Focus on F&B – Don’t trade on trends; dig deep and innovate

Take a deep breath because the “Top 10” trend season in the food and beverage industry is finally over for another year. Where once a few key reports heralded the new year, trend is now the content du jour. What we’ve taken from the pile of trend reports from the likes of McCormick, Baum + Whiteman, Mintel, Innova and others is this: Stop obsessing about trends.                 

If you focus on all the trend roundups, you are missing the fundamental shifts in the food and beverage business. That’s like watching your card instead of the magician.

The goal of the Bader Rutter food and beverage group is to work with our clients to understand that adding a front-of-pack “made without artificial colors and flavors” callout shouldn’t be considered groundbreaking. This should also be the goal of food and beverage business marketers who consider themselves change agents at their organization and for the industry.

So what should you be focused on? Here are our three recommendations.

1. Innovate against consumer behaviors, not trends. 

These days, improving a consumer’s personal image is worth a thousand claims.

Innovating against these personal branding behaviors creates a vehicle for more significant, longer-lasting impact on growth and can deliver more impactful return on investment. After all, isn’t it your responsibility to create profitable opportunities to lead the industry instead of being lost in the sea of similar claims and voices?

Consumer transparency has driven changes in the food and consumer packaged goods business that are here to stay. The reasons why consumers want exposure to the inner workings of their own food chain, however, continue to evolve.

We believe that the emotional motivation for knowing where your food comes from, what’s in it and how it’s made is about consumers branding themselves. Facing hectic lifestyles, consumers see food as another vehicle to define their personal image and add efficiency to their day. Does this snack brand make me look like I’m savvy to organic trends? Does pulling this power bar out of my stylish bag make me look super busy, important and organized? This year, consumers are asking even more advanced questions like: Is this revving my metabolism, helping me sleep or fighting aging while I continue with my busy life?

Let’s be honest, if you see any trend in more than one report, it’s not exactly breaking news. Trying to create a simple label and ingredient list and provide food that performs complex duties is why catering only to trends is ineffective.1 The trend may be clean labels, but the behavior is about choosing food that delivers on more complicated promises.

What this means for food and beverage (F&B) business marketers: First and foremost, it’s time for F&B marketers outside of the ingredient sector to join the party and demonstrate they can innovate around consumer behaviors and brands. Any F&B business marketer knows it’s difficult to push back on customers, but it is imperative to begin to talk with them about target consumer goals, emotions and behaviors instead of sharing trends and samples and reviewing Nielsen numbers together. And set aside more of your marketing and R&D resources for exploration into true innovation versus the newest strawberry flavor. Remember that performance and cachet matter when thinking about personal branding needs.

2. Catch up, but don’t talk about it if you’re a “me too.

Businesses recognize that answering to consumers’ sustainability demands can mean opening an untapped portion of the supply chain. After all, sustainability ranks in nearly every trend report for 2017. But adding your sustainability story may be too little, too late.

Companies that want to stand out think about their goals differently: They are thinking about how to build stories that resonate and create revenue — sometimes doing both at the same time.

From new partnerships to unique cookbooks2 and ugly produce to new apps3 designed to let waste-passionate consumers get real-time grocery store garbage updates, ideas abound.

Making changes like these in your business model to enhance your sustainability claims only works if you’re first, it’s truly interesting or the impact of the shift is significant. Instead of working toward a “me too” sustainability benchmark that is necessary but not breakthrough, bring teams together to innovate solutions. Try testing your sustainability news on a friendly audience. We find kids and spouses are an easy gauge to see if a sustainability story should be shared broadly. If you can’t maintain their interest, keep working.

What this means for F&B business marketers: Your customers are challenging you to increase your sustainability efforts, set benchmarks and then improve upon them. That’s important, but not newsworthy work, and it won’t cause you to stand out in your customer’s minds. You can have more impact based on how you innovate to offer solutions to the rest of the supply chain. And, when it’s time to tell your story, remember that there is a big difference between benchmarks and goals (me too) and creative solutions and partnerships (newsworthy).

3. Consider your place in the sharing economy  

Focusing on building a portfolio that answers to consumer behaviors and drivers means businesses have the freedom to make new and unusual partnership choices. New relationships drive innovation in the industry and can help a business stand out and claim new territory.

There is no better place to seek out new relationships than the sharing economy, which is largely untapped from a food and beverage perspective.

This is shocking to us, as no activity, since the beginning of time, has been more communal, social and sharing-minded than eating. It’s time to think about how the industry can capitalize on this and reinvent itself.

New models include communal pizza ovens and home cooks using specialized apps to offer their favorite Yankee pot roast to subscribers4 to build community.

Community models should inspire an investigation of a company’s own network and resources because the thread that holds together any community is the story. Knowing that consumers are heavily invested in the story behind their food, whether that’s the sustainability story or how it affects their personal brand, businesses should seek out those companies or products with a great story. How the product is made, sourced, discovered or used could be more compelling than how perfectly it fits in a business’ portfolio.

What this means for F&B business marketers: Choose brand partners not for their perfect integration or to amplify production or capacity needs. Consider scaling on the consumer front, not the business front. Start by adding the lens of community and brand story when considering acquisition targets Then, take a page from the technology sector and think about the potential for an “acquihire” to bring new thinking and a new story into your company. Beyond acquisitions, build a network and consider nontraditional partnerships. Too often we see F&B business marketers microfocused on their company and industry subsegment. Consider that your brand is tied to those you work with, and the opportunity for new partnerships pays dividends for the individuals and the companies.

JoDee George is the food and beverage group leader at BBN USA (Milwaukee). Her passion is protecting and growing manufacturing and service businesses, mainly operating in the food and consumer products categories. JoDee is focused on helping food and beverage clients in the areas of marketing and brand strategy, customer engagement approaches, and content and insight strategy and execution. Want to talk with JoDee about food and beverage trends or industry innovation? Reach her at BBN USA.

1 Baum + Whiteman International Food + Restaurant Consultants. 13 Hottest Food & Beverage Trends in Restaurant and Hotel Dining for 2017.  Accessed February 15, 2017.
2 In April 2016, Food & Wine celebrated chef Mario Batali’s free downloadable cookbook Food: A Recipe Collection for Earth Day and proclaimed it “an outstanding resource for anyone who wants to help save the world by taking advantage of non-beautiful fruits and vegetables.”
3 According to Mintel, “Restaurants in the Netherlands, Finland and the UK are using apps to sell food that would be thrown away at closing time.”
4 Baum + Whiteman International Food + Restaurant Consultants. 13 Hottest Food & Beverage Trends in Restaurant and Hotel Dining for 2017.  Accessed February 15, 2017.

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