Focus on Social Forces behind Food Trends to Innovate

By Rob Seideman

Every December, trend forecasters reveal their predictions of the next year’s hottest foods, flavors and libations. If you’re a foodie, they’re fun to read.  But if you’re in the business of creating the next big thing for food brands, why bother? By the time a food trend is revealed, it’s too late for most organizations to take advantage of it. It takes months or even years to create and test new products, establish regulatory thresholds, and synchronize supply chains.

So how to keep your food or beverage business competitive? Instead of focusing on the trend, focus on the social forces behind the trends.

Behind every food trend there are social forces either driving or depriving it. Take the cupcake craze, for example. Why did cupcakes – which Hostess introduced in 1919 – suddenly surge in popularity in 2000, and then, just this year, be declared officially dead? It's not like cupcakes were suddenly not delicious anymore.

Instead, the social forces underlying their popularity changed. The cupcake trend was driven in large part by Baby Boomers seeking the emotional boost of youthful nostalgia. What ultimately deprived the cupcake trend was a new social force: Millennials preoccupied with how they’re feeling physically, as opposed to emotionally – something cupcakes fail at but which something like the new hot and spicy flavor trend is uniquely able to deliver, as these flavors release endorphins that make us feel exhilarated.

There are three reasons why focusing on the social forces behind food trends is advantageous in creating food and beverage innovation:

Expanded potential: At least once a week, I see an article asking “What’s the next Sriracha?” Will it be the Korean chile paste, gochujang, or its North African counterpart, harissa? Everyone wants to know.

If you’re in the business of creating new products, that’s not the most strategic question to be asking. If one takes a look at the social forces driving the Sriracha trend – namely, How do I feel physically? – there are countless innovation opportunities that “the next Sriracha” question disregards.

For example, there are active ingredients besides the capsaicin in chiles that can create physical reactions when consumed: there’s piperine in black pepper, gingerol in ginger, and mustard oil in horseradish, wasabi, and, of course, lowly mustard.

Plus there are countless sensations that food and drink can make us feel physically well beyond the exhilaration that chiles provide. Products can make us feel alert, hydrated, relaxed, fueled… you name it.

From this perspective, the expanded opportunity set looks something like this…

Longer runway: Social forces stick around much longer that your typical trends, often for at least a decade, providing organizations a foundation around which they can plan their pipelines.

For example, the How do I feel physically? force was evident as far back as 2010 when “feeling hydrated” drove coconut water’s rapid growth. In 2011, gluten-free products first promised an end to feeling “bloated and fatigued,” and in 2013 the once tame cracker aisle began boasting crackers with a bold and spicy kick.

The force shows signs of sticking around, too. In fact, as the tech set launches emerging wearable devices allowing real-time access to our biometrics, it could very well redefine the relevance of the question, How do I feel physically?

Reduced risk: There’s a direct correlation between how far in advance an organization commits to capitalizing on an emerging trend, and the likelihood that that particular trend will actually take shape. That said, sometimes the reward looms so big that it necessitates considering the risk.

Calculating the reward is pretty straightforward, but how do you calculate the risk? At one time, you could map the development of emerging food trends from their chef-inspired origins, across consumer channels like culinary magazines and mainstream chain restaurants, to quick-serve restaurants and, finally, grocery aisles.

But those days are over, as the maps no longer account for the landscape’s new dynamics. For example, the food industry has figured out how to jumpstart trends of its own, like those of late around bacon and avocadoes. And new media – driven by social posters and bloggers – can launch a trend like the cronut in the blink of an eye.

Looking to the social forces behind the trends is the best way to calculate the risk. If there aren’t any overarching social forces driving an emerging food trend, that trend is unlikely to take hold. Similarly, if there are overarching social forces that are at odds with, or depriving the emerging trend, it’s also unlikely to take hold.

In short, trends make up the “what” of the food and beverage world, and trend forecasters provide the “how.” But the key to success in any category has been – and will be – understanding the “why.” That’s what you can always count on the social forces behind trends to reveal, whether the category is food and beverage or otherwise.

Rob Seideman is strategic director at Thriveplan, an innovation consultancy focusing on consumer packaged goods across all categories. His beverage and food projects merge human sensory understanding with innate human psychology and the culinary arts.

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                                                                          December 2014