Are Front of Pack Labeling Schemes Future Ready?

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Rates of overweight and obesity have tripled in the past 25 years and with diet related diseases on the rise, governments have been compelled to act. Amongst a suite of strategies on trial, one approach has been the adoption of front of pack labeling schemes like the Health Star Rating in Australia, Nutri-Score in France and Traffic Lights in the UK, as a means of encouraging people to buy 'healthier' foods.

Much has been written, researched and debated about the value of these schemes and when speaking with my clients in the food sector, there is often uncertainty about the value of giving over limited on pack real estate to a symbol that is shrouded in controversy.

Outside of these short term considerations however, there's also the key question about how well these schemes are set up for the future - in particular, how well positioned they are to drive behaviour change and, from a marketing and innovation perspective, to support and elevate brand positioning.

For those thinking long term, here are a few of my thoughts in this area:

Labeling Schemes May Struggle to Keep Pace with Change
Being based on an algorithm or a number and the fact that once adopted these schemes affect many products across the supply chain, it's challenging for them to be updated and to evolve.

At the recent AIFST Feeding the Future Convention held in Sydney, one of our major retailers presented data showing that Australians consider healthy food as being fresh, natural and minimally processed. Locally, our Health Star Rating (HSR) Scheme doesn't consider any of these factors when assessing how healthy a food is. The problem here is that this creates a trust gap between consumer perceptions of healthy food, and the fact that highly processed foods can receive a five star rating.

Why is this important? Because, outside of price, trust is the greatest currency a brand holds as a means of influencing food purchasing decisions.

If consumers do not believe that the way a brand communicates its health credentials is trustworthy, this not only fails to meet the public health objective of the system, it hurts the reputation of the brand.

A reductionist way of assessing food is out of touch with emerging science.
Presenting at the International Forum on Food and Nutrition in New York last September, leading nutrition researcher Dr Dariush Mozaffarian from Tufts University highlighted that the reductionist way policy makers are defining foods as healthy has an historical root in the way governments addressed the prevention of scurvy and pellagra in the 1920's-1940's. However this approach, which involves targeting a nutrient or handful of nutrients to fix a problem is not working well for the reduction of chronic disease.

Dr Mozzafarian went as far to suggest that this method, applied most commonly in the form of front of pack interpretative nutrition labels, is flawed and potentially misleading. While reducing added sugar, added salt and added trans fat makes sense, total fat, saturated fat and even kilojoules are misleading metrics to focus on.

Keeping up with nutrition science is critical and so is the ability to challenge the status quo.

Focusing on behaviour change may be better
Given that people eat food, not numbers, it could be that directing our attention to behaviour change strategies may be a better and more effective way forward. In fact, we are now starting to see movement in this direction.

Canada’s recently released and revised dietary guidelines include recommendations around enhancing food skills, the importance of promoting cooking and food preparation, celebrating cultural food practises and eating with others and McCain Foods recently released advertising campaign puts the family meal at the centre of social gatherings, supporting cooking at home and eating together.

Building and maintaining meaningful connections with consumers that not only support brand reputation, but guide consumers toward making better choices for their own health, the health of their families, and the health of the planet requires leading food businesses to challenge the status quo, to think more critically than they may have in the past and to develop their own thought leadership in this important and growing area for the future.

If you would like to discuss these thoughts further, please get in touch.

This article is a excerpt from an article I wrote for Inside FMCG on the Health Star Rating Scheme which appeared online this week. For the full article go here.

Is the Health Star Rating Future Ready?

Here is a copy of my opinion piece in today’s online edition of Inside FMCG.

Since its inception in 2014 the marketing, public health and consumer benefits of the Health Star Rating (HSR) system have been hotly debated. Now in its fifth year, with 31 per cent of eligible products carrying the symbol, the nature of these debates has not subsided.

Common areas vigorously discussed include whether the HSR should be voluntary rather than mandatory, whether the algorithm needs reviewing and whether government promotion has been sufficient enough to position the system adequately within a suite of other healthy eating strategies.

These are just some of the issues addressed in a 123 page draft five year review document due to be discussed at the next Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation. After considering hundreds of submissions and undertaking numerous stakeholder workshops, the overall recommendation is that the system be continued.

However, nutrition research and consumer’s definition of what constitutes healthy food is evolving and changing. Given this, it is timely for food manufacturers, innovators and marketers to reflect on how well the HSR system is positioned as a tool for communicating the health credentials of foods in the future.

My view is that it falls short.

A star rating doesn’t align with consumer’s evolving definition of what constitutes healthy food. Discussions about the validity of the HSR system inevitably turn to the case of yoghurt, breakfast cereals or Milo. One common example is the astonishment expressed that natural, full fat yoghurt which contains only two ingredients get 1.5 stars while a low fat yoghurt with 15 ingredients gets 5 stars. This point of disbelief reflects the difference in outcomes that can occur when the ‘healthiness’ of food is defined primarily on nutrient content and not on the degree of processing or nature of the ingredients.

