Business and Operations
Crystal Ball Gazing:
By Brooke Shaw
Do you know what customers want?
Laurie Demeritt approaches consumers much like Margaret Mead would have – using sociology and anthropology. She and her team of researchers live, shop and use the products their consumers do, so they can better understand the behaviours they are researching. As President of The Hartman Group, founded 1989, a full-service consulting and market research firm offering a wide range of services and products that focus on the health and wellness markets, she has developed a number of unique methods to research consumer food habits and preferences, including retail anthropology, social network parties, online observations, at-shelf intercepts, day-in-a-life tracking and language analysis. In discussing their latest trend research, a culmination of two-and-a-half painstaking years of teamwork, the starting point is one that will frustrate any marketer – not just a changing world and a changing consumer, but no one specific type of consumer, no one set lifestyle.
Complex, harried lives
Let’s start with the general “knowns”: more consumers are doing things to lower their health risks and prevent disease; more consumers feel their diet is healthy; more consumers claim to exercise regularly (at least three times weekly); and one-third use alternative (or complementary) health-care providers. Coupled with this is an increased demand for organics.
When you look at the profile of the average household, more of them than ever are dual wage earners, both working outside the home. Their children are scheduled into numerous extracurricular activities, average commute distances and times are on the rise. The number of marriages with partners located in separate cities is at a record high. “Consumers told us they have less and less time generally, but they find the time to do the ‘things that are important to them,’” said Demeritt.
More trips to channels
“Consumers told us they didn’t know what they were having for supper,” said Demeritt, “and this was at three o’clock in the afternoon.” With the activities drawing them away from their homes, and the increase in available, convenient food options outside of grocery stores, people are shopping daily – often in different channels.” Consumers now “shop fresh,” finding a daily trip is better suited to their active lifestyle, since they’re less constrained by choice of channel.
“Balance is key,” says Demeritt. “As an ideology, balance allows for indulgences, reconciling healthy ideals with the everyday realities of our lives.” For bakers, it means there’s no need to compromise a product’s indulgence qualities for the sake of appearing healthy. If a customer wishes to choose a sweet, more than likely, he or she will balance that choice with a lighter lunch selection, such as a salad.
Social networks aren’t just important for researchers, it’s a primary source of information for friends, family and colleagues, when it comes to consumers. A recommendation from your friend will often lead to changing or at least trying a new product. Less and less, says Demeritt, do consumers rely on external sources of authority – so it’s up to marketers or manufacturers to speak to customers like a peer, telling the product story and selling it in consumer narratives. Consumers value local history and human interaction – it’s something that big box competitors, new to your turf, can’t begin to compete with. Demeritt recommends giving consumers the opportunity to speak with one another – such as through your website’s blog or online (monitored) chat room.
In lives that feel more and more stressed and complex, consumers seek simplicity as the perceived antidote. “They are distrustful of complex product offerings,” said Demeritt, “So you should promote whole and unprocessed ingredients, short ingredient lists and ingredients they can understand whenever possible.” Rituals which harken back to a simpler time ground your consumer, so create them around your products and help your customers keep “sane” in a chaotic environment.
“Authenticity will become the consumers’ gauge to the value of products and experiences,” says Demeritt. “Consumers are re-appropriating elements from the past that they are interpreting and integrating into today’s world. Authenticity allows them to naturalize otherwise arbitrary distinctions between comparable products and experiences.” For the one selling, notions of place, people and community will be critical to establishing authenticity claims. Once established, credible authenticity will justify substantial price premiums. Part of that authenticity is positioning products with rich stories that establish an emotional bond with your customer that surpasses conventional product benefits – i.e. why your whole grain loaf beats another’s, hands down.
At retail, authenticity will differentiate your store; make products more relevant to your customer; and command higher prices, due to no immediate comparisons. Authenticity at retail is: multi-product oriented; knowledge-oriented (not about education); about “theatre” events; focused on surprise and delight; centered on human interaction; and creating community. Reading over this shopping list to success, it’s little wonder that authenticity is frequently destroyed at store level, according to the Hartman Group.
Have you been paying attention to what your customers have been asking for lately? If so, then you’ll notice that they’re targeting specific food allergies and ingredient intolerances, as they move into self-diagnosis of health conditions and symptoms. First, understand that each customer feels as though they have special needs. In many households, food preferences have fragmented – with each family member requesting something different. These can range from illness or symptom-based choices to preventive health orientations (e.g. anti-cancer) or moralistic choices (vegetarianism). Marketing has to move to communities of food orientation, rather than to families.
Freshness the driver
“Freshness is less an objective state,” says Demeritt, “than a perception-based framing device. Busy, fragmented schedules mean an increase in ‘just in time’ shopping trips which focus on fresh solutions.” Freshness cues can be maximized by clear packaging and expiration dates.
“Consumers are moving towards food and product experiences,” says Demeritt, “not the simple purchase of SKUs, products or brands.” This reinforces the earlier implications of weaving a narrative around your products, connecting with your consumer and community and establishing the authenticity of what you’re offering.
Functional foods need to move toward “regular eating.” “Consumers understand the concept of functional foods, but have limited imagination about what, when how or why they should seek them out,” says Demeritt. Often perceived as something artificial or not real, marketers needs to emphasize “natural” narratives which distinguish a product from perceptions of a lab-generated or medicinal products. Demeritt says consumers often approve of adding ingredients to products already inherently seen as functional – whole grains to bread, for a start.
Demeritt sees the organic concept becoming less distinct, with additional consumer emphasis on local, artisanal and seasonal attributes in food. Increasingly, she says, the idea of organic is less about objective distinctions and more symbolic in nature – a halo representing quality notions such as “non-processed,” real, pure, authentic, handcrafted, etc.
The Hartman Group offers a free newsletter through Tinderbox, a website devoted to trends, innovation and culture, at www.tinderboxthg.com/spark/. The group’s recent white paper on culture, from which some of these trends evolved, can be downloaded for free through either link.