Food, Technology and the Always-on Consumer

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Digital innovations are changing what consumers want, and how they ask for it

KerryDigest Fast Facts:

  • The food and beverage industry is becoming increasingly driven by digital.
  • Smartphone access is enhancing consumer expectations and influence.
  • Consumers and manufacturers alike are trying new social media tactics to change food and beverage conversations.
  • The speed of digital has created demand for “quick and easy” food and beverage delivery solutions.

Food and technology discussions usually revolve around manufacturing innovations. But as consumer connectivity has improved over the last decade, smartphone access has impacted the food and beverage industry as much or more than new developments in the kitchen and lab.

One-third of consumers worldwide say they check their phone within five minutes of waking up in the morning, and one in five check their phone more than 50 times a day, according to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Mobile Consumer Survey. It’s clear that our reliance on these hyper-connected devices, and the communities we can tap in to as we use them, has a massive impact on both our perceptions and behaviours.

Technology providers and brands are doing everything they can to keep up with this evolving behaviour. It’s no different in food and beverage: As more and more apps and services are launched, food shopping, menu sharing, meal ordering—basically everything food-related except for consumption—is going digital.

At the same time, the “always-on”, smart-phone-in-hand consumer is pressuring the food industry to create increasingly novel, “better” foods and beverages at the speed and convenience they’ve come to expect from our digital age.

Here’s a primer on how digital trends are shaping food trends.

Seeing is Believing
Unlimited digital engagement with others is impacting consumer psychology and spending. Consumers of all ages engage with and are influenced by bloggers, vloggers and social media stars whom they feel reflect their ideal lifestyles. And they’re also utilising social media platforms as a means to build their persona and influence others.

Three factors, in particular, are changing what restaurants and food and beverages producers are being asked to deliver.

Factor 1: Picture-perfect presentation. As technology has advanced, so too have consumer expectations for dining out, thanks to Instagram’s ability to share and spread images of well-presented dishes. The old saying “you eat with your eyes” has never been more true as now, with diners increasingly making outlet and order choices based on what they have viewed through social media channels. There’s no way around it—food must look good. Just don’t forget that taste and nutrition are more important than ever as clean label around the world gains in favour.

Factor 2: Novel foods. The smartest brands and food makers are already making the connection that novel menu additions and food innovations are as important in media and promotions as more traditional methods of consumer outreach. Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino effort has inspired more than 150K unique posts to Instagram, earning massive reach to an engaged and relevant potential customer base. As companies develop products with a novel “you’ve got to see this” factor that almost demands documentation, consumers utilise platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook to share, view and engage. As they aim to be “first” among a friend group to try a new product or to “join” an already formed group of devotees, trends gather more staying power.

Factor 3: Ad-hoc health advice. Through social media, consumers are exposed to endless information about nutrition, food preparation and global cuisines, so much so that it has come to dominate nourishment choices. Simply by having a social media account—as one report suggests 2.35 billion of the world’s 7.5 billion people do—a person can become a health expert, with or without the once necessary credentials. Simply tag your post with #eatclean—a hashtag that’s been used on Instagram more than 50 million times—and your food is instantly considered healthy. The significant growth of plant protein in recent years has been driven at least in part by a surge in social media influencers, food bloggers and fitness fanatics endorsing and promoting the #vegan (50+ million posts on Instagram) lifestyle. A single post from @MinimalistBaker, for example, often receives engagement from tens of thousands of her one million followers.

On Demand Everything
The average person’s attention span has shrunk to just 8 seconds, according to a somewhat controversial report from Microsoft, and anecdotal experience suggests patience is steadily going out of favour too, while speed and convenience are at a premium.

The current expectation for “quick and easy” has universal affects, including in the food industry.

For instance, in 2016, the food delivery market in the UK—made up mostly of quick service restaurants—grew ten times faster than the total out-of-home market, according to the NDP Group. As people look for ways to save time in their busy lives, traditional delivery options are thriving and there’s a tremendous amount of innovation.

Delivery mediators such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo are changing the dynamic of dining out by allowing consumers to bring the restaurant experience to their doorstep at the click of a button. Quite literally, the definition of “fast food” is changing as limits to what you can eat from your couch or office disappear. Consumers no longer need to even wait in the drive-thru line to enjoy a Big Mac—they can pay a messenger to do so for them.

Many producers tapping into these new methods report financial gains. In foodservice, untraditional methods offer brands an additional revenue stream and increased consumer engagement. Virtual restaurants allow brands to develop delivery-only kitchens so they can serve a broad consumer base without the overhead of operating a dine-in restaurant. Meal-prep kits are bringing all the right ingredients to aspiring cooks, and online grocery shopping has gone from novelty to necessary for a growing number of time-strapped consumers.  

However, these new players and options are also creating an increasingly competitive environment where consumer purchase motivators are changing. Factors such as atmosphere, service and experience—once hallmarks of a dining experience—are becoming irrelevant in the realm of delivery and convenience. Operators are now competing on factors such as delivery time, quality of food post-transit and choice for all.

Opportunity All Around
As technology and our reliance on it continues to progress, the impact it has on the food industry will only increase. This always-on culture builds consumer awareness of what’s available, raising expectations and changing purchasing behaviour.

If you’re feeling behind in your efforts to capitalize on this need for speed and photogenic foods, there’s still time.

Operators and manufactures alike will—and should—increasingly utilise social media analytic tools and platforms to identify and track emerging trends. Monitoring tags, interactions and sentiment will enable food and beverage operators to establish first-to-market status with the latest trends.

As new products launch, micro influencers—the term used to describe those with 10,000 to 100,000 social media followers—who engage with consumers on an organic level will be key in setting and propelling trends going forward. Spotting allies such as these will increasingly be important as you push products into the digital space. 

Ideating and testing faster and easier ways to get goods into consumer hands will also be critical to food and beverage companies. This may mean reformulating products so they stay fresh during delivery, condensing meal preparation steps or adding a greater number of grab-n-go options to your product line.

As you pivot your product offerings to appeal to the always-on consumer, we can help. Contact Kerry to leverage our proprietary consumer insights, reformulation technologies and convenience solutions.

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