"An army travels on its stomach"
"A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."
"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink."
What do these expressions have in common? All three capture an essential element of customer behavior: We are what we eat.
I've long been a close observer of food trends because I've found they predict how customers will behave in any industry. (For instance, in my field--communication--the fact that people would rather graze than sit down for a full meal is directly related to their preference for bite-sized messages.)
Lately, I've been seeing 7 trends that are leading indicators for customer needs and preferences across the board:
1. Nomadic hunting and gathering. In the good old days, customers would choose one chain supermarket--say, Vons or Stop&Shop--and fill a big cart full of stuff every week. But we're now in the era of grocery wars, when customers are ordering online over here (hello, Jet, Amazon and Peapod) and squeezing free-range organic pomegranates over there (yes, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Fairway).
Lesson: Customers have become fickle. They pick and choose to find the widest selection, the finest ingredients and the best price.
2. Craft beer and artisanal coffee. There was a disruption in the force recently when the Swiss food giant Nestlé announced it was buying a majority stake in fast-growing Blue Bottle Coffee. As The New York Times explained, "Third-wave specialty coffee specialty coffee--the kind that inspires almost monastic devotion to pour-over brews and perfectly steeped drinks--has become a hot business. The rapidly expanding niche accounts for 15 to 20 percent of coffee consumed in the United States." Look around and you'll see plenty of evidence that consumers today prefer small-batch, house-made, local foods and beverages over same-everywhere global brands.
Lesson: Customers are turning away from bland, generic, mass-market. They want to feel current and cutting edge.
3. Molto multicultural. On the one hand, The Washington Post reported that Sriracha, defined as "a pungent sauce that is made from hot peppers pureed with usually garlic, sugar, salt, and vinegar and that is typically used as a condiment" is now a defined word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary--along with Callery pear, choux pastry and Saigon cinnamon. On the other hand, The Wall Street Journal shared the news that people are struggling with how to pronounce unfamiliar foods like Hawaiian poke (pronounced POK-keh), "takoyaki (tah-koh-yah-key), a battered, golf-ball-shaped Japanese treat filled with octopus, and shakshuka (shak-SHOO-kah), a Tunisian poached-egg dish." Both reports are evidence of the fact that foods that originated outside the United States are now thoroughly mainstream.
Lesson: Even though customers may never leave the country, they're citizens of the world--at least when it comes to what they consume.
4. From food court to food hall. Remember the mall food court? After a long morning of shopping, you could choose your lunch from dozens of fast food franchisees. Well, make way for the food hall, the food court's up-and-coming sibling. Food halls "are in the midst of a robust expansion," according to The New York Times. "(They) typically mix local artisan restaurants, butcher shops and other food-oriented boutiques under one roof. Many celebrate quirkiness versus uniformity, and their ability to draw crowds is particularly appealing to landlords battling the growth of e-commerce and changing shopping habits."
Lesson: Customers seek unique and memorable experiences.
5. Not your grandmother's holiday dishes. The holidays are upon us, and with these family gatherings come not-very-delicious traditional foods. Like green bean casserole. Candied sweet potatoes. And in Jewish cuisine, the jarred stuffed fish known as gefilte fish, traditionally served for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. All these beloved (but not very tasty) foods are in jeopardy, as "times and tastes have changed," according to The Wall Street Journal. "In an artisanal food world, (gefilte fish maker) Manischewitz is struggling to make its shelf-stable product hook a new, more-finicky generation of eaters."
Lesson: Tradition still counts, but customers are quick to reject something that doesn't work for them.
6. Why cake mix still matters. With all the emphasis on "real," organic, locavore food, you'd think a packaged product like cake mix would be obsolete. But The New York Times reports that, at least in the remote sections of Alaska, cakes made of mix are still an important staple. "Elsewhere, the American appetite for packaged baking mixes is waning, according to the market research firm Mintel, as consumers move away from packaged foods with artificial ingredients and buy more from in-store bakeries and specialty pastry shops. Yet in the small, mostly indigenous communities that dot rural Alaska, box cake is a stalwart staple, the star of every community dessert table."
Lesson: Never assume that all customers have the same needs.
7. Junior foodies. Kids' meals used to consist of rubbery chicken nuggets and a sugary drink. But Panera Bread recently announced that it will offer almost every one of its items in a smaller size for children. And USA Today quotes industry analyst Bonnie Riggs, in describing restaurant chains' new attitudes to feeding children: "Don't call it a kids' menu, but offer a smaller size of that same menu item that's on the regular menu or the grown-up menu. Kids today are much more inclined to try new things than kids were 10 years ago. They're much more open to unique flavors and different foods."
Lesson: Young customers are just as sophisticated as their parents.
It's all about the food. Or, as Julia Child once said, "People who love to eat are always the best people."