The food industry has gone a bit mad. We live in an environment of unprecedented change insofar as how consumers eat, with high-pressure expectations to move product volume with increased velocity. This short-term, transactional focus may be necessary to demonstrate proof of concept, but it misses a critical opportunity to establish a brand position. Brands must tell their story from the moment they enter the market or, ultimately, risk failure.

At Padilla, we study market forces and cultural trends, mining for insights to transform client businesses through imaginative communications. And we’ve been monitoring three emerging topics that collectively reveal the urgent opportunity for brand-building while driving sales.

Consumers want substance

The food industry has experienced a tectonic shift regarding what it takes to succeed with today’s consumers. New and emerging companies are reimagining what, when and how consumers eat. In 2017, venture capitalists invested $1.08 billion in food start-ups, an 88 percent increase over 2016, according to Food Tech Connect’s U.S. Branded Food Investment Report. There’s a common thread running through all this innovation and reinvention: producing authentic food and beverages with integrity to make consumers’ lives better. Of the 20 largest new product introductions in 2017, 85 percent command a price premium to deliver on these attributes.

The food industry has experienced a tectonic shift regarding what it takes to succeed with today’s consumers. New and emerging companies are reimagining what, when and how consumers eat.Click To Tweet

Take a stand and stick to it

According to Accenture Strategy’s Global Consumer Pulse, 63 percent of global consumers gravitate toward buying products and services from companies that have a purpose and share their personal values and beliefs. And the food industry is no exception. There’s an overwhelming proliferation of new products touting their social responsibility commitments; “legacy” brands retooling their product formulations to align with customers’ shifting expectations of health; and a heightened awareness for the industry to reduce its environmental impact.

Consumers want brands to make a demonstrative commitment to positively contribute to society and are open to how brands express themselves. But it must be consistent with a brand’s positioning and enduring, because consumers will see through disingenuous efforts.

Numbers won’t love you back

Countless articles have been written about companies drowning in data. There’s a head spinning amount of information available regarding consumers’ purchasing habits and behaviors, and companies are beginning to successfully harness it. In fact, some marketing strategists predict that data will exclusively direct marketing programs, risking mass product commoditization. (Marketing strategist Ana Andjelic recently wrote an excellent article for Advertising Age on this topic.)

There’s no question that data analytics play a rapidly increasing role in predicting consumer behavior to drive product purchase. But data is not an indicator of brand strength, crucial to sustained, long-term success. It may tell brands where to find customers, when to reach them and even what to bring them. But data can’t tell them why consumers made a purchase.

So, how do these disparate forces tie together? Consumers have exponentially more food and beverage choices that are all, theoretically, trying to align with their individual expectations. And more are coming every year. Brands need to tell their story. They need to speak their truth to connect with purpose to consumers. Otherwise, they’ll be lost in a sea of sameness and at the mercy of an algorithm to reach potential customers.

Who’s doing it well?

Halo Top has reinvigorated the ice cream category by demonstrating that better-for-you indulgence is very much possible. The company uses natural and organic sweeteners, adds protein to enhance the nutrition profile (which today is demanded by consumers in virtually every foodstuff) and offers a wide range of flavors that appeal to their customers’ changing tastes. And they proudly put the calories — for the entire pint — smack-dab on the front of the package. The company reimagined a familiar treat category to meet consumer expectations for quality, better-for-you food. The brand demonstrates its authenticity and commitment to purpose by offering complete transparency into their products.

Phivida Organics launched a line of CBD-infused flavored waters and iced teas in 2018. Inspired by whole-plant nutrition and natural ingredients, the company seeks to help customers live their busy lives to the fullest. The company recognizes there’s a lot of confusion and possible fear around CBD, so they’ve taken a bold approach to educate consumers about it, which they must know will also help competitors. But this is what leaders do when blazing a new path: they bring consumers on their journey to expand customers’ knowledge, build their confidence and gain their trust.

As I stated, the food industry has gone a bit mad, but not necessarily in a bad way. Today, we’re living in a marketplace fueled with daring creativity, lightning-quick innovation, explosive growth and a near-universal desire to “do good.” The key to success for brands is to have a confident, genuine voice that meets consumers on their terms.

This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s, March 2019 – Food and Beverage Special Issue. 

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