Understanding consumer perceptions in their pursuit of health and wellness is essential for food product developers and marketers. One of the best tools available is St. Petersburg, Fla.-based HealthFocus International's biennial shopper studies.
More in-depth than ever before, the groundbreaking "2007 HealthFocus Trend Report" (www.healthfocus.com) is food for thought, zeroing in on areas consumers are most interested in and which provide untapped opportunities.
"We made a few methodology changes this year, including following up the survey with in-depth interviews to gain an even clearer understanding of shopper motivations," says President Barbara Katz. "These interviews give us a more encompassing idea of how shoppers view the elements of health and wellness.
"We know they are aware of the importance of diet and exercise, but is one more important than the other? We also widened the question base to get a firmer understanding of many topics, such as weight, immunity and heart health, and the steps shoppers are taking -- or not taking -- to address them."
The HealthFocus Trend Report also details the HealthFocus Benefit Platforms -- Prevention, Performance, Pleasure, Natural, Cosmetic, Weight Loss, Wellness and Nurturing. These platforms provide a method to better analyze which high level benefits most strongly resonate with different shopper groups.
"What consumers are most interested in is overall wellbeing -- described as emphasizing a balance in life overall, not just in diet," explains Katz. "It's important for companies to remember that shoppers aren't ultimately as interested in the ingredient (e.g., omega-3) as they are in the health benefits it provides (heart health).
"Beyond that, what is sought is an understanding of the 'benefit of the benefit,' or, the highest-level benefit. It's not just 'heart health' that drives them as much as the ability to remain active as they age. Thus, the 'heart health' benefit is a support for the more emotionally-resonant benefit of playing with their grandchildren or being able to continue to walk the length of the golf course."
We asked Katz if respondents are more health-conscious than before. "I wouldn't say they're more health-conscious but their focus has changed," she replied. "Today, it's all about balance."
According to Katz, low-fat has leveled out as a motivation, while energy is on the rise. "Nowadays, what you add to or find naturally in food is more interesting to shoppers than what you've taken out," she explains. "There isn't one hot topic (low-fat, heart-healthy or salt-free), but instead, 'how can trying foods from all different areas help me bring balance to my life?' "
Foods that are not traditionally healthy also can play a role, she says. "It's not about maintaining a strict dietary regiment, but about specific foods for specific needs, and these needs can change by the week, day or even hour of the day."
One of the most surprising findings about consumer attitudes toward health is that obesity still falls pretty far down the list of shopper health concerns. Most shoppers do not see excess weight as the precursor to many of the illnesses that concern them. "Being overweight isn't a health problem; it's an appearance problem for consumers," she says.
Whatever your message, avoid negativity when communicating with consumers, Katz advises. "Don't speak to them about how unhealthy they are or how at-risk for disease," she says. "Let them know you are aware they are working on being healthy and you've got a simple solution for them.
"Also avoid shading the truth and pretending your products are healthier than they are, because consumers know if your product is not inherently healthy. People aren't eating dark chocolate for immunity. They are feeling better about eating dark chocolate because of the antioxidant benefits, but they would have eaten it anyway for enjoyment."
How should marketers address the least motivated? "Speak to taste," suggests Katz. "Rather than trying to convince them with specific health benefits, talk to them about the pleasure of eating your products. Even unmotivated shoppers want to live a happy life, and if you can convince them your product can improve their lifestyle and fit easily into their daily lives, they are more likely to respond positively."