Australian consumers: A marketer's perspective

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KEY POINTS

After 30 years working with consumers, it would seem that a ‘back to basics’ belief system is emerging, this being borne out of:

  • • A genuine concern for the ‘excesses’ of an affluent society. In a food sense, this translates to: ‘We can have it all whenever we want it’, no such thing as seasonal, ‘Why go to the effort of cooking from scratch when you can outsource it’.
  • • A concern for the integrity of the foods we eat, fresh in particular. In essence, how good is the food we are eating, really? How much ‘life’ is in our food? How nutrient-rich is the food we buy in reality?
  • • A concern for the level of preservatives, artificial colourings and additives in food to extend its life and enhance its taste. Indeed, there is a sense that marketers are more concerned today with the life of the food than with the life in the food.
  • • A concern for the chemicals that find their way into the food chain (growth hormones, antibiotics, chemical fertilisers and pesticides). Mothers worry about the link between chemicals, additives and preservatives and seemingly modern-day ‘diseases’, such as attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; consumers generally worry about the possible link to diseases such as cancer.

INTRODUCTION

The past two decades has been a time of significant change in the consumer's perspective on food—what they eat, how they eat, and even why they eat. It is a period that has corresponded with a significant rise in the media focus on food, feeding the apparently insatiable appetite to know more about the (total) food experience. Whether it is about better understanding the nutritional value of the food we eat, the integrity of the food we eat or the taste adventure that food offers, the consumer's appetite for ‘food and dietary news’ shows little sign of being sated. Indeed, the consumer radar has become increasingly more sophisticated over the past two decades, being quick to pick up on issues relating to the way we eat and its impact on health. There is no doubting that the rise in consumers' perceived need to know more about the dietary-related issues that impact upon their health and vitality has impacted on the consumption levels of red meat, leading to a decline that has only turned around in more recent times. Based on 30 years of qualitative research associated with the food industry, this review focuses on observations of consumer trends and the implications for food in the future.

TWO CONSUMER TRENDS

Just how far the consumer's perspective on, and understanding of, food has come can be seen in the emergence of two key consumer trends over the past two decades. These trends include the significant increase in the understanding of food as a preventative health tool and the increasing concern for the integrity of the food we eat. The two trends are linked as consumers understand that ‘you are what you eat’, and that nutritional richness or value is reliant in large part on eating right and eating well. Whereas 20 years ago such belief systems would have been considered ‘alternate’ (the domain of the avid health food shopper), today they have assumed more mainstream proportions, with this being reflected in such things as the messages that characterise both fresh and packaged food today and the places where consumers choose to shop for their fresh produce.

The rise in the consumer's understanding of food as a preventative health tool could be said to have had its origins a few decades ago when the health focus shifted from illness to wellness and when people took back (from general practitioners) responsibility for the management of their health. Food became more than just the daily source of nourishment; it became a key source of either good or bad health. Add to this the rise of convenience or processed foods, and what we eat began to be increasingly placed under the microscope. Of interest here are the issues that concerned consumers in a preventative health tool context, and more particularly, the shift in focus that has occurred over the past decade. A decade ago saw the consumer being focused on three key areas—the amount of fat, sugar and salt in our diet. The concern for the amount of fat directly impacted on the status of red meat as consumers took an increasingly proactive approach to what was seen to be (and continues to be seen to be) a major health and dietary issue. Indeed, reduction in fats (or more particularly, animal fats/saturated fats) was the focus for dietary change, with this impacting on such fundamentals as the level of consumption of that basic staple, red meat. Consumers understood the health consequences of too much saturated fat—weight gain, cholesterol and heart disease—consequences that were too ‘big picture’ to ignore.

The past decade has seen a shift in focus from ‘the bad’ to ‘the good’, there being a growing consumer consciousness not only of the nutrient content that is in the food we eat, but also of the health benefits to be derived from eating foodsrich in certain vitamins and minerals. Eating well is understood to keep us well, with consumers continuing today to include foods in their diet that are rich in vitamin B, vitamin C, iron, antioxidants, folate, omega-3s and zinc. They are concerned for their (and their family's, in the case of mums) energy levels, the health of their immune system, their brain health and their gut health—the micro aspects of good health as well as the macro. They seek to be more informed about the foods they eat, not just about its nutrient content, but also about what this means in a (health) benefit-related sense. They seek to be more informed about the nutrient source, what foods are naturally rich in certain nutrients, and what foods can deliver the nutrient level to shore up general wellness. Today's consumer is both receptive and responsive to ‘new news’ on the nutrient front, as evidenced by how quickly nutrient-related (or functional food, foodaceuticals) ‘stories’ are mainstreamed. But it is more than becoming more sophisticated in their dietary understanding. Consumers had also become more aware that they were not always doing things right. One only had to ‘listen’ to one's body (the language of craving), and observe the rise in obesity, the rise in behavioural issues (‘modern day’ diseases, such as attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and the increase in such disease states as diabetes to know that something was wrong.

With so many food choices, so much convenience food presented to the consumer with any number of nutritional claims (‘low in . . .’, ‘with added . . .’, ‘boosted with . . .’), and with a belief that we could supplement whatever we were lacking in, it has become easy to lose sight of how we should be eating.

CONCLUSIONS

The ‘back to basics’ notion, as it is expressed by consumers, goes beyond the 90s notion of balance, everything in moderation. Rather, its focus is on ‘turning back the clock’, going back to how we used to eat before fresh food was tampered with (to keep it fresher for longer, to ensure it looks good), before processed convenience foods were so readily available, and before there was a pre-prepared or convenience option for almost everything. This means:

  • • Eating food, not ‘junk’. (The consumer is increasingly aware that ‘junk food’ is an oxymoron. Food is not junk and junk is not food.)
  • • Eating fresh, not pre-prepared.
  • • Cooking from scratch rather than meal assembling.
  • • Eating seasonally (fruit and vegetables), not all year round.
  • • Getting vitamins, minerals and nutrients from the natural source, not the manufactured source.
  • • Eating ‘three’ square meals, not grazing (the pseudonym for snacking).
  • • Buying true ‘fresh’, not long-life fresh.

Recent reports from industry research organisations AC Neilsen and Roy Morgan document this ‘back to basics’/turn back the clock notion taking effect on shopping habits, manifesting in a move away from buying meat, fruit and vegetables from supermarkets, a move to buying from butchers and greengrocers, in the growth of growers' markets, in the approach to buying bread daily (fresh, without preservatives), in being selective about where fish is bought and what fish is bought (fresh, avoidance of imports, not frozen), and in the move to free-range and organic options. This trend is set to continue to drive a more positive climate for fresh foods such as red meat in the years ahead. If a food offers an impressive bundle of essential nutrients ‘from the source’, then it is well positioned for increasing consumer interest and purchase.

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