Food for thought
At a time of fundamental lifestyle changes and economic pressures, Tim Cumming talks to a range of brand strategists working at the front line of the food and drinks industry to find out how the communication about what's on our plates is having to change.
Is there a more reliable measure of a society’s health and security than how we consume our food and drink? What ends up on our plates, in our bowls and our glasses is a barometer of taste, wealth, class and ethics.
In a year where war on the edge of Europe has ushered in an energy crisis, a cost of living crisis, and terrifying new peaks in inflation, millions of low-paid households are threatened by the spectre of food poverty, while at the other end of the food chain, home cooking and meal kits have never seemed so popular.
Brand communications across food and drink are midway through a fundamental changing of the guard.
Meanwhile, supermarkets and their suppliers grapple with keeping prices to a level that people can afford, while meeting the demands of sustainability ushered in by governments and, more crucially, by the changing sentiments of shoppers, for whom the ethics of sustainability have become as significant as the price on the packet.
Above: People are prioritising foods and drinks that are better for their health and the planet.
At the same time, generational changes are afoot, with millennials and Gen-Z reportedly cutting back on the booze in a way unprecedented in British history – puce-faced tracts against the evils of British drinking habits are as old as printing itself.
Add to that the mainstreaming of vegan dining – no longer an alternative, but a central part of the national conversation, at least over the dinner table – and it’s easy to see that brands communications across food and drink are midway through a fundamental changing of the guard.
For Britt Iversen, head of strategy at Havas London, and who handles Asda’s account, larger forces at play have redefined how we feel, how we shop, and in whom we place our trust. “With the political turmoil we’ve had here over the past 18 months, there’s a sense that people no longer trust government to do the right things.
We have a world where values are changing, where the bottom line for brands is as much ethical as it is fiscal.
The government itself has not been a role model of good behaviour – quite the opposite – so consumers are increasingly looking for brands to help them to make the right choices in life.” That extends to the sustainability of their shop, too. “People are looking to brands to help them do that, to tell them what the right thing is to do.”
For the Big Four – Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, and Morrisons – that means their roles are changing. “It’s how to live well and look after your family, look after the planet, your community, your country, but it all goes wider to more ethical issues, too,” adds Iverson.
“They now have a real responsibility to help consumers make the right choices. It can no longer be about the bottom line. People expect brands to behave well, and if they don’t they take their money somewhere else.”
Add the pandemic to recent political, environmental and financial destabilisations, and we have a world where values are changing, where the bottom line for brands is as much ethical as it is fiscal.
Above: Supermarket's roles are changing.
“Ten years ago it may have been about what’s cheapest, whereas now it’s getting the best thing for me at the best price I can get,” says Iverson. “Aldi and Lidl have done a huge job with that, pushing up how you can get affordable, good-quality products, and that’s something the big four have run with as well.”
Given the choice, it seems, we are onside with sustainability filling on our dinner plate. “People are prioritising foods and drinks that are better for their health, the planet’s health, and are more affordable,” says Shannon Sandilands, senior brand strategist at Re, a design agency within the M&C Saatchi group.
Emphasising sustainability in your business without back-up can lead brands down the crooked path of greenwashing.
“This has resulted in trends such as plant-based eating, foods that are minimally processed and products that claim to deliver health benefits. Brands must respond by providing people with options that meet their expectations while continuing to prioritise a sustainable and affordable food system. This means investing in innovations that change the way we source, produce and consume food.”
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Above: The Tesco Plant Chef spot which received criticism from the ASA, who told the brand they must not make "environmental claims about their products unless they held sufficient evidence to substantiate the claims".
But emphasising sustainability in your business without back-up can lead brands down the crooked path of greenwashing – witness Tesco’s knuckle-rap from the Advertising Standards Authority over its claims for its Plant Chef products. “Sustainability cannot solely be a marketing message,” warns Camilla Yates, strategy director at creative agency ELVIS, which works with brands such as OREO, Cadbury, Walkers and Birds Eye. “It must be central to business operations and strategy.”
The landscape of food is changing at speed... brands are doing a great job investing in innovation and making ‘alternative’ food choices more mainstream.
A combination of marketing and new product development has seen plant-based offerings challenge the dominance of the meat shelf and reframe the conversation – Yates point to a recent BurgerKing spot in Austria, Normal or with meat. “It’s a very simple menu reframe, which means that if you order a ‘regular’ burger, you receive a plant-based product.”
“What felt like an afterthought on the corporate agenda now feels far more at the centre of the conversation,” agrees Anna Hamil, Head of Strategy at Design Bridge London, which is behind the packaging for brands including Diageo, Fortnam & Mason, and Unilever.
“The landscape of food is changing at speed. There are so many more options now, from ingredients through to ready meals, and brands are doing a great job investing in innovation and making ‘alternative’ food choices more mainstream.”
“Since the pandemic, we’ve seen the concept of ‘good value’ broaden in meaning,” adds Yates, “from being purely about good quality at a fair price, to a more holistic definition that encompasses a company’s values, sustainability efforts, and whether the product will benefit the consumer’s health or well-being.”
