How to respond to consumers falling out of love with processed foods

Emma Gubisch, head of consumer and sensory insight at Leatherhead Food Research, explains how innovation, technology and paying attention to ethical issues can change the narrative.

11 October 2018
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image credit: Getty Images

Meet the Expert

Who: Emma Gubisch

What: Head of Consumer & Sensory Insight

Where: Leatherhead Food Research


When did the word ‘processed’ become loaded with such negativity? On a recent trip around the UK interviewing consumers, I was struck by just how negative people have become about processed foods and beverages – the term has connotations of something that is not natural, contains unwelcome ingredients and has gone through multiple manufacturing processes.

Following research with both industry and consumers, Leatherhead Food Research believes companies need a strong innovation process underpinned by the best consumer insight in order to create experiences and products that are an antidote to this negativity.

Innovation as the route to growth

In our industry interviews, innovation was seen as the key to creating differentiated products and, in the long term was also described as the route to growth and competitive advantage. To do it well, however, can challenge a business.

Many of the characteristics of successful innovation are at odds with traditional business strategy and can require significant investment that promises no returns. A proportion of innovation, by its very nature, will fail, and businesses do not want to worry any shareholders with talk of anything ‘failing.’

As one interviewee told us, for innovation projects to be successful, “governing processes need to be modified or flexed to accommodate uncertainty, because there is a lot of uncertainty in innovation.”

Innovation starts and ends with the consumer

From retailers to ingredient companies, the belief was that innovation should stem from the needs of the customer. Whether it’s dissatisfaction with the shopping experience, people’s difficulty in planning what to cook in the evening, or the desire for healthy on-the-go snacks which make you feel full, starting with the consumer need is a powerful way to innovate.

It is then possible to use sensory science and behavioural understanding to help develop products which match those need states from a sensory and experiential perspective – what, for example, are the sensory cues for an indulgent product or a healthy product?

Understanding how technology is disrupting consumer behaviour

Technology is having a profound impact on consumer expectations and behaviour, offering new ways to purchase, make, serve and consume products. Technology is changing our relationship with food and drink and creating the need for different products. For example, the ‘internet of things’ could allow our fridge to reorder products which have run out or mobile devices could sync with devices at home to start preparing the meal before you get home.

In the retail space, we are likely to see a fusion of technology with traditional bricks and mortar – augmented reality could help locate clothes which match and smart mirrors could scan clothes or alert a sales assistant when we need help. This technology opens the door for new ways to market and promote products, as well as share important nutritional or ethical information in a clear and more engaging way.

Being bold on the right issue

It’s a challenging environment for new products or concepts trying to break onto the market, particularly ones that are promoting new ingredients, making claims about specific ingredients or being positioned on a health and wellness platform. Consumers are taking a much more sceptical or cynical stance, deciding in the absence of knowing who to trust that the safest bet is to be much more discerning. It means the credentials of new products will need to be squeaky clean in order to stand up to consumer scrutiny.

28% of global consumers in our research (from the US, UK, France, China and Brazil) wanted products manufactured ethically and with minimal environmental impact to be more readily available.

Companies need to find ways to tell the authentic stories behind their products, for example by using technologies like blockchain to create an undeniable history of a product along its supply chain.

Being seen to be a trailblazer on key consumer issues, such as plastic packaging reduction, will make companies stand out.

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