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You are no longer what you eat!

My initial working career was that of a chef, and although I've been a recruiter for a number of years now, the foodie habits and interests haven't left me. I recruit in the food sector as well as non-food so that, coupled with living in a multicultural foodie hotspot in London, means I often find myself considering where food trends start, and how they lead into the FMCG industry for mass production.

This year’s Mintel report on food and drink trends has produced some illuminating trends; Eat with Your Eyes, Table for One, Good Enough to Tweet, Inside and Out, and Alternatives Everywhere. They indicate a broad consumer culture that enjoys all the inner and outer benefits of great food - from visual appreciation all the way through to health - via social media platforms and real life experience.

If we look deeper into where trends come from, their link with innovation - the why as well as the how - becomes much clearer. So let's look at this more closely.

How and why do food trends come along?

In a word, discovery.

Consider the rich multicultural communities most of us live in, and the open borders we're lucky enough to traverse. The British food culture originally came from coping with inclement weather and dealing with 9 months of winter every year.

If we'd stayed at home, we'd probably still eat boiled meat and potatoes three times a day, but arguably, our food tastes may have ultimately been saved by our globetrotting, conquering ancestors.  Historical trade all over the world dating back thousands of years perhaps engendered the underlying desire of the British to experiment with food.

How we now discover foods is much more mundane, but we're still finding new, cool, and 'original' or 'alternative' ideas for food that provide us with inspiring experiences as much as they do taste.

So, how do food trends manifest?

First, think about where you normally discover new foods. The ubiquitous pop-up restaurant is one of my personal favourites for finding something new and delicious, and some seriously successful start-ups began there.

From the restauranteur's point of view, the pop-up has become a great way to garner more publicity and a feel for consumer acceptance or rejection, but from the eater's angle, it's all about the experience. It's gourmet food you can experience today, but tomorrow it might be gone forever, so you queue, guzzle, and photograph it while you have the chance.  

Food festivals are also a great way for consumers to discover new delights. From Chillifests around the country to general food and wine festivals in the largest and smallest locations, no matter where you live, there's a festival to help you uncover a new unusual, gourmet, or international dish.

The role social media plays in the sparking of food trends in particular is more significant than you might think. More so than dining out, or even having specialised needs, people really care about what other people think and do. 'Keeping up with the Jones' has become a way of internet life. It's called 'social proof', where trends are sparked by a role model and millions follow suit, eager to reap the same benefits and appear as fashionable as the stars. Because 'everyone else is doing it', the whole event becomes self-perpetuating - for a time, at least.

The desire to live the life of the glamorous and for new food types thus inspires consumers to recreate them. Not just the taste experience, but also all the other benefits that come with them. The relaxation. The company. The ambience. Ever eaten a meal at a restaurant that you wished you could have every single day?

There are plenty of recipes out there on the Web. Everything offered, from Taiwanese Gua baos to gluten-free, fat-free, egg-free cake, all laid out to be discovered and recreated.

So, if people can make it themselves, where's the commercial value for trendy foods to pop up in supermarkets under the 'ready to eat' or 'part-baked' label?

Why and how does this evolve into innovative new supermarket products?

Many consumers are locked into at least a 9-5 rigid day, with little time to make home-cooked food. And let’s not forget that it can be more expensive to create things from scratch once you’ve purchased all the ingredients and utensils.

It's all about push and pull. The desire to recreate genius-on-a-plate pulls at the consumer, but they have no time to make it. And the supermarkets and catering companies push for more innovation; the type of innovation the public can run with, while maintaining their busy, no-time-to-cook lifestyles. Ever since the rise of supermarkets, innovation has always been co-created with consumers.

With the right pairs of eyes watching the trends of desire and requirement, supermarkets and major brands step in to allow the people to eat what they discover without leaving the building or breaking the bank. Every new innovation is an opportunity for consumers to live a few moments of a good past experience or an intriguing new one in a convenient location. Provided it makes it onto the market. The rigorous testing process new products go through means many focus groups taste new ideas and innovations, but only a tiny percentage of those products make it onto the market. And those consumer focus groups don't touch more than a tiny number of the ideas that were initially put forward.

One interesting angle is that of the entrepreneur. Despite all the odds, the introduction of a gourmet chip, an ethnic sauce, or a luxurious take on home-made-and-good-for-you can rocket someone out of obscurity.

So, what about the legacy and longevity of the product?

What keeps these products on the market for longer? Consider the ready-made marinara sauce. Used for making spaghetti Bolognese, sure, but it's also applicable for a range of other foods, from pizza to other types of pasta, the base for chilli or nachos, or any number of vegetarian or meat-based stews. Marinara has been around for a long, long time now.

Much of the responsibility for long-term popularity falls on brand and marketing, but is there more to it, especially when many brands produce the same type of product?

One key consideration is the idea behind the 'national psyche'. Think about Britain's 'favourite dish', the chicken tikka masala. Once a product becomes a standard, even mundane (and therefore less exciting) part of life, does that almost guarantee it the hoped-for longevity?

I haven't got the answers - I'm not sure anyone has - but while the exciting and innovative starts out on a buzz, the products that stay are those we know we can rely on. They're consistent, convenient, tasty, and often good for us.

Vertical Advantage specialise in recruitment for Sales, Marketing & Innovation, Supply Chain & Procurement opportunities within the food and non-food consumer markets.

 

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Richard Bowen

Manager – Sales

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