From messages to conversations: How food marketing has evolved

As consumer behavior and technology have changed, so have the messages that brands deliver to shoppers.

A generation ago, food marketers would say their job was all about connecting with the consumer.

Marketers in the industry today would say the same thing, but the targets, methods and messages are completely different.

“I think we’ve seen more change over the past 10 years than probably in the last 20 before that, most of it having to do with generational changes and the things resonating with consumers today,” Mark Cotter, CEO of marketing firm The Food Group, told Food Dive. “It’s in terms of sustainability, in terms of sourcing where products come from, in terms of what’s inside products, and ingredients too. The general interest in 'what I put in my body' is far more of a question than it’s ever been before.”

Marketing reflects consumer behavior. Brands try to catch their consumers where they already are with the information they want to find. And the advent of the internet has caused a sea change in how marketing is done, according to Darrin Duber-Smith, a senior lecturer at Metropolitan State University of Denver with decades of experience of marketing in the green, natural and organic space.

Today’s consumers thrive on transparency, he told Food Dive. Brands that want to stay relevant are presenting more information through their marketing.

"Today, people really want to feel part of their food choices, they want to feel more knowledgeable about what they’re buying, so brands have to be transparent.”

Peggy O’Shea-Kochenbach

Vice President, Cone Communications

“Transparency has been a big issue,” he said. “…The idea of cleaner is better, greener is better. It’s been overdone a lot, but that’s because it’s so much in the zeitgeist. It’s so much in the culture.”

As the internet has become more ubiquitous in consumers' everyday lives, food marketing has made a big shift. Consumers today have a wealth of information at their fingertips, and can easily do in-depth research on what is in a product or how it is made. People are interested not only in what they're eating, but the background on the company that manufactured it, how the plants and animals that went into it were raised, and the story of the food product and its founders.

Meanwhile, marketing communications — not just for food — have become much more conversational through social media, according to Peggy O’Shea-Kochenbach, a registered dietitian and vice president of Cone Communications.

“It’s not so much a one-way transfer of information," she told Food Dive. "…Ten years ago, it was really about brands conveying what they wanted to convey to consumers, who consumed that message. And today, people really want to feel part of their food choices, they want to feel more knowledgeable about what they’re buying, so brands have to be transparent.”

Food marketing has long been aimed at the moms of the world, traditionally the gatekeepers of household spending on food. Even today, when gender and household roles are often democratized, moms control 85% of purchases for food, cleaning and health products, Maria Bailey, CEO of BSM Media, which focuses on marketing to mothers, told Food Dive. The millennial mom, she said, sees herself as the COO of the household: taking the lead on planning and ideas, but maybe not doing all of the shopping, cooking and cleaning herself.

That shift has also changed marketing.

“The way you marketed to a boomer is it was fast, it was quick, it was easy. She wanted to do it all,” Bailey said. “When you market to a millennial, it’s all about the functionality of that food: Can that food bring the family to the table? Can that food be used in a lot of different ways?”

social media

A generation ago

About 30 years ago, marketers worked to create products that targeted specific groups, according to The Food Group's Cotter. Brands found their audience — like young adults — and worked on a message to get to them. They didn’t care so much about platform — whether the message would go on television, print or radio. Brands also worked on in-store positioning, hoping to create the impulse to buy a product.

“It was more about what interests them as humans and how can we connect with them to make this product either desirable, crave-able, or deliver on an experience that will last them a lifetime,” he said.

"[Marketing 30 years ago] was more about what interests them as humans and how can we connect with them to make this product either desirable, crave-able, or deliver on an experience that will last them a lifetime."

Mark Cotter

CEO, The Food Group

Those “lifetime” experiences were harnessed by popular CPG brands aiming to target messages about products to consumers through all the stages of their lives. A generation ago, a commercial for cookies targeted at children would get their attention. The same brand could then return 20 years later with a nostalgic advertisement, harkening back to the consumer's youth.

Messages to moms were fundamentally different as well, according to BSM Media's Bailey. Baby boomers attempted to be “supermoms” and do everything — work, take care of their kids and run the household. Advertising targeting those moms focused on the process of meal preparation. Decades ago, a mom-centric advertisement might strike a contrast between a woman working hard in the kitchen, wearing an apron and elbow-deep in flour — and the woman who uses a CPG product to more quickly and easily get the same result.

