What consumers want
What, when, where, why and how consumers eat have changed dramatically in recent years. According to The Hartman Group, five key trends are shaping modern food culture:
1. Shifting food values: “Food is our greatest cultural expression,” said Vice President of Consulting Davey McHenry at the aforementioned conference. “It’s how we procure. It’s how we cook. It’s how we plate. It’s how we eat.”
For those who can afford it and have the time to enjoy it, food has become more than a necessity. We don’t just eat to live; we live to eat. We care about where our food comes from and what’s in it. We make healthier choices because we want to, and not simply because our bodies and minds feel better when we do. Think fresh instead of processed, private-label and locally sourced instead of big-name brands, ingredients you can pronounce instead of artificial colors, preservatives and sweeteners.
2. The “new convenience”: Despite the cultural prominence mentioned above, we’re busier than ever and have “displaced” many of our meals through shifting, skipping, fragmentation and boundary blurring.
According to Hartman research, 22 percent of American consumers are snacking more, and 43 percent of us are replacing one or more of our traditional “three square meals” with snacks. Convenience is our No. 1 need state, with 53 percent of all eating occasions including the desire to avoid the time and energy it takes to cook. Think fast and portable, low prep or even no prep, said Hartman CEO Laurie Demeritt.
3. Personalization: As a society, our sense of self has never been higher. We’re no longer OK with having what everyone else is having. We want it customized and individualized. This tendency even extends to meal kit delivery services such as Blue Apron and HelloFresh, which allow us to select from a menu of options to create a week’s worth of meals that best suit our dietary preferences and restrictions, week in and week out.
“We communicate who we are through our food preferences,” McHenry explained. “Venti mocha frappe with whip is basically saying, ‘I want ice cream. But I can’t take it into my morning meeting.’ The point is: I’ve made it my own.”
4. Inspiration: The rise of the internet, reality TV and social media have created a culture of sharing seemingly everything. Cooking shows and classes; food and beverage samples at your neighborhood grocery store; recipe apps; and food posts on Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube in particular all feed our appetite for something different and inspire our own creativity. New ingredients, new flavor combinations, and new preparation and presentation techniques all capture our attention and encourage adoption.
“Today’s food culture is all about fun and play,” Balanko explained. “We want to be surprised and delighted.”
5. Technology: Websites and apps have made it possible for us to check seating availability and book reservations, preview menus, get directions, and read about other diners’ experiences at restaurants around the corner and around the globe. Online grocery and food delivery services let us shop from the comfort of our couches and eat out while staying in. Food tracker and fitness apps help us monitor our caloric intake, heart rate, and overall health and wellness.
All of these innovations give us unprecedented power over our food choices and how we experience them. But they also have led to consumers “becoming less and less willing to compromise,” McHenry said. “We’ll go to the brands that can deliver on our expectations,” she added.
Crucially left unsaid: We’ll abandon those who can’t.