How the Western World eats today
Fast, fresh, flavourful... If we are what we eat, then American and Westerners in general are more complex than ever, and marketers are quickly adapting to the new demands of a rapidly changing food world. [Excellent insights from Ad Age magazine. Ed]
We are so obsessed with on-the-go food that even a bowl of cereal is seen as a hassle for some, and the last thing we want to do is turn on an appliance. But as we seek convenience, we also crave complexity, looking for the same bursts of flavours in a bag of chips as we get at a fine restaurant.
We want variety. The average number of items sold at a supermarket has ballooned to more 38,000 today from 10,425 in 1977, according to the Food Marketing Institute, which includes some non-food items. Yet at the same time, an increasing number of us are demanding simplicity, prompting brands to trim ingredient lists or promote products as "natural," gluten-free or both.
Add it up, and it gets pretty confusing for marketers, who can count on one thing only: They can no longer appeal to a mass market of consumers who once reliably shopped for the same items at the same places.
In many cases, the forces shaping the food world are driven by consumer groups with rapidly diverging tastes. Consider the well-to-do food elitists practicing what shopper-marketing firm SAI Marketing calls "food one-upsmanship", living a "post-acquisitive" lifestyle in which food experiences — rather than jewelry or sports cars — are emerging as the primary luxury purchase. Yet the majority of us are "food realists" who simply looking to get by as we seek more deals from familiar brands.
Moreover, the two biggest food-buying generations are asserting their wills, often in conflicting ways. Millennials are disloyal, shopping anywhere, anytime and in constant search of variety and new ethnic foods, often from smaller brands. To them, yesterday's chop suey is today's "sofrito," a trendy mix of Latin herbs, vegetables and spices.
Baby boomers, meanwhile, still have favourite brands, but their behaviours are also changing. They seek smaller package sizes as they age and have fewer mouths to feed.
As a result, "established food brands and traditional grocery stores will be pressured at both ends by sets of consumers with very different value equations," according to investment bank Jefferies Group and AlixPartners, a global-business advisory firm, which recently published a joint report called "Trouble in Aisle 5." The changes "appear poised to rapidly transform the food-at-home industry, long thought of as a bastion of stability."
For marketers, change is not coming. It is already here, forcing them to find new ways to innovate, advertise and distribute.
But in this new era, the giant food companies have lost some of the upper hand to retailers, which are armed with more consumer data thanks to loyalty cards, said Lynn Dornblaser, director-innovation and insight for market research group Mintel.
Also, internet-enabled consumers can jump en masse on to the latest trends often before large companies can launch products. Consider the Greek-yogurt craze, initially fueled by startups such as Fage and Chobani, which blossomed because of word-of-mouth buzz, and it had barely any traditional marketing.
"There's so much more [big CPGs] go up against now than they had 20 years ago," Dornblaser said.
Here is how the industry is responding to five key trends:
We are now living in a yogurt-and-snack-bar world, where the fastest-growing foods are those that often require little or no preparation. "We're looking for how to make life easier," said Harry Balzer, an analyst with NPD Group, which follows food trends. "We don't want to change the amount of time we spend eating. We want to change the amount of time before and after."
'Elites' and 'Realists' Replace the Middle Market
"We've had a melting away of the middle market," said Bill Melnick, senior director-strategic planning for SAI Marketing. SAI defines "food elites" as those making more than $100,000 a year who demand natural and handmade foods. For them, what they eat forms "a core part of their self-perception." And they obsessively consume food media, such as Saveur magazine.
At the other end is 84% of the population, which SAI dubs "food realists." For these value-seeking consumers, authenticity does not mean knowing exactly where all the ingredients are from, but buying brands that "signify familiarity," according to SAI.
Catering to 'Unloyal' Millennials
Meet the "Yemmie," the young educated, millennial mother that the Jefferies/Alix report says will largely set the tone for the generation. For big brands and retailers, she is a potential nightmare - less loyal than her mother and demanding of variety and foods that are natural but also convenient. Millennial eating habits are scattered. Sometimes they eat snacks for breakfast, breakfast for dinner and dinner as a midnight snack.
It's What's Inside That Counts
"Low-in" claims, such as those promoting sodium reduction, used to be the rage. Now "it's more about talking about the presence of positives as opposed to the absence of negatives," said Mintel's Dornblaser.
"Consumers are looking for products that make it easy for them to understand what's good about [them]. That can be communicated in a lot of ways. It could be [the] small number of ingredients, it could be talking about the fruit and vegetable content or talking about the grain content or talking about the protein content."
And lately for new products, the word of choice is "natural" rather than "organic," she said, partly because "organic equals expensive, and so that is a negative for some consumers." And while "low-in" claims are out, gluten-free is still hot.
Small Is Getting Bigger
While big brands and companies might control most of the market share, smaller brands are gaining.
Consider the rise of specialty foods, whose sales grew 9.2% from 2009 to last year, reaching $75.14 billion, according to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, which is the trade organization for foods that are premium, made by small manufacturers or have ethnic or exotic flavours.
And consider the craft-beer industry, which now controls about 9% of all beer sales measured by dollars, according to the Brewers Association, thanks to hundreds of regional, full-flavoured brews. That's caused big companies to put more energy into smaller, separately branded divisions in an attempt to look small.