As an ad guy, I’ve always appreciated the simplicity and memorability of Michael Pollan’s mantra from his book, Food Rules:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
We recently had a chance to listen live to a conversation between the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), The Botany of Desire (2001), and Cooked (2013) and Bill Fuller, Corporate Chef of Big Burrito restaurants. Per his simple mantra, Pollan appears to be a guy with a pretty pragmatic, not-too-strident view. However, if you’re a food manufacturer, like most of Smith Brothers’ clients, Pollan’s call to eat local and steer away from corporate farming and processed food can make him appear to be the enemy.
That said, I’m sure every CPG manufacturer would agree that they put “customers first.” So how does a food or beverage manufacturer get on the right side of both target consumers and Michael Pollan?
Begin with the “Big 3” of food and beverage marketing – Taste, Convenience and Health. These three benefits have always been the big levers marketers can pull to attract consumers. But what has changed in recent years for the consumer is the importance of Health. Taste has always been the most powerful and primal lever – and that isn’t changing. But post-WWII, Convenience became a more important focus of food marketers’ innovation efforts as American prosperity created the concept of “leisure time.” Swanson TV Dinners, Jiffy Pop and JELLO followed.
But as American prosperity slipped by the late ’70s and women entered the workforce as never before, innovations to replace the time and effort needed to cook meals only accelerated. And where have we found ourselves today? With an adult obesity rate of 34.9%, a child and teen obesity rate of 17% – triple the rate of one generation ago – and spiraling medical costs. There was a real health price to be paid as all that new Convenience and Taste meant we were eating way too much sugar, sodium, artificial ingredients and empty calories.
Thus the consumer premium now placed on Health is not a fad – just as women in the workplace is not a fad, but a permanent reality. Pollan is no ideologue. He’s more the canary-in-the-coal-mine.
Food and beverage manufacturers do not have to be the bad guys. The smaller manufacturers, as always, move more quickly to innovate in growing demand spaces. This was strongly in evidence at this year’s Natural Products Expo West, where some 6,700 exhibitors demonstrated the innovation and investment flowing into meeting this demand for healthier processed food and beverages.
The larger manufacturers have huge existing brands to support – many that stand in conflict with the Health trend. Look at Coca-Cola. Coke has hedged their bet over the years by acquiring juice and water brands. But with Coke sales off by 2% in the last year, Coke’s CEO had to place a strategic bet – invest marketing dollars in a bigger way in its higher growth water and juice business, or invest it in defending its volume soda business. The bet placed is on the volume soda business. I understand the choice but given the consumer trend, I wouldn’t be placing my money alongside Coke’s bet (unfortunately, one option recognized by American food and beverage manufacturers is to follow American tobacco’s lead – and more than make up the loss of U.S. business in the Third World, where the demand for Health has not yet caught up with growing consumer dollars and demand for Taste and Convenience).
But here are just a few food and beverage manufacturers that are demonstrating to consumers that they can get all of the “Big 3” – Taste, Convenience and Health – from a single brand:
- Amy’s Kitchen – organic, gluten-free, non-GMO, microwaveable and tasty to boot. Amy’s hits on all cylinders.
- Brad’s Raw – Brought kale to snacking and made it craveable. Expanding into delicious sprouted seeds. Making snacking guilt-free. And with scale, hopefully bringing current cost down.
- Gardein – Gardein moves beyond the veggie burger to include beef, chicken and fish substitutes in many forms and contemporary flavors (e.g., Mandarin Orange Crispy Chick’n).
- Dry Soda & Spindrift – carbonated, lightly-sweetened (with new flavors like Cucumber and Orange Mango) and containing no artificial ingredients, these next-gen sodas are well positioned for high growth and margins ($1.50/bottle).
While Michael Pollan will still advocate for eating primarily locally-grown and organic produce – both cooking it yourself and eating it as a communal experience – he’d have a hard time arguing against also including a place in your diet for these manufacturers who have pulled hard on the Health lever and are finding a growing fan base.