Seventeen years ago when I joined Food Network, the term “foodie” didn’t exist, at least not outside hardcore foodie circles. Over the years that followed, we watched as the entire nation fell in love with food entertainment. It was reality TV that we could easily stomach and actively craved (sorry—puns).
“Foodies” proliferated, but not because they were created by a TV network. We gave them a place of their own, a temple of sorts. And made a good bet on how large the congregation could be; food, after all, is relatable to everyone on some level. Over several years, a vast amount of new food products, experiences and content blossomed across the consumer universe, and a realization emerged. Not all food fans are “foodies.”
Foodies’ central interest is food, it’s their main hobby and is possibly career-related. But there were different fans with other main interests, with relationships to food that comprised a spectrum of affinity that went from fun eater to maker. Some liked following recipes, some liked kitchen experimentation, some didn’t cook much at all. Some sought out the best flavors in every eating experience. Some took food excursions. Some were moms that wanted clean, healthy food for their families, and some were dads that loved being captain of the grill. These fans, combined with the original foodies, are what we refer to today as food-connected consumers. “Foodie” is small and exclusive while food-connected is anything but that; it’s a term that encapsulates what’s happening in food culture today that was needed. It describes people interested (in greater or lesser degrees) in food, cooking, content, products and experiences. We estimate based on many years of research (while at FN) that nearly half the country fits into this profile.
Trends in food and reflections of food culture provide a glimpse into the mindset of food-connected consumers. Unsurprisingly, the trends also reflect the millennial consumer’s mindset as curious shoppers who will engage based on their alignment to a brand’s mission and impact on the world.
The increasing demand for transparency, clean labeling and blockchain chicken stems from increased mindfulness (a desire to live healthier) and mistrust, especially of big food. Consequently, small food has emerged: a sea of plant-based protein, healthy snacks, craft beverages—you’ve seen the grocery shelves; there’s clutter. Restaurants are a conundrum; eaters want convenience and unique experiences.
Context is also a factor. Is it grab and go? Fast casual? Quick serve? Fine dining? Sometimes we want healthy, sometimes indulgent. We’re human. Beverages suffer from woes similar to big food, with increased consumer concern about sugar intake, water replenishment and waste. At the grocery store, while brands are looking to digitize, mobilize and modernize, consumers are fleeing from processed foods and Roundup. And not everyone can shop at Whole Foods (yet).
Brands seeking to make a relevant connection should follow at least some basic guidelines. Here are three simple notions to consider: Be human, tell the truth and do no harm. Big food has already caught the brand acquisition wave, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re hanging 10.
Augmenting and refining CPG product portfolios with the triple bottom line as a guide (people/planet/profit) may put them on a faster track. And it enables food stories that we’ll want to hear. For small food startups, it’s all about getting to know yourself—or in this case, your brand. In this cluttered world, a solid brand mission and vision is a way to begin, assuming the product is a perfect reflection of these.
Once you know yourself, get to know others. We have limited time. Grabbing our attention means relating to us in a consideration-inducing way. Tell your truth. How are we alike? Why should I trust you? How can your product make life better? Answers to questions like these are the foundation of your content strategy. In restaurants, from fast food to fine dining, knowing your consumer truth and its relationship to your brand truth does you a favor. This is about personalization. Whether it’s my favorite value meal teed up for purchase on my iPhone the minute I’m in the door or reservation recommendations based on my nights out, the better you know me and anticipate my human needs, the better chance I’ll respond.
Similar to big food, beverages need healthier, transparent products. Sometimes you just want a full-fat Coke? OK. How about a snack-sized Coke. Being human at the grocery store may mean thinking about dining occasions versus ingredients. Meal kit availability at the grocery store could help set a new path in motion. Dinner aisle, anyone?
Keeping an eye on food culture trends is crucial to developing products and content that meets the desires and demands of food-connected consumers but beware that they evolve and change over time. Knowing the origin of the trends offers a sense of where they and the food-connected consumers are going.