Surf the natural wave

A strong trend is passing like a great wave through the sea of consumers. Ever more consumers want "natural" foods, or at least foods that don't contain "unnatural" ingredients. The hysteria around E-numbers is a source of worry. But have you considered how your company can make use of this trend? How can you surf the wave of greater consumer awareness about manufacturing methods and ingredients? In this article I will give you a few hints to get started.

11 June 2019 •

Den hem­lige kock­en av Mats-Eric Nilsson.

More and more con­sumers reject foods with an exces­sive amount of addi­tives. There is instead a strong demand for “nat­ur­al” foods.

The trend can be said to have start­ed in 2008, when the jour­nal­ist Mats-Eric Nilsson, in his book The secret chef, “revealed” that ben­zine is used in the man­u­fac­tur­ing of mar­garine. The trend is today dri­ven by blog­gers, youtu­bers and oth­er influ­encers with many fol­low­ers. And tra­di­tion­al media enhance the effect by pub­lish­ing reports on the “cheat­ing” meth­ods of the food industry.

Even the great must adapt

A cur­rent exam­ple of how influ­encers dri­ve the trend and tra­di­tion­al media enhance it, is the anti-prize Årets mat­bluff [the fake food of the year].

The prize is award­ed by the con­sumers’ asso­ci­a­tion Äkta vara [the real stuff], found­ed by Mats-Eric Nilsson – the jour­nal­ist who set it all about.

In the begin­ning of the year Årets mat­bluff was award­ed to Lätta, after a good 30,000 par­tic­i­pants had placed their vote. The moti­va­tion was:

The clas­sic light mar­garine Lätta claims to con­tain rape­seed oil and but­ter­milk in sev­er­al places on its pack­ag­ing: ‘Made with Swedish rape­seed and tasty but­ter­milk’. It is also dec­o­rat­ed with rape­seed flow­ers. They enhance the fact that it’s made in Sweden. Only in the fine print on the back you can read that the main ingre­di­ent, apart from water, is the far more long-hauled, and for both envi­ron­men­tal and health rea­sons, dis­put­ed palm oil.

The prize was wide­ly cov­ered in Swedish media; Sveriges tele­vi­sion, DN, SvD, GP, Sydsvenskan, Aftonbladet, Expressen, Metro, DI and in a range of oth­er tra­di­tion­al media.

Årets Matbluff has been award­ed every year for the last ten years. And the effect? Two thirds of the final­ists have either changed their recipes or have sim­ply been tak­en off the market.

Consumers take ingredients seriously

That such a large part of the final­ists in Årets mat­bluff have been refor­mu­lat­ed or tak­en off the mar­ket shows the strength of the tsuna­mi-like wave of con­sumers exert­ing their pow­er. Further proof can be found in the many stud­ies that have been undertaken.

According to mar­ket research com­pa­ny YouGov’s annu­al studie of Nordic con­sumers’ per­cep­tion of food, cli­mate and health, half of them wor­ry about the ingre­di­ents in foods.

Another study studie, com­mis­sioned by the asso­ci­a­tion Äkta vara, shows that 93 per cent of con­sumers have reject­ed foods based on them con­tain­ing too many additives.

A studie per­formed by Sifo, the Swedish mar­ket­ing and opin­ion research com­pa­ny, shows that 62 per cent of Swedes found that the amount of addi­tives in foods was rather or quite impor­tant when buy­ing food. The only thing con­sid­ered more impor­tant was the sug­ar content.

Natural – a relative concept

Natural or not, it’s in the eye of the behold­er. What one per­son con­sid­ers nat­ur­al; anoth­er may con­sid­er unnat­ur­al. Just take for instance sweet­en­ing with stevia.

Stevia is a plant. With few excep­tions the plant itself is not allowed to be used as sweet­en­ing. But, the sub­stances that are respon­si­ble for the sweet taste – ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides – are allowed to be extract­ed and used. Does that make ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides natural?

Yes, in the sense that they exist in nature and are not cre­at­ed synthetically.

But no, if you ask Livsmedelsverket, the Swedish Food Agency. Why? Well, because they are extract­ed, which is tech­ni­cal­ly a process.

But what do the con­sumers think? Some say heck no, as ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides are extract­ed in a process. But most prob­a­bly agree that ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides are as nat­ur­al as reg­u­lar sug­ar – but not as unhealthy.

The fact is that reg­u­lar sug­ar is also extract­ed. In a process that is very sim­i­lar to how ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides are extract­ed. So why then, is sug­ar con­sid­ered nat­ur­al? That is a ques­tion for anoth­er article…

This is the natural trend

You can’t get away from the fact that food and drink go through some kind of process as they are pro­duced. Consumers are not so naïve that they believe any­thing else. But more and more want to avoid such prod­ucts that they con­sid­er arti­fi­cial. They pre­fer prod­ucts from a nat­ur­al source. That is what the nat­ur­al trend means.

Be proactive. Not reactive.

The nat­ur­al trend caught on ten years ago. There are still no signs that it will fade. The demand for the nat­ur­al is most like­ly here to stay. It is a real­i­ty that your com­pa­ny has to relate to. Resistance is futile.

I am assum­ing that your com­pa­ny has already made some adjust­ments. Perhaps replaced one ingre­di­ent with anoth­er from a more nat­ur­al source. Or you write cit­ric acid instead of acid­i­ty reg­u­la­tor, or use com­mon names instead of E-numbers.

