What do consumers want? It’s a question many food companies are struggling to answer. Are they vegan or are they plant-based? How much transparency do they really want? Before companies fight to the death over every last mayo-hating, Applebees-killing millennial, they should consider how technology is changing the way consumers feel about their food.
It’s no secret that the increasingly ubiquitous presence of smartphones and wearable technology has had an impact on things like sleep and exercise, but it’s transformed the way people eat too. The constant presence of technology in the lives of consumers has impacted food choices big and small, argues Dave Donnan, a food industry consultant who spoke at this year’s Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo, otherwise known as FNCE to attending food and nutrition experts.
Some shifts are obvious. As more people document their dining experiences on Instagram, for example, clever chefs are creating dishes aimed at satisfying both the gastronomic palate and the visual aesthetic. But other shifts are more incremental, argues Donnan, who likens technology’s influence to tiny “nudges” that build in influence over time, borrowing from economist Richard Thaler’s “nudge theory.”
These subtle nudges can often be the most pernicious. The constant pressure to curate every moment has brought with it an omnipresent sense of being watched. Consumers worry about making the right food choices, even though no one knows what “right” is anyway.
Parents feel a particularly heightened sense of scrutiny, says Donnan. With cameras watching sleeping infants and apps for tracking baby weight gain becoming the norm, the sense that everything is being recorded, observed and accounted for has created a looming sense of dread.
Parents feel plagued by the fear that their every choice matters, from first foods to beautiful bento box lunches for preschoolers. While the phenomenon of parents judging other parents isn’t new, the constant feeling of being observed means more parents today feel like they no longer have the truly private space to just be human, flaws and all.
Some social media influencers have made parenting fails their personal brand, presenting a kind of curated realness that offers relief for some, no doubt, but that’s not quite the same thing as publicly confessing “What If You Just Hate Making Dinner?” for example, which Virginia Heffernan did in the New York Times in 2014, much to the outright horror of many parents and food writers.
Parents are a key demographic driving transparency from food companies, demanding a level of purity that they don’t always seem to require from their own food. As consumers graduate from college and go on to eventually feeding a household of their own, Donnan says consumers move “from free food to food that is free from.”
Consumer savviness varies wildly. Whereas some consumers are demanding a hyper-detailed level of transparency from their food — wanting to know more about where and how everything is produced — others are overwhelmed by food labels and far from clear about the true meaning of words like “organic” or “cage-free” on labels.
The most highly engaged food consumers aren’t just demanding transparency, but a deeper level of connection with their food: more information, more context and more of the story behind what they’re eating. Consumers today can find out more about everything, and instantaneously too, so food producers and suppliers need to be not just transparent but authentic, two descriptions frequently used in the food space, but often without much clarity.
Transparent and authentic mean different things for different brands, explains Donnan, since consumers have different expectations for different products. Trix can sell its cereal full of artificial colors and sugar, whereas a company like Naked Juice shouldn’t market something as healthy kale juice when it’s mostly sugary apple juice. It all comes down to what the brand means to the consumer.
Donnan brings up another term that’s frequently bandied about in the food space these days: storytelling. It’s the reason why there’s a renewed interest in farmers, argues Donnan. They’ve got a great story. The downside, however, is that sometimes that story becomes a pastoral fantasy of farming rather than an accurate depiction of what it takes to run a successful, modern farming operation.
The power of a good story may also explain the interest in lab meat and foods like the Impossible burger. Though there’s long been the sense that consumers distrust too much technology in their food, there seems to be plenty of interest in the story of how scientists create a soy burger that tastes like beef. In the case of lab meat, there’s a built-in cliffhanger too: will it ever be scalable? Perhaps it was never the technology that was off-putting to consumers, but a distrust in “Big Ag” and “Big Food” that grew stronger over time.
Food has become more than a singular experience or even a long-treasured family ritual. It’s a key component of identity, argues Donnan. “We’re now defining ourselves and identifying ourselves around the diets we eat — whether you’re vegan or vegetarian, paleo or pescatarian or, my favorite, flexitarian.” Consumers support these identities with the help of online friends and communities, which has enabled social media influencers to take on an outsized role in offering advice about food.
Consumers now trust institutions less than they do the influencers in their lives, Donnan argues. It’s the personal connection that matters most. That influencer could be Jordan Peterson hawking a carnivorous diet or it could be someone with actual expertise. Donnan, with a hefty serving of optimism, argues that the shift to influencers over institutions isn’t a sign of impending doom but, rather, a much-needed opportunity for those with expertise to win back the trust of consumers everywhere.