The biggest trends I’ve seen in the usual round of food & drink trade shows are taste and impulse sector innovation. But many of the food choices we’ve become used to in recent years seem like luxuries in this squeeze on household spending. News from the British Retail Consortium and KPMG about retailers offering more promotional pricing in a bid to increase summer sales after a disappointing July brings this further into focus.
In the food industry, the existence of ‘healthy alternatives’ proves that eating healthily is still the exception not the rule, particularly now that ‘scratch cooking’ is perceived as more expensive and time consuming than ever. The fact that we talk about ‘treating ourselves’ and ‘guilty pleasures’ speaks to how complex our attitude to food is.
This isn’t new: back in the 70’s we were taught to demonise fat and embrace artificial sweeteners; now we’re told artificial is bad in any form and a little bit of what you fancy won’t hurt. There are good fats and bad fats, good sugars and bad ones and the growing vegan movement is making us question a lifelong dependence on dairy. But plant-based food comes with its own issues about the environment and impact on local farming communities. According to Marion Nestle, a long time food studies professor at New York University, the fact it is essentially over processed could be a barrier to longevity. It’s a confusing picture, particularly when you just want to eat well without inadvertently making yourself ill or killing someone’s livelihood.
In previous years, the themes driving innovation in food have centred on brands on a mission to do something amazing and game changing: all made in Bob’s kitchen or Lucinda’s farm, with the purest artisan ingredients sourced from suppliers no one has ever found before.
So it’s been refreshing to see taste as a priority. Sounds obvious right? But there have been times I’ve left a food trade show so filled with what feels like sawdust or magic ingredients touched by the tears of virgin goats at the foot of the Himalayas that I’m craving a Dairy Milk by the end.
Over the past eight years it felt as if for every successful launch there were at least 20 more that had over engineered a solution to a very niche problem. Healthy, artisanal, vegan snacks for long distance lorry drivers being one I couldn’t understand.
The real winners at the moment are those who understand the value of food technology and how to use it well. The rapid growth of biotech in food manufacture and the use of technology in distribution methods attracts investment on a different level to the humble kitchen table start-up story. From Meatable, the Dutch laboratory-made meat alternative company that attracted USD 47m in Series A funding, to Allplants, the UK vegetarian subscription business that disclosed USD 52m in Series B, reading the market is more important than blind passion in your creation.
I’ve seen on my LinkedIn feed at least four founders in the past month sadly announcing the end of their brand’s journey. I’m always sad about it as it’s the innovators that drive this category and keep it interesting. But innovation has to be about more than just ingredients: it has to drive the entire business model. The founders of both Nobl Thirst and Squished for example have interesting brands: sustainably packaged water and dried fruit for kids respectively, but also passion and pragmatism that I hope give them the edge for the long term.
Everything about how we eat has changed in the past 50 years, from what we eat, to who we eat with and where we eat. So, it’s time that new brands in this highly competitive market take a holistic approach to what they have made. Making a great product is really just the start of the journey.
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