Above: A recent BurgerKing spot in Austria, Normal or with meat.
In the tidal swell of this sea of change in values, Hamil sees food brands feeling the pressure from retailers striving to reach their own environmental targets, while across the whole industry, a game of two halves – between choice and necessity – is being played out.
“On the one hand we’ve seen a huge increase in super-premium and luxury offers to enjoy at home as an alternative to going out; on the other, the continued rise of own label as shoppers look to stretch their money as far as they possibly can without compromising on perceived value.”
We are now at a moment where changes in the social landscape may enable a much deeper impact – from being just another advertising channel to being a more fundamental driver of the business.
In the UK, own-brand sales rose by 12 per cent from June 2021-2022, and as own-label brands succeed in delivering good quality at an even more affordable price, “food brands need to work even harder to demonstrate why they are worth paying that little bit more for. Where brands are getting it right,” adds Hamil, “they’re moving towards pragmatism and tangibility but delivered with personality.”
‘Delivery’ is another watchword in the changing food and drink landscape. Since the pandemic, the brave new world of e-commerce combines the worlds of food, social media and tech to deliver the future of higher-end food consumption – meal kits.
Across almost every category, we’ve seen an explosion of ‘next-gen’ food businesses driven by a whole raft of new consumer needs and preferences
“Food and beverage brands have embraced social platforms as a marketing channel for a long time,” says Michael Chadwick, Head of Strategy and Experience at Cheil UK, “but we are now at a moment where changes in the social landscape may enable a much deeper impact – from being just another advertising channel to being a more fundamental driver of the business.
“Across almost every category, we’ve seen an explosion of ‘next-gen’ food businesses driven by a whole raft of new consumer needs and preferences,” he continues. “Purpose-driven brands, health-driven brands, functional-driven brands, all catering to changing eating and drinking habits, such as the growth in meat-free and low or no-alcohol audiences.”
And the social medium tying this Babel of new, indie drinks and food brands together? TikTok. “This is where the power of a social discovery platform like TikTok really comes into its own,” says Chadwick. “Food is ultimately all about experience, and while we think of TikTok as a social platform, it’s an experience platform.
It’s about sharing experience – and that’s why its star is in the ascendancy as a search and discovery tool. While Google is a way of searching information, TikTok is a channel for discovering and exploring experiences. This lends itself incredibly well to food marketing.”
With TikTok come the influencers, a new model army of brand ambassadors on a social media board near you, primed to spread the word.
With TikTok come the influencers, a new model army of brand ambassadors on a social media board near you, primed to spread the word. “Influencers I trust become the shortcut that gets me straight to the handful of interesting things I’ll probably want to try,” says Chadwick. “Not least of which are the regular FoodTokkers out there – not just the paid influencers.
Many restaurant chains and packaged food manufacturers are seeing their offerings played with daily on TikTok – with users creating interesting new twists on recipes, and experimenting with and customising established products. These present a huge opportunity for brands to respond.”
Above: We’ve seen a huge increase in luxury offers to enjoy at home as an alternative to going out.
While some things are going up – whether that’s prices in general or the increase in vegan consumers and vegan choices – if there’s one thing that’s apparently going down, if not down the hatch, is booze. At least among younger people. “The biggest trend in the industry is clearly the increase in low alcohol and zero alcohol alternatives,” says Kevin Chesters, strategy partner at Harbour.
“Recent research showed that 29 per cent of pub visits now involve no alcohol, and this rises to over one in three for restaurant visits.” However, he also points out that a cost-of-living crisis means these stats may disguise the rise of drinking at home, and that low-alcohol beer comprises just 1.5 per cent of the global drinks market – “about the same penetration as veganism if you wanted a comparison”. Although with big players like Heineken and Brewdog muscling in on the low-al moment, that’s one percentage we can expect to see rise.
It’s amazing how that shift has happened. It’s a huge, real behaviour change that’s coming in.
Chesters also takes headline data about the ‘new teetotaller generation’ with a pinch of salt (and maybe a twist of lime and slug of margarita). “The majority of the world is still acting the way it has always acted,” he says. “People like a drink, humans like connecting with other humans, alcohol is a social lubricant and societal punctuation.”
While Havas’s Britt Iverson agrees – “A huge part of sales across all supermarkets is still alcohol-based,” she says – she sees the same consumer shift in our drinking choices in the mainstreaming of vegan choices. “Asda has the biggest vegan range in the UK, having just launched OMV, and there’s more of a swag about these things than there used to be,” she says. “It’s amazing how that shift has happened. It’s a huge, real behaviour change that’s coming in.”
People are not looking to be rescued, especially not by brands. What they’re looking for is to be enabled to live the best life they possibly can.
And while social media’s commentariat may have stacks of admonitions and prohibitions to toss onto the fire of social discourse, that’s not, says Iverson, where brands should go. “Consumers don’t want to be limited by being told what to do,” she says, “but they want to be informed as to what is possible. That’s the big change. People are not looking to be rescued, especially not by brands. What they’re looking for is to be enabled to live the best life they possibly can.”