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“A Mars a day” was once a commonly heard slogan… but now the US family-owned food group is encouraging moderation – saying that customers should limit themselves to eating its high-calorie Dolmio pesto and lasagne sauces “occasionally”. Nestlé, the world’s biggest food group is following suit, exhorting its customers to eat one slice only of its (six-slice) DiGiorno pizzas – and to round off their meal with a salad. It seems like the old norms of consumer advertising have been turned upside down. What’s going on?
Food giants need to adapt to a changing marketplace, and part of that shift is speaking the language of their consumers. They are now targeting their products at a more savvy consumer market. Empowered by technology, health-conscious buyers are demanding change - both in terms of the ingredients food manufacturers use, and the transparency with which they present them. This has led to a shift in emphasis for the industry, away from traditional processed foods, towards simpler food that is fresher, less processed and organic – despite the price bump this often entails.
As a result of this change in demand, large food manufacturers have lost 2.7% of market share in the last four years to smaller retailers who specialise in one of the growing food trends. It’s quite clear that everyone – even the market’s ‘big boys’ – are going to have to pay close attention to the ever-changing demands of their consumer base if they are to remain competitive moving forward. With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at the biggest industry trends, and the reasons they’ve emerged, in order to understand why certain products are connecting brilliantly with their market – and indeed, why other previously reliable recipes are now failing.
The main health villain of the food world is no longer saturated fats – which have, coincidentally, been expiated of many of their previously assumed sins – but sugar. The World Health Organisation says people should eat less sugar for better health, and the world’s governments are taking note. The UK’s ruling Conservative government raised eyebrows recently by applying a tax on sugary drinks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the recent bad publicity for the ingredient, sugar appears in the list of top five concerns for all generations of food buyers with two thirds of UK consumers agreeing that a healthy diet should be low in sugar. As a result, we are seeing more and more businesses emphasise low- or no- sugar content in their products, with 7% of UK food and drink launches making this claim in 2015, compared with 4% in 2012. Indeed, so keen to distance themselves from the world’s new health super-villain were Coke that they recently rebranded their ‘Coke Zero’ to ‘Coke Zero Sugar’, claiming that a large proportion of their market didn’t realise what the ‘Zero’ in the branding actually meant.
Following food labelling scandals like ‘Horsegate’, which generated a large amount of publicity as products advertised as being ‘beef’ were found to contain up to 100% horse meat instead, consumers’ demand for transparency in listing ingredients has increased. Those operators who do commit to presenting their ingredients in clear detail, such as Innocent Drinks, who are known for presenting the proportion of fruits in their drinks in exacting percentages, are likely to reap the rewards from an increasingly discerning consumer market. But it’s not just openness about ingredients that buyers are worried about – businesses also need to speak their consumers’ language. To give just one example, if you refer to ‘cream’ as ‘microparticulated whey protein concentrate’ on your product, technically correct though you might be, you shouldn’t be surprised if consumers begin to shelve it in favour of competitors who use simpler terminology. We live in the Internet age, where people have grown accustomed to having information and knowledge at their fingertips, and therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that this demand for clear data has extended to the physical products on the shelves as well.
The Soil Association, the main organic certifying body, said on Tuesday that sales of organic products rose last year by 4.9% to £1.95bn in the UK, while its share of total food sales increased 1.5%. The widespread availability of health information and the ‘raw food’ craze have seen the demand for organic produce rise. Sales are also likely to be boosted by the increased public awareness of environmental and social issues. Organic agriculture is more sustainable than regular farming methods. By producing food without harming the soil, farmers work the land without the use of harmful chemicals. This conserves natural resources like water, beneficial organisms and natural nutrients. For an increasing number of consumers, environmental and health benefits make opting for organic worth the cost.
It’s not just processing methods that consumers are worried about. In a study of 1,000 shoppers, 70% of those surveyed included lactose, sugar, sodium, fat, amount of processing, whole grains, fortification, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, and trans fat on the list of things that affected their purchasing decisions. It’s little wonder, then, that the free-from sector grew 11% in value terms in 2014. What’s causing the trend? Analysts reckon that medical advances might have something to do with it. As diagnoses for previously little-known allergies are made, consumers have more ingredients that they specifically want to avoid. Even when allergies do not feature, health-conscious buyers may want to avoid particular ingredients that they see as risk factors for disease. To give just one example, the world’s biggest dietary health story of 2015 was the declaration in October by the International Agency for Research on Cancer that processed meat is carcinogenic. Free-from labelled products are occupying more supermarket real estate as a result.
The percentage of the population describing themselves as ‘actively seeking out products high in protein’ has risen from 39% in 2006 to 57% last year, according to a study by NMI. This rise in popularity has come with increased awareness of what constitutes a healthy diet. Protein has received relatively ‘good press’ compared to the other macronutrients (carbs and fats), and is known for its benefits for weight management, as an energy source, and - particularly for young men, who tend to be a key demographic for the sector - for promoting growth in muscular mass. As a result, we’ve seen everything from high-protein Cheerios to yogurts, soup, and of course, protein bars and powders spring onto supermarket shelves.
In an industry that is changing to reflect the new, younger generations of health focused and socially conscious shoppers, only those businesses which can sense and adapt quickly to the new changes will get ahead. The aim has to be to reflect the desires of consumers even as they change and develop, and, with new health scandals and stories causing fluctuations and variation in demand, this requires keeping an ear to the industry ground so that product offerings are always relevant and meet their audience.