Market View: Food and Eating Are About Love, not Medicine

March 4, 2019
Food packages promote cures and the absence of bad ingredients, not deliciousness and celebration.

What has the food industry become, and how did we get here?

I was looking at a supermarket circular and it had the following label information; Carb aware, Heart healthy, Gluten free, Good source of fiber, Good source of calcium, Low salt, Organic, 100% juice, Sugar free, Good source of vitamin C, Whole wheat, Non-GMO, Good source of vitamin A. Almost every food had one of these label declarations.

I noticed that there was not a label for delicious! Yet after 50 years of doing consumer research, taste is the leading reason to buy food. Second reason is, "it makes me feel good about eating and serving food with family and friends."

Have we forgotten how much love is associated with food? Food and meal preparation are ways that most societies show love, respect and nurturing, especially among family members. Think of how we celebrate life’s great events: marriages are followed by a meal; deaths usually with a wake with lots of food (and if you are like my family, lots of strong drink). Couples who are dating go out to dinner to get to know one another; religious ceremonies often involve meals. Proms often have meals. Many people celebrate anniversaries with romantic meals together. Food and meals are very intrinsic aspects of life.

Yet we have made food a medical product. But food is so much more. Food has an emotional side that many food companies are ignoring in order to get on the “health” bandwagon. What caused this shift? I believe social media has had a dramatic effect on what consumers want, or say they want. They listen to their friends and family who offer opinions on what is good for them. Or they read articles online from “fringe groups” advocating all sorts of unfounded beliefs.

I once did a research study on GMOs. We found people who had a negative opinion of GMOs and then we exposed them to all sorts of information on GMOs from the WHO, EU statements, USDA, etc. The scientific statements had almost no impact on their beliefs. Yet their aunts, uncles or friends had more effect.

I am especially fascinated with organic. If you read the press you might believe that organic foods are taking over the world. It seems every food company is trying to get into this market. However, according to the Organic Trade Assn., only about 5.5 percent of all food sold at retail is organic.

Now I understand that many food marketers might say, “Who cares, we will sell them what they will buy.” I don’t blame them but this is really a short-term outlook. I realize there are riches in niches, but we need to take care that as professional food marketers we don’t get swept up in the online consumer discussions.

I think there is a good reason to sell organic or other new niche products, but perspective is needed. It is estimated that organic foods on average cost 47 percent more than traditionally grown foods.

Nice margin!

There are some who realize the value of the emotional side of food. An example is the Lipton advertising campaign which says, “Bring the entire family together with Lipton soups! Warm, soothing, satisfying and delicious since 1940.” Olive Garden has worked this angle for years with its campaign “When you’re here, you’re family.” In both cases they are associating the meal occasion as a nurturing occasion. They also are trying to get everyone back to family meals.

Now this particular attribute may have been lost in the past as nutrition and health have dominated, but “the times they are a changing,” says Bob Dylan. The kids of the Baby Boomers (the Millennials and Gen Z's) are recognizing that they may have gotten a “raw deal” when it came to family and family dinners. They are beginning to say family is important.

The success of fresh meal kits such as Blue Apron is an example. They are showing the value of cooking and eating together. The meal-kit business is expected to generate $5 billion in sales in the near future, which is more than triple last year’s $1.5 billion, according to market research firm Packaged Facts. One company, HelloFresh, delivers meal kits with precisely enough ingredients for users to prepare pre-determined meals with no leftovers (which is very important to Gen Z's). HelloFresh sells about 11 million meals a month. It generated about $500 million in revenue.

Make no mistake about it, the new generation will not go back to the “age of cooking.” But they will begin an age of convenient involvement with meals and cooking, and they will want to say (and feel) like they are making the meal for the family again, even a family of two. Convenience will still be important, but giving the new consumers the opportunity to say I love you with food and meals will also be important.