Consumer Trends

We are a nation obsessed with food – not just consuming it, but discovering it, preparing it, and more recently, talking about it.  Where does our obsession come from? Maybe it’s because we have so much more information than ever before. The more information we get, the more we crave. 

Health implications are one motivation – the obesity epidemic and the recent E. coli scares have fueled this. But it’s also about seeking a connection, both with nature and our bodies. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s about fulfilling a need for community and creative expression.

Between the proliferation of content and the technology to deliver that content, we are, literally, surrounded by food. Yelp currently has 41 million users, food channels have 24/7 programming, food trucks have gone coast to coast, and iPad cooking apps are being developed at light speed. The iPad app Epicurious alone has 28,000 recipes. We haven’t even gotten to the mainstream social channels. In other words, every food experience can be researched, recorded and published. This means that the bar for these experiences just got raised.

Brands that don’t become well versed in these channels will fade into obscurity. Brands that contextualize themselves in people’s lives will always stay relevant.

Mainstream Gourmet

According to a recent survey from online food and beverage news publication Food Product Design, 53 percent of people consider themselves “foodies.” What once was a niche audience has now gone mainstream. Culinary experiences are no longer confined to trips to William Sonoma or cooking classes in Italy. Gourmet food is making its way to the kitchen table.

People are looking for fresh alternatives to processed foods. According to global research firm Mintel, the No. 1 trend for consumer packaged goods is “quiet reduction.” High-fructose corn syrup is a key ingredient that is experiencing covert reduction after it was put in the public spotlight. In 2010, the Corn Refiners Association petitioned the USDA for a name change to “corn sugar.” The move came as brands, such as Sara Lee, Gatorade, Snapple and Hunts Ketchup, made the switch to sugar to combat consumer label scrutiny.

Eating fresh is a lifestyle. Farmers’ markets have become staples of Sat­urday mornings all across America. Since 2000, the number of farmers’ markets has tripled. In addition, consumers are adopting the European habit of making small grocery trips more frequently in order to incorporate fresh ingredients into their daily meals. 

This new behavior has created opportunities for brands to help consumers find easy ways to upgrade their meals. Staple packaged goods can benefit by ensuring fresh ingredients are integrated into recipes on their packaging. The brand of couscous that calls for fresh cilantro, almonds, feta cheese and dried apricots will win in the aisle. More brands should consider teaming up with each other in stores as a way to turn boring dishes into culinary experiences.

Harnessing Demand

As 44 percent of consumers continue entertaining family and friends at home instead of going out, according to Food Product Design, marketers should consider the role their brands play in the planning, shopping, cooking and sharing process. The brands that best harness technology to curate the culinary experience will rise to the top. 

It’s not a stretch to think about someone in the produce aisle seeing cherries on sale and looking up recipes for cherry pie on their mobile. Ready-made piecrusts could easily show up in their search. Add into the search how an egg wash could turn an ordinary pie into a gourmet dessert. This is a captive audience – hungry for culinary cues – that remains relatively untapped. 

Penzey’s Spices is an example of a brand riding the wave of eating well. It has capitalized on consumers’ desire to replace fat with flavor. The brand caters to a more gourmet audience with its Indian Curry and Taste of Mexico kits. Imagine if Penzey’s Spices integrated the culture of adventure it has created into all the stages in the culinary process for consumers.

Sophisticated Palates

When consumers do eat out, they are looking for restaurants that offer fresh, real food that pleases the palette. Indie restaurants have filled this niche in the past, but mainstream restaurants are getting in the game. 

Seasons 52 in Orlando, Fla., is one example. The brand currently has 17 restaurants and is in aggressive growth mode. Its menu changes with the seasons, and everything is under 475 calories. However, Seasons 52 is savvy enough to know you can’t lead with health. Instead, it leads with freshness and taste. Eating out is an inherently social experience, and restaurants need to understand that the conversation extends well beyond the walls of the restaurant itself.

Even camping has gone culinary. Where we once relied on hot dogs and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as standard camping fare, we now consider cooking things like pinot noir roast over an open fire. Lodge Cast Iron – the oldest foundry in the United States – has leveraged a new trend called “glamping,” or glamour camping, by releasing a culinary cookbook that positions – or repositions – their Dutch ovens as a way to create a culinary experience in the great outdoors.

Tea culture also continues to emerge as part of the new culinary experience. Retailers like Teavana, an online tea emporium, satisfy consumers’ desire to find an antidote to coffee. American consumers have displayed a developing sophistication in the appreciation of premium loose-leaf tea. They’ve cracked the code of combining exotic ingredients with the ritual of preparation, resulting in a gourmet cup of tea in consumer channels. They should design a program to replace soda with tea for consumers. Be a part of the detox process every step of the way.

Rediscovering Food

Whatever the reasons, our relationship with food has changed. We have begun to slow down, to read labels, to cook. In some ways, we’ve come full circle, rediscovering food and cooking in the ways we did before convenience entered the culinary equation – before food became fuel. 

We grew up in a world when our mothers made a home-cooked dinner every night. Today, everyone is cooking, not just mothers. And no matter what day of the week it is, we aspire to be chefs – to cook, serve and taste our version of the culinary experience. 

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