pepsi. Why? Because a tit-for-tat war of words would turn off consumers of both brands. 

A recent example of negative consequences resulting from fear-based marketing had to do with the impact of fear-based messages used by organic marketers and activist groups. Research from Illinois Institute of Technology’s Center for Nutrition Research concluded that safety concerns expressed about non-organic produce, specifically pesticide residues (although still within accepted tolerances) could be leading to a lower consumption of fruits and vegetables by those who could not afford to buy organic products.

This result is congruent with the findings of a report from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future. The study found that shoppers who were receiving conflicting messages, such as information about pesticide residues, might feel overwhelmed by contradictory information about healthy food options.

In the case of corrugated versus RPCs, contributing to

public uncertainty about the safety of fresh produce

could predictably lead to changing buying patterns,

for example toward frozen produce or other options other than fresh produce.


“Given the potential implications of competing messages about healthy eating,” the Johns Hopkins study stated, “it is important that those who want to improve food production techniques and those who want to improve nutrition cooperate to create consistent messaging about healthy eating.”

Fear-based marketing leads to the type of conflicting messages discussed above. In the case of corrugated versus RPCs, contributing to public uncertainty about the safety of fresh produce could predictably lead to changing buying patterns, for example toward frozen vegetables or other options other than fresh produce. The result of enough uncertainty would be a depression in overall fresh produce sales. The bottom line is that by using a fear-based approach, corrugated is faced with the possibility of trying to achieve a larger share of a smaller pie regarding the overall market and ultimately a decrease in overall produce container sales. They could win the battle but lose the war, to use the old cliche.

The sad part of this story is that people, generally speaking, are coming to the realization that they want to eat more healthily by consuming more fresh produce. And many wish to do so through supporting producers closer to home, in this case, such as those in Canada. There is a significant opportunity to expand the fresh produce market by increasing per capita consumption, a market in which corrugated is still the dominant provider of containers. Fear-based marketing is simply the wrong tact for the Canadian Corrugated and Containerboard Association to be taking, and one that is ultimately disrespectful to the best interests of the public. It would be better served by redirecting its promotional budget toward a positive promotional campaign for Canadian growers. It would indeed better support the business interests of its members and its faithful grower customers, while legitimately serving the public interest.



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