Brands Lose Relevance in Food-Buying Decisions

Linda Eatherton of KetchumWhen it comes to food, consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere pretty much want it all-- taste, quality, health benefits, value for the price and greater say in decisions about safety, ingredients, and many other issues. 

Meanwhile, only about a third of Americans--and even fewer Europeans--say that brand name is among the factors they consider when purchasing food.

Those are some of the findings from a new study of food attitudes among consumers in the U.S., UK, Germany, Argentina and China from Ketchum's Global Food & Nutrition Practice. Two hundred people from each country were surveyed online between the end of July and the end of August (margin of error: +/- 6.93 percentage points at the 95% confidence level). Consumer trends expert/aka "Supermarket Guru" Phil Lempert helped develop the survey and analyze the results.



Taste, quality and price are the dominant factors in choosing food in all of the countries except China, where foods' health benefits are most influential, according to the study, "Food 2020: The Consumer as CEO." On average across the countries, 74% cited taste, 73% quality and 70% price.

There were certainly some variations by country. For instance, price was cited by nearly as many American and U.K. consumers as taste and quality, and price had a slight edge over these other two factors among Germans. But among Argentine and Chinese consumers, price was clearly third or fourth in the pecking order. And whereas health benefits reign in China (78%), followed by taste and quality at about 70% each and price at 60%, health benefits were cited by fewer than half of those in the UK and Argentina, 55% of Americans, and just 34% of Germans.

However, the bottom line for marketers is that consumers throughout the world are far more similar than different when it comes to two realities, says Linda Eatherton, director of Ketchum's Global Food & Nutrition Practice. One is that factors beyond basic taste, price and quality are increasingly important in their food decisions, and the other is that brand names are increasingly considered inadequate as a "proxy or shorthand" for this growing list of factors that matter to consumers.

Asked which factors consumers should have more say, control and involvement in when it comes to food topics, large percentages of consumers in all of the countries cited the amount of artificial ingredients/additives used; who should be responsible for food safety/quality; and where ingredients come from.

Furthermore, asked to cite what their top priorities would be if they were CEO of a global food company, significant percentages of consumers across countries cited factors such as making food that is safer; improving human nutrition; solving the obesity crisis; ending malnutrition and hunger; and using power/dollars to make a difference, in addition to making foods that "taste great" and "cost less."

Meanwhile, the percentages of consumers who indicated that they consider "brand name" among the factors they consider when buying food were eye-opening: U.S., 35%; UK, 24%; Germany, 16%; Argentina, 45% and China, 45% (for an average of 33%).

While this doesn't mean that brands play no role in purchasing decisions, it's clear that for growing numbers of consumers throughout the world, brand names lag well behind not only taste, quality, price and health benefits, but factors such as perceived value and convenience of preparation, according to Eatherton.

In China, where commercial food marketing is still developing, both safety and cache factors tend to make brands--particularly non-Chinese brands, still fairly influential in purchasing decisions, she notes. Also, in the highly family-focused Argentine culture, brands that deliver taste, quality and price and are also considered important to the family continue to have a strong influence on purchasing decisions.

However, to a greater extent in the U.S., UK and Germany, the range of factors being considered in food decisions, consumers' self-education through online sources and networking, and the explosion of private-label foods that offer equal or sometimes superior taste and quality, as well as price, are taking their toll on brands' ability to act as proxies for conveying this host of attributes, Eatherton says.

It is absolutely critical that food marketers understand that many factors are increasingly being given equal weight or value to taste, quality and price in the consumer's mind, stresses Eatherton. This, in turn, means that marketers somehow have to find ways to convey all of these attributes effectively in one "thorough, comprehensive, intertwined [brand] story," she says.

Creating a "neat, all-encompassing" brand marketing "package" of course presents a huge, new challenge, Eatherton acknowledges. However, brand marketers who think that conveying taste, quality and price is pretty much still enough--"and oh yes, we should probably let [consumers' know that we're sustainable and have some health benefits"--will indeed find that their brands become less and less relevant, she warns.

"Consumers have taken control of researching products and companies, and this cycle of knowledge and control raising more and more questions and expectations will only become more powerful as time goes by," she says. "And marketers cannot control this cycle." The only way they can create relevance for brands, Eatherton emphasizes, is to make sure that the brand's total package of attributes-- including its affiliations and processes--are accessible and discoverable by consumers, who then share their knowledge/discoveries with others.

"A brand isn't what you say about it, it's what other people say about it," she sums up. She adds that this clearly means that marketers who recognize that social media are the underpinning of all successful brands today are the ones that will survive and succeed. This requires dedication to staying ahead of the curve on all of the sophisticated, constantly evolving engagement, analytics and other tools surrounding social media.

"What was totally relevant and right last year is not relevant today," Eatherton sums up.

Next story loading loading..