Consumers still want convenience. They also want 'real food' to be more convenient, not foods they perceive to be artificial and fake. Article by Bryan Urbick.
A mere 50 years ago, in the early 1960s, convenience was the buzz word (even before the concept of 'buzz word' even really existed). While convenience has a slightly negative, rushed, lacking-in-quality feel about it, back then convenience trumped all.
Proud images were shown of families sitting in front of the telly for the evening meal, enjoying the quick-to-prepare, nearly instant offerings – all with a happy mum, no longer frazzled by feeling chained in the kitchen.
Women had joined the workforce, which resulted in two paradigm shifts: the increase in household incomes and the need to effectively achieve all household chores in a fraction of the time it used to take.
A lot of solutions, beyond foods and beverages, were presented: cleaning, personal care, laundry, even instant gardening with pre-grown grass, and plants that were in bloom, all promised faster, easier and even perceived to be better.
The food industry reacted to the consumer enthusiasm for convenience with gusto, developing technologies with the primary intention to make consumers' lives easier. Lots of tricks were used: processing methods, technological solutions to prolong shelf-life and instant mixes that would emulate the 'real food' that took hours and much effort to make. These solutions grew in favour and multiplied exponentially. All categories and segments were affected. The desire was for products that tasted 'close to homemade', yet the standard of 'great taste' wasn't the priority.
If lack of time was the key driver towards convenience and thus processed foods, nothing has changed on that front. The current shift comes from people's desire to return to 'real food'. Consumers still want convenience, more so than ever, but they're no longer prepared to compromise on the quality of what they eat. Thus, bringing real food values back to processed food is imperative and becoming a true cost of entry to their success.
'You are what you eat' is no longer considered faddish. Consumers around the world have become far more aware of their weight and their nutritional health. This move towards maintaining a healthy lifestyle is linked to a desire to enjoy food, too.
Never before have we had so much choice of tastes and textures. Fusion foods are very much a part of our lives and as such our expectancy of new and exciting is firmly founded in fresh, good and wholesome. We have only to look at fast food chains who now talk about where they source their meat and potatoes to realise the trend is here to stay. The desire for convenience, though, is here to stay, too.
'Less is more' is taking over from processed. Fewer additives, artificial flavourings and chemicals, but also less salt, less unhealthy fats. Ingredient lists are becoming much shorter and much clearer. Keeping to the remit of convenience, we now have functional foods that claim to boost our mineral and vitamin intake without our having to worry about it. They do this using 'super foods' and returning to spices and grains that were used by our ancestors, but now with the added knowledge that these have health benefits of lowering cholesterol, reducing inflammation and glycemia through to boosting energy, increasing omega-3s and 6s, etc.
There's also a move towards foods that claim they have more taken out of them than they contain. There's a whole new generation of foods that purport to be 'free' – free of gluten, lactose, nuts, soya, MSG and corn syrup.
In fact, if we care to look closely, we have convenience layered with super-health and further rolled into exciting tastes and textures. We have the added dimension of the desire to add 'new' to our familiar; spices are appearing in our sweets, flower flavours are cropping up in our drinks (which is actually a resurgence of Victorian era recipes), nuts and less common seeds are mingling with the dairy products, and new berries seem to emerge every month, each with a new healthy story.
These are exciting times for our taste buds, and with a bit of luck we should find it easier to keep slim and healthy, too. Convenience isn't dead, but has morphed into a new shape that should keep marketers, brand managers and food and beverage manufacturers happy for quite some time to come.
Bryan Urbick is founder and CEO of the Consumer Knowledge Centre in the UK.
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