Of all the attributes consumers are looking for today in their food—freshness, organic, local, and sustainable—flavor and quality are still paramount. Growers, shippers, and marketers involved in delivering fruits to consumers should focus on flavor and quality before they do anything else, suggests a consumer culture consultant.
“Despite the economic concerns in recent years, consumer demands for these type of products (organic, local, sustainable, and flavorful) are not going away, and in fact continue to grow,” said Davey McHenry of the Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Washington, consumer consulting and market research firm. The U.S. food culture is changing, she said, with consumers continually aspiring for a better life and redefining quality and other food attributes.
The Hartman Group has spent two decades studying consumers, their buying and eating habits, and even examining their cupboards and pantries to learn if they truly eat what they buy. Organic foods have been studied for the last 12 years, and the Hartman Group also studies “green” products that are produced in a manner that reduces impact to the environment.
McHenry, who spoke in Wenatchee, Washington, at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting, said that real food versus industrial food has become a new concern of today’s consumer. Consumers are thinking, “If I can’t recreate it in my kitchen, should I really be consuming it?” she said, using Cheez Whiz as an example of an industrial food. They pay attention to product claims, such as pesticide-free, natural, country of origin, and seasonal, and take them into account when deciding what foods to buy.
The Hartman Group has found that 75 percent of all consumers use some type of organic product and 33 percent use organics monthly. Only 25 percent never use organics, McHenry said.
“Organics and sustainable products are in their lives to stay,” she said, noting that, even in tough times, consumers are still purchasing organic foods and making thoughtful decisions about food for their family.
“Three out of every four consumers report that they make decisions based on a product’s sustainability,” she said. Sustainability purchases typically start with the fresh food items, like vegetables, fruit, meat, or milk. A consumer might start purchasing a couple of items, like fruit for their children, and then stop there, or they might add more sustainable products to their purchases.
Local has become an important attribute and is now part of how consumers define quality, McHenry said. Consumers perceive local foods to be fresher, more authentic, more real, and more nutritionally dense, and feel that purchasing local helps support their community. “The good news is that consumers are willing to pay more for local products because they perceive local to be of higher quality.”
Even large companies are getting into the local act, she said, adding that McDonald’s now highlights where some of the food comes from. In some of their point-of-purchase material, McDonald’s states that 98 percent of the French fries served are grown in Washington State. Lay’s potato chip maker now includes a “chip tracker” application on packages, enabling consumers to go to the Internet to see the exact farm location that produced the potatoes.
“Lay’s has found that consumers are tapping into this,” she said. “They want to know the face of the farmers and where the food is coming from because it makes the food more real.”
Nowadays, it’s common to read narratives or stories on the packaging or label of the product that shares how it’s made and the people behind the product, with pictures of who grew it and where it was grown. Pictures make the product more real, more credible, and not mass produced, McHenry explained.
“Narratives are one of the best ways to connect with consumers and can help you develop authentic, compelling differentiation of your product in the market,” McHenry said.
Product narratives can highlight:
People involved: How the people or founders are special
Process or technique used: How does the process make the product different
Product: Is the product a new or unique variety
Place: Why does the geographic origin make the product special
“The best narratives are transparent,” she said. “The stories have to be true and give a compelling reason why the new product or company is important. And, there needs to be an emotional hook that resonates with the consumer.
“They want to get a glimpse into your world and see what’s happening to bring that food to their table…and why you are passionate about what you do.”