That’s all well and hope­ful­ly enough at the moment. But there’s no rest for the wicked. Natural is a mega­trend. Under its umbrel­la a whole range of oth­er fast trends come and go. Trends that your com­pa­ny needs to adjust to. That is why you need to keep up to date on what influ­encers say and what con­sumers demand.

But why stop there? Why only be reactive?

The nat­ur­al trend gives you an oppor­tu­ni­ty to be proac­tive: to strength­en your brand, take a stand, cre­ate dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and moti­vate a pre­mi­um price.

Strengthen your brand

A brand is so much more than a name, a logo or anoth­er “mark” that is pos­si­ble to reg­is­ter. It is most of all the promise that con­sumers think the brand represents.

Take for exam­ple Paulúns. If you ask con­sumers who buy their prod­ucts what they asso­ciate Paulún with, they will prob­a­bly say that the food is healthy but tasty, made with nat­ur­al ingre­di­ents and com­plete­ly with­out addi­tives and sug­ar. The descrip­tion they give is Paulúns brand.

Paulún is a strong brand, as most con­sumers who choose their prod­ucts have a clear and most­ly coher­ent view of what it stands for (I assume).

But is Paulún a known brand? I would think not par­tic­u­lar­ly. If you ask the aver­age per­son to name all the brands they asso­ciate with cere­als, müs­li, crisp bread, bis­cuits, pas­ta, soups etc. there prob­a­bly won’t be many who’ll say Paulún.

In oth­er words, strong and known is not the same thing. So, which is more important?

Both are of course impor­tant. But it’s no use to have a known brand if it’s not a strong brand. In that case it’s bet­ter to be less known but strong among those who do know it. Like Paulúns.

The point of a strong brand is spelled prof­itabil­i­ty. Brand ori­ent­ed com­pa­nies are twice as prof­itable com­pared to those who don’t pri­ori­tise their brands. This is proven by the brand researcher Frans Melin in his research project Brand Orientation Index.

The nat­ur­al trend gives you the pos­si­bil­i­ty to strength­en your brands by tak­ing a ver­bal stand for the nat­ur­al, against the arti­fi­cial, syn­thet­ic and unnat­ur­al. And to take an active stand in show­ing you mean what you say by using ingre­di­ents from a nat­ur­al source.

Take a position

The posi­tion a brand has is the space it occu­pies in the minds of con­sumers, rel­a­tive to com­peti­tors’ brands. With tar­get­ed and tena­cious mar­ket com­mu­ni­ca­tion a brand can become top of mind with consumers.

Pandy was start­ed in 2015 by stu­dents who found a gap in the fit­ness mar­ket. They describe their prod­uct as a “low sug­ar and high pro­tein snack for the con­sumer that seek guilt-free indul­gence”. With a con­se­quent and per­sis­tent mes­sage they have tak­en this stand with the fit­ness con­sumers. Others could try to take the same stand, but Pandy has a head start which makes it dif­fi­cult for com­peti­tors to take over.

The demand for nat­ur­al foods cre­ates new posi­tion where “ingre­di­ents from nat­ur­al sources” is com­bined with oth­er appre­ci­at­ed qual­i­ties. Find such an unfilled posi­tion, and claim it with your brand. It will serve as a pro­tec­tion against competitors.

Create differentiation

Differentiation is one of Michael Porter’s three gen­er­al strate­gies. It means doing some­thing dif­fer­ent than every­body else, and earn­ing the cus­tomers who appre­ci­ate, above all, what you do differently.

Coca-Cola did some­thing dif­fer­ent whey they in 2014 intro­duced Coca-Cola Life in Sweden. Instead of using just sug­ar, as they do in Classic, or to replace it with arti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers, as in Zero and Light, they replaced a part of the sug­ar with a sweet­en­er from a nat­ur­al source. The com­pa­ny’s Swedish CEO said at the time that the rea­son for this was to “meet changed lifestyle trends”.

By dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing the brand Coca-Cola Life as a “coke drink with less calo­ries with a sweet­ness from nat­ur­al sources”, Coca-Cola tried to grab a posi­tion for the brand.

Coca-Cola’s intro­duc­tion of Life in Sweden was a brave attempt at rid­ing the lifestyle trend for foods from a nat­ur­al source. The drink is no longer sold in Sweden but it still serves as an exam­ple of how you can catch on in the nat­ur­al trend through differentiation

Motivate a premium price

The foods your com­pa­ny man­u­fac­ture prob­a­bly have equiv­a­lent prod­ucts made by oth­er dis­trib­u­tors. If your prod­ucts are not dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed clear­ly enough com­pared to oth­er pro­duc­ers’ prod­ucts, if you haven’t tak­en a defend­able stand, and don’t have a strong brand, then the like­li­hood is great that you are stuck in the low price trap. Not an envi­able situation.

What is envi­able is the posi­tion Kung Markatta has on the mar­ket. They get twice the price for their chewy coke bot­tle sweets with nat­ur­al aro­mas, com­pared to what Malaco gets for their coke bot­tle sweets with (unnat­ur­al?) aromas.

So what is the con­clu­sion? Consumers are pre­pared to pay a pre­mi­um price for what is con­sid­ered natural.

Of course ingre­di­ents from a nat­ur­al source cost more than equiv­a­lent ingre­di­ents that are pro­duced syn­thet­i­cal­ly or through “unnat­ur­al” process­es. But as con­sumers are will­ing to pay con­sid­er­ably more for food from nat­ur­al sources the mar­gins are still high­er, despite more expen­sive ingre­di­ents. Not a bad deal, in oth­er words.

But of course, it takes a strong brand, known for its posi­tion which means a dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion with ingre­di­ents from nat­ur­al sources.

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