Political pundits are fond of discussing the greater division of Americans along political lines these days. The Pew Research Center recently reported, "The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%." Journalists like to point to the rise of cable news and talk radio as the triggers for this division.
I suggest our divisions aren't caused by Fox or MSNBC; they are simply outcomes of the same phenomenon, the dramatic impact of the internet, the exponential spawning of more fragmented media and our increasing ability to customize the content with which we want to engage. This division is occurring across our experience, because our digitally driven ability to customize our experience crosses all aspects of life ... including the food we eat.
When it comes to the food we eat at home, we've divided into distinct camps here as well. Demand for health and wellness is driving natural and organic options at nine times the growth rate of CPG as a whole. Times are good for Amy's Kitchen, Gardein, Plum Organics, ThinkThin, Popchips and many more package goods brands serving this growing demand for healthier food. And those whose online and offline behaviors (like searching organic products, visiting the Vegetarian Times web site and purchasing vegan foods) demonstrate an interest in healthier eating, will actively be "fed" more and more online content aligned with that demonstrated interest, developing that interest further.
But, we're not satisfied being angels all the time; there's still plenty of room for our demons. On the other end of the food spectrum, we see broad growth among those package goods brands that satisfy our need to indulge. When we're going to listen to the little guy on that other shoulder, we really want to splurge. Hence, the bacon revolution and smiles on the faces of Oscar Mayer, Tyson and Swift execs. And that plain old cream in your coffee just might now be International Delight's Cold Stone Creamery Churro Caramel, "with the irresistible flavors of sweet cinnamon, gooey caramel and melted ice cream" (I guess the coffee supplies the warmth). And yes, now you can satisfy your craving for White Castle Jalapeno Cheeseburger sliders right from your grocer's freezer.
We don't "play it down the middle" anymore with our politics, our news or our food. In fact, the middle is the most dangerous place for a packaged goods brand to be. In an age when we can customize what we want when we want it, the "broadly popular" will satisfy almost no one. Take "big beer'" for example. The once broadly popular, tasteless lager's volume is down 25% in the last five years. And middle-of-the-road McDonald's shares are down about 2% since the start of the year. Its competitors on either end of the food spectrum — Chipotle with its "Food With Integrity" focus on nutrition and sustainability on one “natural” end, and indulgent-leaning Five Guys, with its calorie-rich, fresh ground beef and vegetable toppings in 250,000 customizable combinations on the other — that are the fastest-growing restaurant chains in the country.
In a highly fragmented media world, one where your predilections are captured and cultivated with custom content, there just may not be any "broadly popular" music, movies, politics, food — or brands — anymore. It's a new fragmented culture in which hyper-customized brands will successfully serve micro-segments. And it appears that in food and beverage, all the action is gravitating toward the Indulgent and organic poles.
Welcome to the divided tastes of America.