Innova: Bringing “real food” values back to processed food

In marketing, awareness of trends is important. Ideally, writes Bryan Urbick, CEO & President, Consumer Knowledge Centre in the UK, we should be keeping an eye on the marketplace to observe the small movements (fads; micro trends) as well as the larger movements (macro trends). Sometimes, though, we do not discern which is which, and this may cause us to respond inappropriately; to wrongly weight the importance, magnitude or potential. 

In our work with kids, we are often asked to find out the new things going on with them. These new things are frequently best considered to be fads, or smaller micro trends. We’ve all seen them: Pokemon that goes in and out of fashion; various licensed properties of movies or TV programs; a clothing style; even certain flavors can be trendy or fad-ish. The trouble arises, though, when we give this smaller movement as much power and energy as some of the bigger things that are happening with our consumers.  

The next big thing?  

This lesson was clearly made evident to me in at a conference a number of years ago. At the time, two speakers from an ad agency spoke, and they wanted to share with the audience of food and beverage marketers about the next big thing for kids. According to these two energetic speakers, this was sushi. I remember sitting in the conference, disbelieving what was said, but wanting to try to hear their story in case I might be close minded, and not open to something that was actually a truth worth considering.

I tried to rationalise: certainly, some of sushis elements, such as being able to mix and match, might appeal to children. But anyone who has done research with children outside of Asia will tell you that raw fish rarely appeals in real life. So while attendees at that conference dutifully scribbled down that sushi, I still had serious doubts.

It transpired that the sushi insight had been generated when one focus group of children wanted to talk cool and bragged about trying it. Other kids heard this and were keen to look cool too; the raw fish element didn’t really arise. The two speakers took this as a sign that sushi was on the horizon for kids. This conference was nearly 10 years ago. Guess what? Sushi has not emerged as the big trend the two speakers were advocating.

In fact, I wonder if it is even for kids a micro trend or fad. If they had explored the drivers of why those kids enjoyed talking about their enjoyment of sushi, they may have found a bigger movement supporting it, perhaps this larger movement driving kids could have been a macro trend.  

A genuine macro trend  

I would like to speak, though, about a genuine trend that my colleagues and I have seen emerging around the world, and have seen numerous expressions of this big and growing consumer want. This is the desire of consumers to bring real food values back to processed food.

This macro trend manifests in several ways the increase in consumer desire for an all natural claim, to the increase in organic products, even to the bio-dynamic movement that merges organic farming and spirituality. The consumer fear of E numbers (even though they wrongly associate E numbers with artificial) and those formulations that include chemical sounding ingredients are also part of this big, still growing macro trend, as well as the majority rejection of genetically modified.

In the 1960s, the move for convenience trumped all. The food industry certainly reacted with gusto and developed technologies that would make consumers lives easier. Lots of tricks were used: processing methods, technological solutions to prolong shelf-life and instant mixes that would emulate the real food that took hours and much effort to make. With more and more women joining the workforce and the increase in two income households, these solutions grew in favour and multiplied exponentially. All categories and segments were affected.  

A real requirement  

This race for convenience was truly a macro trend, and though arguably still an important issue, I would suggest that it has probably advanced beyond a macro trend to be a requirement; a cost of entry to processed food product success.

The trend of bringing real food values back to processed food is broadly a backlash of the previous movement towards quick fixes and convenience within the food industry. Importantly, though, consumers are still wanting convenience they just want more.

They want real food to be more convenient, not foods they perceive to be artificial and fake. The whole food and slow food movements also live within this macro trend. Food scares play into this trend, and consumers irrationally blame the use of artificial and processed even if the food scare is related to produce, like the e coli outbreak in spinach a couple of years ago. Adding to the ferocity of this macro trend are consumer concerns about obesity, and the blame again not always rational of processed foods and their ingredients.

Organic growth

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, the certified organic food industry has grown albeit from a small base over 10% each year, with the total of all processed food nearing 2%. Even though scientific evidence may be contradictory as to the nutrition or taste of organic products, consumers still tend to believe that organic is better.

