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Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Shifting Food Trends Suggest Broader Emerging Agenda

Last year’s economic meltdown has shone a disproportionate light on financial and automotive companies. The brands and institutions within these two industries have been scrambling to respond with clear, overarching agendas — green, consumer-centric vehicles in automotive, greater transparency (and regulation) in the financial sectors. While less in the spotlight in recent months, the food industry has been equally frenetic, but has not clearly articulated a larger agenda. Do the many microtrends, from local and organic to simple and safe, add up to something more substantial?

A few notable trends have been bubbling to the surface:

  • Home-grown: The Obama White House set the pace and more and more Americans are following suit with their own backyard and urban gardens. Campbell’s Soup is one brand joining the trend. Their seeds program leverages this renewed focus on home-grown produce to educate consumers on Campbell’s relationships with growers and processors.
  • Simplicity: Seemingly inspired by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (in which he encouraged readers to eat nothing made from more than five ingredients), Haagen-Dazs introduced its five super-premium ice cream line. The ingredient list for mint, for example, is milk, cream, sugar, eggs and mint. No fuss, no muss. Simplicity also emanates from Amsterdam’s self-serve nightclub, called Minibar and East Village’s Superdive.
  • Mobility: An interesting fusion of local and simple, “food mobility” is another burgeoning trend. Social media is often a key ingredient, such as in the L.A.-based Kogi food truck, serving up Korean BBQ tacos.  Their daily specials, location and up-to-date news are distributed through Twitter.  The idea of mobility also has produced new kinds of spaces, such as Japan’s Hitoma portable tea room.

There are many more examples to cite, but again, the bigger question is whether these seemingly unrelated microtrends add up to something larger. We suggest they all are ingredients of an overarching agenda: food transparency. 

Unlike traditional notions of transparency, this movement is more complex and multi-layered. The consumer is asking for more than nutritional information and ingredient lists when it comes to understanding what’s in the can or on the menu. Not surprisingly, the ability of social media to dissolve geographic boundaries, time constraints and knowledge barriers has pulled back the curtain on questionable practices. And some leading food brands are leveraging these same media to make fact finding and dialog much more fluid, direct and real-time.

What’s most compelling and different about this deeper transparency movement is its pragmatism.  It has evolved from a lofty, elitist endeavor, and it is being embraced as good business by some, a necessity for survival by others, and the key to continued differentiation for those who can no longer hang their hats on organic:

  • Not Just Philanthropy: Local and sustainable are still part of the dialogue, yet the reasons for them have changed. Safeway’s “Locally Grown” campaign is as much about managing the famously thin margins in the grocery business as championing local growers.  The same is true for sustainability — it is becoming a business strategy to manage finite resources.  Patagonia’s founder put it best when discussing sustainability in this month’s issue of Fast Company: “You have to get away from the idea that it’s philanthropy. I look at it as a cost of doing business.”  This may sound like a stretch for the food industry but, as the rise of family gardens suggests, collecting seeds for next year’s bounty and composting are no longer foreign concepts for a growing number of families — they make good economic sense.
  • Brand Meaning: To be relevant and establish strong relationships with consumers, brands need to intersect with the lifestyles and beliefs of their customer base. The relationship between food, health and illness is a fixture in our cultural dialogue, so brands who shape or deepen this conversation can become meaningful partners with the consumer. Organic products used to be a means of entering the debate, but the word no longer provides differentiation. Like “artisan,” its ubiquity has diluted its meaning. Dwindling grocery budgets (and discount “organics”) also have made consumers less likely to pay a premium for what amounts to little more than a word on a label. Transparency’s strength is that, unlike “artisan” and “organic,” it requires showing, not telling. Companies who make this claim must pull back the curtain and reveal their sources. They must prove organic or humane, not just claim them, and they must do more than make the information available. They must make it clear and useful for consumers.

So, which brands will rise to the top?  Chipotle has been an early adopter of this movement. Their Food with Integrity platform pushes transparenc
y down the supply chain, and they recently announced showings of Food, Inc to encourage greater consumer awareness and bottom-up pressure on other food brands.  But the transparency movement is about more than exposing a problem, and it’s not enough for a few brands to do the right thing. Leaders can start an honest dialogue and set realistic expectations, but consumers will determine their own role and vote with their wallets. Not every consumer has the time or interest to bring about radical change, and not every brand will participate. Time will tell who will make a contribution towards improving our collective diet, but the consequences of inaction will be hard to stomach, for consumers and brand managers alike.

 



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