Baby boomer moms placed a lot of trust in others to make decisions, Bailey said. These women didn’t have a lot of spare time to research brands, so they left some of those decisions to others. If a baby boomer mom saw her child drinking a certain brand of apple juice at daycare, for example, she would be likely to keep buying that brand for her child.

“It eliminated the time of research and decision-making that she had to invest, and she trusted it,” Bailey said.

When the baby boomer’s daughter became a mom, she drew on some of her childhood experiences, Bailey added. Half of the moms in Generation X grew up to divorced parents in separate households. Many of them were “latchkey kids” who went home from school to empty houses while their parents worked. People in Generation X are used to doing things themselves, including their own research. Messages to Generation X moms focus on giving them something convenient that they can make independent decisions about. These moms grew up with convenient items like toaster pastries and Lunchables, Bailey said, and so they are likely to want the same thing for their children.

moms cooking
Credit: ArtsyBee

The times they are a-changin'

With more technology and knowledge, information became more free and marketing content and messaging began to shift. Access to more information also had a major impact on the food industry as a whole.

This movement can trace its roots back to the protest culture of the 1960s, Duber-Smith said. As awareness grew around more things — ranging from U.S. military actions to foreign affairs to civil rights to the environment — people started to take an interest in the smaller things that were more important to them, such as what was in the food they were putting into their bodies.

“All of this sprung from the idea that consumers started wanting things that were closer to nature, and further away from ‘Better Living Through Chemistry,’ which was DuPont’s slogan,” Duber-Smith said.

Technology — and the opportunities that came with it — grew with the times. Cone Communications' O’Shea-Kochenbach, who used to work with major manufacturers on their PR, spent a lot of time trying to get brands and products “earned media” — getting news stories featuring products placed in media outlets.

“It’s all backed by access consumers have to knowledge. They are their own researchers, they are their own formulators of data.”

Mark Cotter

CEO of The Food Group

In the 1990s, she saw a shift in the way people looked at food. The Food Network, a cable channel founded in 1993, was filling the airwaves with programs about cooking, food manufacturing and eating. Suddenly, O’Shea-Kochenbach said, people were more interested in food in general.

A few years later, she recalls doing chef demonstrations with a produce company. For those demonstrations, the chef wrote recipes that were shared with the media — an early form of content development, which lies at the heart of many digital marketing strategies today.

“It was the first time we looked at it as content development, not just product placement,” she said.

When social media came on the scene a few years later, it became central — not just in the lives of consumers, but to brands who wanted to communicate directly with their customers.

Marketing strategies are now premised on the assumption that consumers will be able to easily do their homework on products, according to The Food Group's Cotter.

“It’s all backed by access consumers have to knowledge,” he said. “They are their own researchers, they are their own formulators of data.”

Social media gives brands the opportunity to make marketing a two-way conversation, O’Shea-Kochenbach said.

“It really allows brands, food products and consumers to have an ongoing dialogue,” she said. “Consumers don’t just buy on brand name anymore. They buy on brand attributes. …Through social media they can develop a relationship with a food brand or a farm or an entity that allows them to feel connected.”

grocery aisle

Transparency is key

Manufacturers are premising a lot of their marketing messages on the story of their brands. Some brands tell the story of a proud history. Some tell the story of devotion to quality ingredients. Some tell the story of what they are doing for the environment. And some tell stories of hard work and community pride.

About 10 years ago, marketers and large manufacturers worked together to change the stories that products told through their ingredients and nutrition labels, Cotter said. He described it as a “stealth health movement.” It wasn’t promoted, he said — it was just done.

“What the modern marketer would uncover is there was no real rationalization as to why all of those things were in it,” he said. “You take white bread, some basic basic things, and you have 800 things in there. And you’re like, ‘Really? How about four ingredients and a preservative?’ … A lot of those things were uncovered where leadership and marketing started challenging production of products.”

"Through social media they can develop a relationship with a food brand or a farm or an entity that allows them to feel connected.”

Peggy O’Shea-Kochenbach

registered dietitian and vice president of Cone Communications

Around that time, Cotter started a division of his company to read food labels and work with manufacturers on cleaning them up — even before anything becomes problematic.

Transparency and the stories behind brands are vital to food marketing today — especially for big CPG companies, said O’Shea-Kochenbach. 

“I think there’s more of a skepticism now of ‘big food,’" she said, "and I think those big CPG companies have a bigger hurdle in front of them, in many ways because there are smaller players out there that are doing a great job at sharing their stories — which makes an emotional connection with the consumer, and people really want to feel connected to their food."

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