The typical complaint of consumers is that they feel that they must pay a premium for healthier organic products, and often resent that the premium is unaffordable. Organic sales may have slumped in the recession (in some markets), the consumer desire, though, it what is important driving a perceived, yet often unmet, need: incredible fodder for great new product ideas.

All natural is a frequently stated desire, and to see this one needs only look at supermarket shelves. A quick glance across numerous categories would show that the words natural or all natural are used probably overused on front-of-pack label designs for food and beverage products. Such attention has been given to this claim that test lawsuits are lodged against major food and beverage manufacturers that use this claim and governments have begun to establish increasingly strict guidelines.

In an April 2009 study by marketing agency Pavone with research firm Leap, more than three-quarters of respondents said they would prefer to by organic and all natural products (if they were priced comparably to other leading brands). In addition, there was a perception of increased health benefits of organic and all natural. Nearly 80% agreed that organic foods are better for my health than non-organic foods. Just over 70% agreed the same about all natural foods and beverages.

Going slow

In the late 1980s, the Slow Food Movement was founded in Italy – the catalyst was the proposed opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in the vicinity of the famous Spanish Steps in Rome. Again, as a backlash against the negatively perceived “processed food,” the movement has grown to be represented in over 130 countries, with thousands of official members. It looks at the source of food and seeks to preserve traditional cuisine and farming methods.

Though started originally as part of the Rudolf Steiner movement in the first quarter of the 19th Century, biodynamic has taken on increased velocity with the emerging macro trend of the consumer desire to bring real food values to processed food. The biodynamic certification is indicated by the Demeter symbol, Demeter being the ancient Greek goddess of fertility and abundance. The Demeter symbol is used today to represent…wholesome and natural food produced using the biodynamic approach to organic farming and gardening. In 2004 (according to the Biodynamic Agricultural Association) there were over 120 biodynamic certified producers in the UK alone.

Fuelling real food

Numerous authors have also fuelled and have been fed from this macro trend of the consumer desire for real food. Michael Pollen, in his book In Defence of Food starts off by speaking of…the tangible material formerly known as food and later argues. We know how to break down a kernel of corn or grain of wheat into its chemical parts, but we have no idea how to put it back together again.

Marion Nestle, in her hard-hitting book about the food industry Food Politics lays blame at the food industry, taking the argument from the industry’s desire to give consumers what they want (convenience) and focusing on the big business aspect, and their drive to make money.

Rationally all can understand that businesses need to make money, when talking to consumers who are becoming more and more distrustful of the food industry, the rational need for profit is perceived to be pure greed. Of course, this then further fuels consumer distrust of the industry as a whole, and drives even more the desire to the nostalgia of real food yet, paradoxically without wanting to sacrifice convenience, and in many cases, not willing or able to pay substantially more.

Mike Adams, Editor of lambasts the food industry, and engenders mistrust: When you’re shopping for groceries, watch out for the phrase all natural as claimed on the front of various product packages. It turns out that the phrase all natural can mean just about anything; it actually has no nutritional meaning whatsoever and isn’t truly regulated by the FDA. Even with these types of inflammatory statements, the desire of most consumers tends to remain strong though perhaps with a little less trust.

Going mainstream

There are numerous other authors and books, formerly sold only in health food stores, having now reached mainstream. Celebrity chefs, The Food Network, websites, blogs and other media support the consumer desire for real food in whatever form, promising better taste or better nutrition or both. Consumers latch on to these sources, and find support to their resolve to want better; to want real.

Even though one could argue that the desire for all natural or organic are each big trends in their own right, when considering that they are both part of the same trend may force food and beverage manufacturers to find the resources to start better delivering the genuine mass-market consumer desire.

When these are compounded by other individual (perhaps smaller) movements and desires, the massive movement becomes impossible to ignore. Don’t waste your time on kids and sushi. Rather spend your resources on riding the big macro trend wave and get real right for your consumers. 

FOODStuff SA exclusive: Published in the Innova Newsletter, April 2010

Bryan Urbick is CEO & President, Consumer Knowledge Centre Ltd ([email protected]). Bryan is editor of KidsFoodTrends newsletter (, and is the primary contributor to the new blog Thinking Outside the Blog: Stories from Research’

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