Taste Remains Consumers' Top Preference for New Foods and Beverages

After 40 years' worth of marketing surveys, it's no shock that taste is important to consumers; however, the surprise is that in many cases, we find taste takes second place or worse to other factors.

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

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The changing tastes of consumers have vexed food marketers for years. Changes in ethnic composition, attitudes of different age groups, health issues and the need for convenience have led food marketers to invest heavily in consumer insights and research to determine what consumers want.

About 40 years ago I did a study with Campbell Soup Co. and discovered that taste was the most important factor in buying food. I recently completed two different surveys for food companies and the No. 1 attribute valued by a majority of consumers was taste. I'm guessing 40 years from now taste will still be No. 1.

That shouldn't be too shocking. It is food we are talking about, not cars or computers.

The one thing that has not changed in the 40 years that I have been in food marketing is that taste is the main reason people buy food. Survey after survey bears this out. Recently, the International Food Information Council Foundation conducted a survey focused on food and health and discovered that 87 percent of the respondents said taste was the No. 1 reason for purchasing specific foods.

I guess your response to the first few paragraphs might be, "yeah, we all know that." Yet in so many cases we find taste takes second place or worse to other factors. I think the best example is the food industry's effort to create healthy food. In our zeal to satisfy so-called public interest groups, we lost sight of what our customers wanted, and we made products that very few customers wanted.

Why would any company produce a food product that doesn't taste fantastic? Pressure! To reduce the costs, to make it simpler, to get it into the market sooner, to get cheaper ingredients and flavors, and even from the company's annual plan, which likely says 'You will introduce a new product next year.'

Many of the initial efforts in producing healthy foods failed because the packaging tasted slightly better than the product. Do you remember the Dairy Queen Breeze? It was a low-fat "cholesterol-free" frozen yogurt drink designed to be a healthier alternative to the Dairy Queen Blizzard. It failed due to lack of interest in the product. How about the McDonald's McLean Deluxe? In many peoples' opinion, McDonald's took its eyes off taste.

Papa John's entered the pizza market with a simple slogan, Better Ingredients, Better Pizza. Papa John's has been adding stores and eating into its competitors' market share. The company has been able to add a net 226 stores from 2009 to 2011 while Pizza Hut has shed 30 stores and Domino's has dropped 153, according to The Motley Fool.

Better taste means better profits. Most of the really good tasting foods often have the highest margins.

So what does all this mean to you? First and foremost it means that every food product must pass the taste test before any other attributes should be considered. Your food products should not taste good, they should taste great.

Compromising on taste not only decreases the chances of a product's success, but it puts undue pressure on all the other marketing variables to pick up for an average product. In many cases it leads to a lower price in order to get people to buy the product.

Consider Kellogg's Breakfast Mates, a cereal and milk combination that needs no refrigeration. Kellogg, a great company by any standard, took its eyes off the taste. Did you ever have warm milk and cereal? Ugh! Try some for yourself … oh yeah, you can't, it's off the market.

Why would any company produce a food product that doesn't taste fantastic? Pressure! Pressure from finance to reduce the costs, pressure from production to make it simpler, pressure from the vice president of marketing to get it into the market sooner, pressure from the supply chain to get cheaper ingredients and flavors, and pressure from the company's annual plan, which likely says "You will introduce a new product next year."

A while back I had a conversation with the brand manager at a well-known food company. He was introducing a new product that tasted good but not great. I asked him why he was introducing this product, and he said quite simply his boss wanted a new product and by the time it was decided the product was a failure, he would either be in a different job or with a different company. This is sad but true.

I am a marketer but I believe that you have to "build a product" starting with "delicious." I want the best flavors and textures. I want to go to the market with advertising and promotion knowing that -- whether the product is targeted to healthy, Hispanics, Millennials or any target market -- there will be no compromise on taste and flavor.

It is true that consumers are changing. They want more of this and less of that. As we all get involved with convenience, health, value, etc. we seem to forget that the real thing that consumers are looking for is not convenient food but tasty food that is convenient, or tasty food that is perceived as healthy, or tasty food at a great price. They want all of these things plus the best tasting food that you can possibly make.

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