I spend a lot of time talking to consumers about their eating habits and enjoyable dining experiences. Over time, I’ve learned that we have a number of idiosyncrasies that influence how much we eat, when we eat and of course, what we eat. When you want to get your products into customers’ bellies, you need to get into their heads first.
Here are eight insights into American food habits that will help you get your food marketing strategy on track:
- We don’t like to think about who touched our food.
Food gets rinsed, cut, sautéed and arranged. Some of those activities involve hands. That’s right, hands touching food. Yet, if food gets touched in front of a restaurant guest, that person often gets creeped out. Even though that same food may have had numerous hands on it, they don’t want to think about it that way. Maybe that’s why we like fast food—all of those nice boxes make us hope that the food started that way.
When you’re planning your marketing campaign, don’t remind potential buyers that their food has been (likely) touched by a number of people before it ever reached their table. Eatsa, a Bay Area quinoa bowl restaurant with no human interaction required, reflects this insight.
- Some ingredients polarize us into lovers and haters.
Think mushrooms—hearty, rich, vegetable umami satisfaction or slimy, brown, earthy grossness? It depends on which person you ask. We like to pick and choose our ingredients, and customize our lives. With that in mind, make your product customizable—or give a really good reason why it can’t be (if it suits your ideal consumer). And include a variety of ingredients different people are passionate about.
- Diet plans become our mothers
The first thing potential dieters ask about a new meal plan? “What am I allowed to eat?" Same thing we all asked our mothers when confronted with a new batch of cookies as a child, no doubt. This diet-as-food-permission role means that grown women (and men, of course) will pay for recipes, or if they can afford it, the food itself, along with the rules about how much of it they get to eat (not to mention, Americans love their subscription services these days). Chances are they will also tell their mothers—wait I meant diets—to eff off when a lush piece of chocolate cake calls their name.
- Our drink of choice in public is a social and cultural badge.
Out on the town? A super-local craft beer tells the world:
- “I refuse to be privy to the environmental waste created by products shipped across the country."
- “I value having my money stay in the local economy."
- “My super sensitive taste buds can tell the difference between it and fake crafts from the majors."
Perhaps I can also tell you the first name of the vineyard owner of my sparkling rosé from the Anderson Valley. This knowledge shows I’m well-traveled, cultured and confident enough to understand that rosé has been back for quite a bit. Be sure you’re branding your socially consumed products for your customers’ “aspirational self" if you want to sell more to them.
- What we drink at home reflects our private selves.
While what we drink in public represents how we want the world to see us, the beverages we choose at home say more about where we feel we truly fit.
Sparkling water was on special at Costco, the wine box stays much fresher than that corked stuff, and yes, I was desperate when the hubby agreed to buy the 3.2-percent Corona at the grocery store on a Sunday.
These at-home choices are an example of our private selves—in this case, that I like bargains, don’t usually worry about vintage and live in a state with legal marijuana, yet severely limited types of alcohol available in grocery outlets.
If you’re selling in grocery or liquor store situations, you better know who your buyer is at home, not the persona they play in public. These last two insights are a great example of why research design is so important—the location (home versus onsite) or style (focus group versus one-on-one) of research can influence the responses you get.
- Grocery aisle decision-making wears us down, so we take shortcuts.
Walking around the grocery aisles with my research participants has been eye opening. We all have those topics we obsess about—corn syrup forbidden in our food, for example. Yet, there are so many pretty logos to wade through, and we are hungry and on a budget, so we use quickie decisions to justify things we might not buy if we had unlimited time, information and patience.
Juice is better than soda. My teen requested soda. I deserve a treat. My husband prefers pork chops. Whatever, at least we’ll eat tonight.
Be sure that the most important thing about your product is plainly visible and is worded in a way that is most salient and relevant to your consumer.
- We choose the country first when eating out.
True, many small towns have a McDonalds and maybe a diner. But even rural areas often have Chinese or Mexican food. Especially in cities, we often start with the nationality we are craving rather than a variation of classic cooking. What are you in mood for? How about Thai? Italian? Sushi? No one even thinks to say “American."
While “Made in America" branding is important to buyers, it’s not always the case with food. Is your pizza Italian or Chicago-style? Is your Thai restaurant traditional Thai or Thai Fusion? It’s important to make that clear to your consumers.
- Even those who say they follow them often don’t know what different food tribes really eat.
I’ve been privy to many funny research tidbits—people who say they are vegans but eat dairy. Vegetarians who eat “only chicken." Some trend analysis shows that we are identifying ourselves by our food tribes, but even those on the inside are sometimes clueless as to what those tribes actually mean.
What does that mean for brands? It means that the person you think is buying your food may not be. And that the people who are buying your product may be quite different than those purists who surround you at work every day. The way to know who really buys your products is to get out there and talk to them. Follow them around the grocery store, talk to them inside your restaurant, ask for an invitation to watch them cook at home. Unlike you, your buyers don’t get paid to think about your product, but instead juggle nutrition, cooking, family, careers and more. Make it easy for them to choose your product.
Jennifer Cooper is the president of BuyerSynthesis, the Denver-based buy-whys™ marketing research company. She helps emerging and established brands grow revenues through better understanding their buyers. Connect with @buyersynthesis on Twitter.