If we are what we eat, then America is more complex than ever.
We are so obsessed with on-the-go food that even a bowl of cereal is seen as a hassle for some, and the last thing we want to do is turn on an appliance. But as we seek convenience, we also crave complexity, looking for the same bursts of flavors in a bag of chips as we get at a fine restaurant. We want variety. The average number of items sold at a supermarket has ballooned to more 38,000 today from 10,425 in 1977, according to the Food Marketing Institute, which includes some non-food items. Yet at the same time, an increasing number of us are demanding simplicity, prompting brands to trim ingredient lists or promote products as "natural," gluten-free or both.
Add it up, and it gets pretty confusing for marketers, who can count on one thing only: They can no longer appeal to a mass market of consumers who once reliably shopped for the same items at the same places.
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In many cases, the forces shaping the food world are driven by consumer groups with rapidly diverging tastes. Consider the well-to-do food elitists practicing what shopper-marketing firm SAI Marketing calls "food one-upsmanship," living a "post-acquisitive" lifestyle in which food experiences -- rather than jewelry or sports cars—are emerging as the primary luxury purchase. Yet the majority of us are "food realists" who simply looking to get by as we seek more deals from familiar brands.
Moreover, the two biggest food-buying generations are asserting their wills, often in conflicting ways. Millennials are disloyal, shopping anywhere, anytime and in constant search of variety and new ethnic foods, often from smaller brands. To them, yesterday's chop suey is today's "sofrito," a trendy mix of Latin herbs, vegetables and spices.
Baby boomers, meanwhile, still have favorite brands, but their behaviors are also changing. They seek smaller package sizes as they age and have fewer mouths to feed.
As a result, "established food brands and traditional grocery stores will be pressured at both ends by sets of consumers with very different value equations," according to investment bank Jefferies Group and AlixPartners, a global-business advisory firm, which recently published a joint report called "Trouble in Aisle 5." The changes "appear poised to rapidly transform the food-at-home industry, long thought of as a bastion of stability."
For marketers, change is not coming. It is already here, forcing them to find new ways to innovate, advertise and distribute.
But in this new era, the giant food companies have lost some of the upper hand to retailers, which are armed with more consumer data thanks to loyalty cards, said Lynn Dornblaser, director-innovation and insight for market research group Mintel. Also, internet-enabled consumers can jump en masse on to the latest trends often before large companies can launch products. Consider the Greek-yogurt craze, initially fueled by startups such as Fage and Chobani, which blossomed because of word-of -mouth buzz, and it had barely any traditional marketing.
"There's so much more [big CPGs] go up against now than they did 20 years ago," Ms. Dornblaser said.
Here is how the industry is responding to five key trends:
"New Convenience Items Balloon Food Sales," stated an Ad Age headline in 1960. What was all the excitement about? Frozen meals, cake mixes and instant potatoes -- foods that by today's standards would be considered a bit of a hassle. We are now living in a yogurt-and-snack-bar world, where the fastest-growing foods are those that often require little or no preparation. "We're looking for how to make life easier," said Harry Balzer, an analyst with NPD Group, which follows food trends. "We don't want to change the amount of time we spend eating. We want to change the amount of time before and after."
Indeed, of the 10 fastest-growing in-home foods and beverage categories over the past decade, only two are routinely heated (pizza and pasta), while the rest are pretty much open-and-eat, such as nuts and chips, according to NPD. Even staples such as soup and cereal -- once considered easy -- have lost momentum to items that can be scarfed down on the go.
Brands are putting old products in new, convenient forms. For instance, Kellogg Co. this year launched Eggo Wafflers, which are flavored tear-apart waffle bars meant to be eaten right out of the toaster -- no syrup needed. J&J Snack Foods Corp. has managed to squeeze hashed-brown potatoes, eggs, cheese green peppers and onions into rolled form for a grab-and-go product called Tater Stuffers that are making their debut on the roller grill at convenience stores. No utensils required.
Meanwhile, advertising plays up portability, such as Fiber One's recent "snackcessory" contest, which asked consumers to design their own case to hold their "delicious snacks." And Heinz has plugged its dip-and-squeeze ketchup packs with an online video showing a man deftly applying the condiment to a burger while driving and on a work conference call. "A new day has dawned for those whose sustenance must be swift," bellows a voice-over.
'Elites' and 'Realists' Replace
"We've had a melting away of the middle market," said Bill Melnick, senior director-strategic planning for SAI Marketing. SAI defines "food elites" as those making more than $100,000 a year who demand natural and handmade foods. For them, what they eat forms "a core part of their self-perception." And they obsessively consume food media, such as Saveur magazine, whose recent Halloween entertaining guide encouraged people to choose foods like deviled eggs with pickled jalapenos -- not exactly a Snickers bar -- over store-bought stuff.
the Middle Market
At the other end is 84% of the population, which SAI dubs "food realists." For these value-seeking consumers, authenticity does not mean knowing exactly where all the ingredients are from, but buying brands that "signify familiarity," according to SAI.
Nusara Chinnaphasaen, VP-senior brand planner at ad agency Cramer-Krasselt, went so far as to describe food as a "battlefield." Food has become "such a mark of our social status and it really has divided people more than ever before," she said. There is even a growing backlash against the foodies led by so-called anti-foodies -- those tired of worshipping food, she said.
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All of this means companies are trying to offer the same brands at different price points and in different formats to appeal to these fragmenting consumer groups. Kraft Foods Group is trying what it calls a "good, better, best" approach. For instance, it offers Velveeta Shells "n Cheese in a cup for 99 cents, in a box for $1.99 and in Cheesy Skillet dinner kits for $3.49. The company is plugging economy brands -- such as Kraft string cheese -- at dollar stores, while pouring more advertising into premium products. For instance, its Cracker Barrel cheese brand just launched its first campaign in more than a decade with ads that spotlight awards it has won at prestigious cheese competitions.
To keep pace with the food elites, companies are paying closer attention to the fine-dining scene. Leo Burnett and Kellogg formed a joint food culture study group called Marinate that recently heard from Stephanie Izard, executive chef of Chicago's popular Girl and the Goat restaurant. People "live outside" the package-foods category, said Megan Van Someren, Leo Burnett Worldwide's global head of planning for Kellogg. They are influenced by films, shows and restaurants "and that 's what is setting their expectations" at the grocery store, she said.
Meanwhile, in further evidence to the food-as-lifestyle trend, Bon Appétit magazine has broadened its focus to more cultural coverage of restaurants, travel, home entertaining and more from purely epicurean. It is also luring more ads from non-food brands in the beauty and fashion world, said VP-Publisher Pamela Drucker Mann. "As a foodie myself, to me it was a no-brainer that food is lifestyle," she said. "That epicurean sensibility just seemed a little outdated. Consumer mind-sets have changed."