Big food’s brand lesson to all of us: Don’t be artificial

If there’s one thing we’ve all learned to live with, it’s deep and rapid change. You see it everywhere—in our culture, technology, and even in industry. Just think of how the entertainment, security, publishing, and healthcare sectors are currently mutating. Some of those businesses are almost unrecognizable compared to their former selves a decade ago.

It’s as if someone perpetually has a finger on the zeitgeist’s fast-forward button.

Now, the food industry is facing the churning wheel of change… in particular, the big food companies. You’ve probably seen this graphic hovering on the internet (I saw it on Mental Floss). It basically shows how a few companies control most aisles of the grocery store, and hence, the food we eat:



Boy, that’s a lot of logos. Every person I know, even marketers, find this graphic scary or even disturbing. And so does the public, apparently.

In a recent survey, about half of the American public does not trust the big food conglomerates. Loss of customer trust is bad for any brand, but it’s especially worrisome for something as basic as a food company. And consumers are demonstrating their mistrust with tighter wallets. Since 2009, according to Fortune, the industry as a whole is down $18 billion—$4 billion last year alone.

Where’s all that money going? That’s a good question.

For one, organic food now tops over $35 billion, according to Ad Age. That tells you where a lot of consumers’ money and mouths are going. Small, organic upstarts are pulling down some serious cash right now.

People are also increasingly shopping on the periphery of the grocery store, buying produce, milk, cheese, yogurt, natural foods, and grass-fed meats. Walmart (the nation’s largest grocer), Target and others are stocking more natural choices to meet demand.

Millennial shoppers in particular tend to skip the middle aisles of the food store, where all the boxed, processed stuff resides. They’re turning to more natural brands they’re finding online; they’re going to farmers’ markets; and they drive past McDonalds and have lunch at Chipotle, which they see as being more fresh and natural. Older Millennials are approaching their mid-thirties now, and are starting families. Being more educated, demanding, and less brand loyal across all categories—if a product isn’t doing it for them, they’ll drop it like a hot potato.

The food giants aren’t just standing idle, watching the edges of their empires start to crumble. Many are quickly gobbling up the little organic and natural food companies (the ones willing to sell out, anyway). Kellogg bought Kashi a few years back and after several bad decisions, nearly ran the once popular brand into the ground. It is now trying to revive it as the rest of the industry watches anxiously.

Many companies and brands are making recipe changes, too, to appeal to the finicky masses. Every day, you see news stories of brands dropping artificial colors, axing trans fat, or cutting out high fructose corn syrup.

Even Hershey chocolate has pledged “simple ingredients” by year’s end for Hershey Bar® and Kisses®—its two most popular products. The confectioner promises that you’ll be able to read the ingredient list and recognize, or be able to picture in your head, every ingredient on the label. (Chocolate, cocoa, sugar, milk, etc.)

There are a lot of theories about why the big food backlash is happening. Some say it’s social media feeding the frenzy—we’ve all heard urban legends of Twinkies lasting 25 years. Some say it’s the media’s love of beating up on companies like Monsanto, and terrorizing us about GMOs. Then there’s the very real anxiety of not being able to afford getting sick these days. Maybe it’s all of those things and more.

I think one reason big food is getting burned is the same that many brands have experienced. There’s a basic mistrust of large institutions in general, particularly among Millennial consumers. This is not news, of course, just more evidence of a pattern. And it’s a massive lesson for every marketer, in every industry.

Today’s customer wants authenticity. Artificial is out… whether we’re talking ingredients or brand messaging. Things that even mildly reek of being fake, salesy, cheap, imitation, phony, or scammy are promptly discarded or punished harshly via social media. It doesn’t matter if an airline broke someone’s luggage and didn’t make good for it, or if a food company is trying to dupe someone by putting a picture of a barn on a box and calling a product “natural.” More and more, customers—informed, and sometimes misinformed—are holding brands, companies, and even industries, accountable.

On the flip side of this, some junk food sales are on the rise. Frito-Lay saw a 3% increase in net revenue in the first quarter of this year, according to Ad Age. The bump is attributed to creative marketing and new flavors. Does this go counter to everything we just looked at? Not really. In a strange way, junk food is authentic. It’s not pretending to be anything else but fun, an indulgence, and a temporary rush of flavors and fat. The package is bright, loud, in your face, and promises nothing but “Pow!”

It’s a sign of odd times when junk food can somehow seem more real to people than “natural” foods, with barns on the boxes.

Food for thought.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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