How the Age of Influence is Changing the Way We Eat

David Donnan
Senior Partner

Within 24 hours, and 43,000 signatures after her petition went online, blogger Vani Hari, a.k.a. the “Food Babe,” had convinced Anheuser-Busch to publicly reveal the list of ingredients for its beers, as reported in Salon in June 2014. With the power of social media, Vani Hari accomplished in one day what the Center for Science in the Public Interest had been lobbying the government to do for three decades.

We are seeing a shift in consumption from value to values, from affluence to influence across a broad spectrum of consumer purchases. For the food industry the impact is more dramatic as consumers of all generations are changing their diets – looking for food that not only tastes good, but also has a more enlightened purpose through its ingredients, where it came from and how it was made.

The A.T. Kearney Global Future Consumer Study examined demographic, economic and technological trends, and surveyed more than 7,000 consumers across seven countries to project trends over the next decade. By 2027, for the first time, there will be six generations of active consumers. The four high commercial impact generations: Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Gen X (1965-1980), Millennials (1981-1997), and Gen Z (1998-2016) will represent 6.5 billion consumers globally.

Our research uncovered some startling facts that will shape the next decade.

Consumers of all generations are changing their diets – looking for food that not only tastes good, but also has a more enlightened purpose through its ingredients, where it came from and how it was made.

3 Principles Will Drive Consumers

Consumers are passionate about the food they eat, and their appetites are creating shifts in the marketplace. Viewpoints and products that were once outliers have gone mainstream. Consumers now view food – in particular, food with benefits – as a key to good health. They’re embracing free-from segments, fresher food, and greater transparency from food brands and retailers. The old-market-structure of affluence, advertising and scale is giving way to three driving principles of trust, influence and personalization.

A Brand is Simply Trust

A brand, as Steve Jobs said, is simply trust. As Gen Z and Millennials press big brands for more information and accountability about food sourcing, production and labeling, levels of trust have shifted. In the past five years, trust has waned in large food corporations and brands. In the western markets surveyed, more than 50 percent of consumers had little or no confidence in large corporations and brands. This loss of confidence will be a principal challenge for brands in the future. Erosion of trust is not inevitable, yet building and maintaining trust becomes of paramount importance for brands and retailers.

On the one hand, CPG companies and retailers have leveraged “free-from” brands to build trust. Free-from food, or food made with the goal of transparency, has grown significantly in recent years. Transparency around ingredients (both included and excluded in food products) inspires trust in customers for food brands.

On the other hand, food safety concerns reported in the media are amplified through social media and erode trust in big companies and entire industries. In 2012, public outrage was ignited by “pink slime,” a lean, finely textured beef found in most ground beef products. When McDonald’s and many major grocery chains bowed to pressure and vowed to stop using it, sales plummeted, and the supply industry collapsed. The same consumer pressure has been seen with cage-free eggs, animal antibiotics and GMOs.

The Internet is the True Catalyst of Influence

Just as some consumers have more affluence than others, some have more influence. Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, once said: “If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell six friends. If you make customers unhappy on the internet, they can each tell 6,000.” The internet, especially social media and its 1000x influence factor, is a true catalyst of influence.

As a result, these consumers have strong feelings about the impact of their purchase decisions and are open to the opinions garnered through social media. The food industry is already shifting toward “open source” influencer relationships. With no commonly agreed-upon experts, everyone, or anyone with a platform, can be perceived as an expert on any given issue.

Personalization Creates Consumer Engagement

Big Data allow marketers to pinpoint attitudes, opinions, and other implicit, personality-based interests, lifestyles and values. Although Big Data can be valuable in understanding influence, they have even more value in unlocking personalization. Personalization means to design or produce something to meet someone’s individual requirements. To enable a truly personalized customer experience, mastering Big Data will play a central role for companies around the world.

Brands and retailers must adjust to the realities of this new hyper-connected, digital world. They need to go beyond adjusting marketing budgets or adding new flavors to existing unhealthy products. They must bridge the gap between the affluence-based profitability and the influence-based model by building trust with sharper value propositions, engage the influencers with transparency and authenticity, and learn to leverage Big Data to personalize customer engagements and experiences. Welcome to the world of influence, where products have purpose and stores share stories.

About the Author

David Donnan

David Donnan is a senior partner and leads the Food and Beverage practice at A.T. Kearney, a Chicago-based global strategy and management consulting firm. He can be reached at [email protected]

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