At the recent Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology Convention held in Sydney, Woolworths presented data showing that Australians consider healthy food as being fresh, natural and minimally processed. Outside of fruit, vegetable, nut and legume content, none of these factors are considered in the way the HSR system works. This point alone creates a gap between consumer perceptions of healthy food, and the ratings given by the HSR, in turn increasing levels of mis-trust in the system, and in the brands that carry the star symbol.

This growing disconnect between how government is defining ‘healthy’ food and how consumers are defining it is a major consideration for food companies. Trust is the greatest currency a brand holds as a means of influencing food purchasing. If consumers do not believe that the way a brand communicates its health credentials is trustworthy, this not only fails to meet the public health objective of the system, it hurts the reputation of the brand. For food businesses looking ahead, and those formulating future ready strategies, this is a key point for reflection and consideration.

Reductionist way is out of touch

Presenting at the International Forum on Food and Nutrition in New York last September, leading nutrition researcher Dr Dariush Mozaffarian from Tufts University highlighted that the reductionist way policy makers are defining foods as healthy has an historical root in the way governments addressed the prevention of scurvy and pellagra in the 1920’s-1940’s.

However this approach, which involves targeting a nutrient or handful of nutrients to fix a problem, is not working well for the reduction of chronic disease. Dr Mozaffarian went as far to suggest that this method, applied most commonly in the form of front of pack interpretative nutrition labels, such as the HSR system, is flawed and potentially misleading.

While reducing added sugar, added salt and added trans fat makes sense, total fat, saturated fat and even kilojoules are misleading metrics to focus on. This evolving point of view is another key consideration for brands looking to remain future relevant, and that are seeking to play an active and more responsible role in guiding consumers toward healthier eating habits.

Behaviour change is the way forward
It’s the variety of foods that are eaten together to create an overall healthy eating pattern that is most important for achieving better health than the ‘healthiness’ of individual foods within the diet. Behaviour change directed at achieving healthy eating patterns is therefore more important for improving public health than evaluating individual foods.

People often argue that any change is good change however attention is a finite resource.  When we pay attention to one thing, it’s not just that we focus on advancing that particular thing, it’s that we also give something else up.  Something that may have otherwise received our attention does not.

Given that people eat food, not numbers, it could be that directing our attention to behaviour change strategies may be a better and more effective way forward. In fact, we are now starting to see movement in this direction.

Canada’s recently released and revised dietary guidelines include recommendations around enhancing food skills, the importance of promoting cooking and food preparation, celebrating cultural food practises and eating with others.

The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, an initiative of Unilever, Nestle, Mars and Danone in North America, has put forward recommendations to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in the USA stating it is their belief that incremental, nutrient-based recommendations have not kept pace with changing dietary patterns and eating styles, nor have they been enough to turn the tide on food- and nutrition-related public health concerns.

This group have recommended that the next iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans consider “Food as Medicine”, link to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and recognize culture as a key driver of the foods and beverages people buy and eat.

Given these changes, it may be that the HSR will struggle to keep up as a future relevant strategy for improving public health. For food businesses seeking to build consumer trust, and to create and implement future ready strategies in this area, assessing how well the HSR fits with these plans will be critical.

Building and maintaining meaningful connections with consumers that not only build brand reputation, but guide consumers toward making better choices for their own health, the health of their families, and the health of the planet requires leading food businesses to think more critically than they have in the past and to develop their own thought leadership in this important and growing area for the future.

Sharon Natoli is a speaker, author, mentor, and director of Food & Nutrition Australia.

Podcast interview: Talking with Ben Whyatt from Retail Ready on the future of food marketing and how to connect with customers in a meaningful way

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I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ben Whyatt from the Retail Ready podcast about the ever changing landscape of the food world and the role health plays in this. We also discussed the future of food marketing and I shared some of my thoughts what food businesses can do today to be future ready.

To listen to the full interview: https://retailready.libsyn.com/talking-to-sharon-natoli-on-connecting-with-customers-ep-15

Subscribe to Ben’s podcast for regular news, views and happenings in the world of food retail. https://retailready.libsyn.com/

It May Be a Trend but How Well Does It Connect?

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Last week I visited the Naturally Good Expo, a showcase of newly released products targeting those with an interest in health and wellbeing.

Unlike recent years where tumeric and coconut were dominant, this year it was plant based foods that took centre stage. For anyone interested in food trends, this is no surprise.

'Power to the plants' was identified as one of the industries fastest growing trends by Mintel in 2017 and this high level of interest is now reaching a peak. It's being incorporated into products from alternative burgers to plant based beverages, snacks, children's shakes and ready meals.

I even found cashew nuts carrying a claim on the pack that they were 'plant based'. The plant based food trend is now so popular that even plant foods are claiming they are plant based!

It got me thinking about whether cashew nuts carrying a claim they are plant based is helpful for consumers, or whether it simply adds to the clutter on the label.

When it comes to claims, just because you can say something, doesn't always mean you should.

Incorporating new trends into messaging ideally serves to create a point of difference, or to enhance what is already there, rather than simply adding to the clutter. We are now bombarded with so many messages, that simplicity is becoming increasingly attractive.

As Confucious said:

"Life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated".

