With consumers demanding indulgent yet guilt-free food for increasingly hectic lifestyles, how can food brands get the low, light and reduced product challenge right? Article by Mat Lintern.
The changing nature of the relationship between consumers and food is an increasingly debated topic, with growing obesity levels grabbing tabloid headlines and inspiring government action. While today's consumers can afford to eat as much as they want, they're also being educated that too much salt, fat and sugar is bad for them. This has led to the twin macro-trends of 'food for pleasure' and 'we are what we eat' sitting alongside the third well-recognised trend of 'food which fits our hectic lifestyles'.
Low fat (or salt, or sugar) foods are a direct attempt to exploit these trends. But how should food manufacturers decide which products will flourish from the low/light/reduced treatment, and how should they present them to the market?
The dairy dilemma
Dairy is a natural product category heavily challenged by its high fat content and indulgence associations. Manufacturers have been motivated to explore several different NPD routes to counter the emerging trend of consumers moving from traditional products such as single or double cream used for scratch cooking or desserts, towards lower-fat alternatives such as creme fraiche.
When MMR Research Worldwide explored the low-fat cream market, however, the level of engagement from 'heavy' to 'non users' was disappointing. The reason is the majority of consumers want cream to be an indulgence; a treat for more special occasions. It seems that while cultured dairy produce for cooking is acceptable, when serving a product that's typically partnered with cream, only the real deal will do.
Lower fat options are a compromise that consumers are not willing to make. Consumers believe that reduced fat equals reduced taste. There is also some suspicion that reducing the fat content happens at the expense of the naturalness and purity of the product, delivering more processed cues.
In this case, to promote sales of existing core cream products based on quality and treating – a deserved indulgence – would be the best way to realise sales potential. Alternatively, companies can tap into the recession and post-recession trend of cooking from scratch by promoting regular family meals with home-cooked desserts.
MMR also learnt in its study of cream that low-fat product communication should centre on the delivery of the product, and convey that the taste and texture of the low, light or reduced options are as good as their full-fat counterparts, and are as natural.
A contrasting example to this is bagged snacks, a sector that faces enormous pressure to reduce the salt and fat content of products such as crisps. MMR's research demonstrates that low-fat and low-salt claims are actually motivating, even among 'heavy' consumers. As long as a 'same taste' guarantee is present, there's a higher level of appeal and a higher claimed consumption frequency among heavy users.
Interestingly, the favoured approaches are those that explain the steps taken by the manufacturers to make the products healthier. This approach is construed as honest and credible, and several step-changes, no matter how small, are more believable than one dramatic reduction.
They demonstrate that despite the (inherently unhealthy) nature of the product, the manufacturer is doing what it can to make improvements. At MMR, we recommend using messages linked with development and gradual progress rather than overnight reform.
To reduce or not to reduce
In future, to know which products have the greatest potential for reduced salt, fat or sugar versions, and to position and target them effectively, manufacturers will need to understand for which consumers their products are designed. They need to ask:
- Do I want my product's ultimate selling point to be quality and enjoyment – healthy enough to be permissible, yet indulgent enough to reassure on taste?
- Is it a purchase for a less frequent or special occasion?
- Are consumers looking for the highest quality ingredients?
- How much do they care if the 'good stuff' is left in or the 'bad stuff' taken out?
We expect the emergence of three core camps of consumers within the next two years. Consumers that are 'confidently indulgent' will be looking for quality first and foremost, either due to a 'couldn't care less' attitude or as part of a healthy, balanced relationship with food that gives rise to 'occasional indulgence'. These are the cream consumers for whom low-fat creams would offer very little appeal.
Consumers that are 'quietly healthy but tempted by an indulgent appearance' will buy into brands such as McCain, Innocent and Jordan's, whose products are sold on the basis of being environmentally conscious and healthy, yet whose core communication centres around quality.
Finally, consumers that are 'hardcore healthy' will be more likely to buy low fat, salt and sugar products, and will be prepared to sacrifice taste for these benefits. People may drift from one group to another during different phases of their lives according to age, dieting missions and affluence, for example.
Know your market
To understand the success new products might enjoy, concept testing is critical. All too often, this type of testing relies on the traditional metric of liking, as well as benchmarking vs normative data. While important measures, these can result in providing little more than a 'beauty contest'. Instead, NPD testing should take a holistic approach and delve deeper to determine whether new products have the potential genuinely to change consumer behaviour.
- Is the product attractive to consumers and will it taste nice (the liking part)?
- Will it meet real needs and requirements?
- Do consumers actually want a light, low-salt, low-sugar version of this product?
- Is it better, cheaper or different in comparison to any currently available alternatives?
- Does it have the power to displace existing low/light products and/or the full fat/normal sugar/salt alternatives?
Explaining your motives
The key message for manufacturers from both of the dairy and bagged snack categories discussed is transparency. Acknowledge the reasons for providing a healthier version of a product and let consumers know how this has been achieved. This is particularly important with branded products that are likely to have a loyal group of consumers. Stress that product changes are having the effect of reducing 'baddies' rather than reducing taste or enjoyment. The true success of the new bagged snacks example is the fact that it also contained a 'same taste' promise.
MMR research shows that being healthy is more motivating an endorsement than specific low-sugar or salt claims, and while low fat is still one of the most motivating claims overall, 43% of consumers look for products communicated as low fat when they're shopping – healthy foods are far more likely to be associated with balanced nutrients, vitamins and freshness than they are with low fat, low salt or low sugar.
We believe that foods that have inferred healthiness due to their high-quality nature, but that don't compromise on taste, are likely to be most popular. Prime examples include Innocent Smoothies, Covent Garden soups, Dorset Cereals and Heinz Baked Beans.
We will also see a continuing trend towards more wholesome foods and advertising that communicates inherent product benefits, such as naturally occurring omega-3 and whole grain.
Successful low or light products of the future will be those that entice and reward consumers by promoting existing product properties and providing new consumption benefits.
Mat Lintern is managing director of MMR Research Worldwide.
- FoodBev Media visits Asset Water Technology in Italy
- Tags Tasty Crisps from former Seabrook MD
- Zuccari's Stefano Sala introduces a new range at Vitafoods Europe 2013
This article was first published
in Food & Beverage International.