Fad or Future

Are fantasy flavours more than just Insta-worthy?

Birthday cake flavour, coloured buns and ‘mermaid’ styles have all enjoyed mainstream momentum over the past year, but is there any substance behind it all?

3 March 2020
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It’s time we talked about the recent influx of birthday cake-flavoured products in retail. While eternally relevant (and prevalent) in respective children’s categories, birthday cake flavour – and the trademark rainbow colours on white – is being spotted with increasing frequency both in the UK and the US, with the sports nutrition and seasoning spheres just two of the effected adult arenas.

In September last year, Kantar reported a 2.3% increase in the value of the UK baking extras subcategory, with Dr Oetker launching both dinosaur and unicorn sprinkles for baked product finishing in May.

Halo Top, the premium ice cream brand, had birthday cake as one of their five launch flavours for their chilled snack pot debut in November, while sports nutrition brand Myprotein chose birthday cake as one of three flavours to mark their UK grocery debut that same month.

Fellow sports nutrition brand Grenade saw sales double between May 2018 and May 2019, with their birthday cake bars cited by Food Spark’s colleagues at The Grocer as an example of the formats that “were the driving force behind the 18.6% growth in sports nutrition sector sales to £155.6m” over the same time period.

In the past six months in the US, McCormick have released a birthday cake sugar and spice blend, Dr Pepper unveiled their limited-edition birthday cake flavour, Krispy Kreme unleashed a birthday cake-filled doughnut and, only last month, Hershey launched a birthday cake-flavoured KitKat.

So, what's the deal with the birthday boom?

Celebration and nostalgia 

According to Matthew Bratt, patisserie NPD and innovation centre manager of Puratos UK, the reasons behind the popularity of ‘birthday cake flavour’ are both sensorial and psychological.

"‘Birthday cake flavour’ typically sees vanilla cake combined with coloured sprinkles – an increasingly popular combination," Bratt tells Food Spark. "On top of the pleasing and familiar taste, the coloured sprinkles add an additional level of visual interest and a satisfying ‘crunch’.

"On a deeper level, ‘birthday cake flavour’ appeals because of its association with both celebration and nostalgia. In a world of rising anxiety, fake news and political uncertainty, the joy and happy memories associated with the taste, provide consumers with some much-needed reassurance, if only for a short moment."

Despite Bratt's breakdown, the widespread use of birthday cake flavour is a bit of a curveball in terms of NPD considering that the world remains in the grip of a healthy eating craze, driven by the rise of veganism and naturality.

The appearance of similar ‘fantasy’ concepts such as mermaid-style and breads sporting bright colours over the last few months, however, does indicate that theatrical, visual and ‘Instagrammable’ trends may be behind it all.

Colour me natural

Earlier this month, Italian vegan burger chain Flower Burgers announced plans to bring their international brand to the UK with 40 sites planned over the next 10 years.

Their USP? Brightly coloured buns made with natural ingredients to make them Instagram friendly, with their menu including a Cherry Bomb (with a pink bun made with cherry and beetroot extract) and a Spicy Chickpea (with a yellow bun made with turmeric).

Natural seems to be the key point here, with Puratos UK bakery NPD manager Kurt Van Vlasselaer telling Food Spark that changing consumer demand (and the potential for Instagram posts) could be changing how the industry approaches bright colours.

“Five or ten years ago it would all be artificial colours and consumers wouldn’t really question where it comes from,” says Van Vlasselaer.

“Now it has to be all natural in line with consumer trends. The likes of spinach and beetroot are good examples as they give you strong colours and are all natural. And it’s a bit of a ‘two in one’ scenario if you use ingredients like that for both health benefits and strong colours.

“It’s eye-catching and Instagram is all about colour. And colours, for some, improves mood.”

Millennials and mermaids

Two weeks ago, Unilever unveiled a new ‘flavour’ for its Wall’s Cornetto brand, with Cornetto Mermaid to launch into Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

The new product will bring “a touch of enchantment” to the ice cream category and will “appeal to gen Z and millennials”, said Unilever, with the new product a "raspberry fruit ice and matcha green tea ice cream in a wafer cone with chocolate-flavour coating, raspberry sauce and biscuit and cereal pieces covered in white chocolate".

Instagram, once again, seems to be integral with the targeting of the two age groups, with increasing brand awareness on the social media platform high on the agenda for major food brands (both gen Z and millennials are two of the main proponents for online purchases and the two age groups that use social media the most).

Sparkie says…

I honestly thought we were done with this faddy style of rainbow food. I can understand that retail is playing catch up - we have made plenty of comments previously on why retail generally takes too long to gain the full value of these food fads.

I guess Instagram is going to keep prompting companies to try this style of food for the chance at free social media promotion but from what I have seen each time they do come around, they have less and less impact.

This consumer base is fickle and needs the newest thing - and this is a fad that has been done to death. I am sure there are always going to be new ways to approach brightly coloured food so that they might be interested again but unnatural looking burger buns are not it (even if they use natural ingredients as the dye).

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