Food selfies, exotic new flavors, customization, 24/7 availability, the search for authenticity, clean labels, local sourcing: the changes occurring in the food industry have gone from series of trends to a full-fledged social movement. And while today’s consumers may be less brand loyal in the grocery store aisles, their connection with food is deeper than ever before and has become a defining characteristic of today’s broader culture. To react to the new realities of the industry, we must look beyond the sriracha and understand that our culture, and the consumer, is rapidly evolving. The Millennials, who now outnumber all other living US generations, have not only brought new challenges and opportunities to the food industry but, together with their older counterparts, have spearheaded a whole new way of thinking about and using food—a food renaissance.
What does this renaissance look like? For starters, we’ve become a nation of foodies. We’ve turned chefs into celebrities and mobile app creators into multi-millionaires. We’ve made food the number one most pinned and browsed category on Pinterest among daily users; of those of us who use smart phones, 82% believe that technology has improved how well we eat, and 32 million of us are watching the Cooking Channel each week. Dinner out has turned into a glam photo-shoot opportunity; strangers know how you ordered your steak before dessert even arrives. Attitudes and ideas about what constitutes “good food” are shifting from a few gatekeepers to an informed, opinionated and passionate consumer base – consumers who have immersed themselves in the world of food. And in the new food renaissance, consumers not only enjoy their favorite brands, they identify with the brands more than ever and feel compelled to tell others about them.
Overall, the food renaissance has hurt big food brands – so far. Many have lost market share or seen their profits shrink. Billions of dollars have shifted from large to small companies across all CPG categories. In 75% of the most important food categories, large brands lost market share to small brands in recent years. What’s going on? The renaissance has created a number of unprecedented challenges for big food.
For starters, smaller, newer food brands have been flooding the market. Many newer specialty brands are perceived as healthier, better quality, more transparent or more authentic than big food. They are less tied to traditional paths to market. Millennials love them. Venture capitalists, among others, see the potential of specialty food companies and investment in them is on the rise. Big Food companies themselves have been investing in them, or buying them outright.
Big food has mostly lost its traditional differentiators. A recent consumer research study by Foodmix Marketing Communications showed that most consumers now expect value, taste, freshness, convenience and consistency in their favorite foods. These qualities might once have been drivers of brand differentiation, and helped big food maintain its market dominance, but today they’re price-of-entry attributes that any food brand must provide to get into a consumer’s preference set. And many food brands, even the newest and smallest ones, are able to provide these price-of-entry attributes.
In addition, big food companies are losing relevance and trust, especially among younger consumers. In 2015 43% of Millennials said they didn’t trust large food manufacturers, compared to just 18% of older adults. And 74% of Millennials expressed their wish for food companies to offer more information on how they make their products, a considerably higher percentage than for Gen’Xers and boomers.
Big food companies have been employing a number of strategies to be more competitive in the new environment. They are acquiring specialty foods; in effect, they’re outsourcing R&D through acquisitions. They are trying to ramp up innovation in manufacturing lines, packaging and retailing. They’re trying to reposition their products while doing a better job of educating consumers of health benefits. But arguably their No. 1 strategy has been to rampantly reformulating their products, extending brands with healthier options or Millennial flavors. But limitations exist for all these efforts.
“Reformulating high-profit, high-volume products involves a great risk factor. Consumers may deny the reformulation,” said
Dan O’Connell, CEO at Foodmix Marketing Communications. “The key lies in creating a meaningful, true connection with consumers because consumer sensibilities have changed.”
To make matters more difficult, big impact messaging – for decades the cornerstone of big food advertising – has become a double-edged sword in today’s low-trust environment. Loud, brash messages that are broadcast widely are as likely to create more mistrust, as they are to garner brand affinity.
“The difference today is that big dollars and heavy media do not automatically translate to success,” said O’Connell. “Convenience, value and taste – once considered enough to differentiate a brand – are merely table stakes today. Consumers want to know a brand’s story, and that the story is true and aligns with their own values.”
The Foodmix study uncovered an enormous overlooked asset that big food companies could leverage to reconnect with consumers through compelling brand stories: love. The study showed which food brands were America’s favorites, looking at national, craft, specialty and restaurant brands. A key finding was that big food brands, in spite of recent damage, retain huge mass-market appeal. Consumers overwhelmingly identified large mainstream brands as makers of their favorite foods. And it makes sense; these brands provide a degree of familiarity, nostalgia and comfort unmatched by newer, upstart brands, even among Millennials. A more revealing – perhaps critical – insight was that big food brands continue to make products that are loved by consumers – almost two-thirds of today’s consumers report loving a product from a big food brand; that is, they have a strong emotional attachment to the product, beyond just liking or being loyal to it.
The data may unveil promising insight, but big food still needs to continually evolve to combat the consumerist rhetoric. Food companies must bare authenticity and build consumer relationships by encouraging advocacy. Advocacy comes today not by traditional ads, but by creating a bond between the brand and the consumer through emotional attachment. It comes from the journey that fully engages the consumer in a brand’s ethos.
As consumers change, the texture of food marketing will undoubtedly continue to change as well and requires brands’ immediate action to remain (or become) market leaders. The winning brands do not necessarily have the most money; they have found the right emotional connections to consumers’ hearts. Consumers aren’t ready to abandon their loved big food brands, allowing larger names to thrive in the food renaissance by catering to the consumer call for additional and diverse substance by creating brand love.
The food renaissance generation is relentless for advocacy. If they’re passionate about a brand, they sell the brand. They’re in love and they want the world to know.
Written by Foodmix team members, Bill Sherman and Hannah Heilmeier, this article was originally published in Natural Products INSIDER in October 2016.