To assist in determining whether a trend creates a connection with your brand that serves to elevate it and not detract, here are three filters that may be useful to consider:

1. Is this trend the right fit? Just because a shoe might be in fashion, doesn't mean it's going to be the right fit, look good on your feet or most importantly, be comfortable to wear.

It's the same with trends – assessing whether a trend is a good fit and naturally comfortable for your brand is worthwhile. This is particularly relevant for those looking to build brand reputation on quality and integrity over the long term, rather than falling for the temptation of looking good in the short term.

Questions to ask include:

  • Will this trend elevate my product compared to competitors?

  • Does it make nutritional sense to associate this trend with my product?

  • Will messages associated with this trend create clutter or clarity around the positioning of my product?

2. What can you say about it? It's important to be clear about what you can and can't say about a trend in advertising and on pack, but also what you could say if you put more work in.

Always check the food regulations first. If a key message can't be used this can be a real barrier to investment. You may have alternative avenues to turn to and in Australia, these include developing a systematic review of the scientific evidence to support a key message and submitting this to the regulatory body to enable you to make your own unique claim that would otherwise not be allowed.

3. How strong is it? When investing in innovation, labelling, packaging and communications you want to make sure a trend not only has popularity, but also has credibility.

Consumer research will give you an idea of popularity but where relevant, checking for any scientific research to support the trend will provide an idea of credibility. This means doing your due diligence and putting more time and effort into understanding a trend before applying it in practise.

Overall, awareness of trends is just the beginning. Investing time and energy into gaining a deeper understanding of what they mean, their relevance to your brand or product, the degree of research to support them and the impact of the regulations on your ability to talk about them, are all important factors to consider before applying trends to marketing and innovation.

In this way, we will continue to enhance our ability to create and market foods in a way that contributes to a better future and that connects in a meaningful way with the growing, more conscious consumer.

For further details, join my upcoming webinar. https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_B8hgnKWkSheAEtW1mBrLkg

How Do We Best Produce The Foods Of The Future?

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On display at the Seeds & Chips Global Food Innovation Summit in Milan earlier this month were a broad range of food innovations. From urban farms to sustainable food production systems, to foods made from 100% renewable energy and waste material.

All were different but all had one thing in common.

These innovations all shared the ideals and intentions of the UN Sustainable Development Goals - an umbrella under which food innovation aimed at transforming our food system toward a healthier and more sustainable future can sit.  Examples of these goals include moving toward more responsible production and consumption, climate action, good health and wellbeing and better use of land, water and energy.

Along with being inspired with the momentum that is building in this area, throughout the course of the 4 day event, we also heard repeatedly how far behind we are in making an impact to both climate change and to the quality of people's diets.

Food production continues to contribute to a number of unsustainable environmental issues while food consumption habits are now resulting in a rising prevalence of malnutrition co-existing with overweight and obesity. 

With the ready availability of cheap, nutrient poor foods, it's not only becoming harder to manage our weight, its becoming harder to get the nutrients we need to live well in the short term and to maintain optimal health in the long term.

When we talk about food and sustainability, equal weighting therefore needs to be given to both environmental and nutritional impact.  Solving both of these issues is how food businesses can most effectively prepare for the future and be best positioned to obtain greater returns from investment in innovation. 

Getting 'more from less' means not only getting more food using fewer resources, it also means getting more nutrients from less food.

To do this, the following diagram provides a simple strategy for auditing where your products currently sit, and the key strategy to adopt to be future ready. The aim is to move up and to the right.  

The key questions are: where do my products currently sit and what can I do to move forward? 

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The Biodiverse Supermarket Shelf - an interview with Mike Lee

At the Seeds&Chips Global Food Innovation Summit last week I had the opportunity to speak with one of the world’s leading thinkers on the future of food - Mike Lee from The Future Market and Alpha Food Labs.

One of Mike’s current projects is to reinvent the supermarket shelf of the future in a way that tackles the problem of biodiversity, while making it easier for people to make choices that support this aim. Here he points out that the approach taken by many packaged goods companies is the opposite to what chefs do. Chefs will look at the produce that’s available, then take that and make a recipe from it. This generally means preparing food from what’s seasonal and available.

Packaged goods companies approach this the other way around. “With packaged goods, in a boardroom somewhere someone comes up with an idea and then you make the farmer grow that one thing over and over again. It’s liberating with our stand for farmers to go to them without such a rigid agenda. We just want them to grow what’s right for the soil and then we’ll do the hard work.”

In this video interview, Mike Lee explains how Alpha Foods is developing products from what’s available, highlighting one way that food companies can tackle the issue of monocultures.

Creating Currency in 'Better'

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At the moment I'm reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, a book about building good habits and breaking bad ones.

The book puts forward the argument that the accumulation of our daily habits is what determines our future.  This means that if we want to get somewhere, its the things we repeat regularly that matter most. 

This idea is somewhat counter to our tendency to consider achievement of the outcome we’re going for as the measure of our success. What Clear is asserting is that it's not actually the goal that matters – it’s the system, or habits we create to reach the goal, that matters more.

"If the system is working, then the outcome will take care of itself" - James Clear.

This thought prompted me to consider how it may apply to food marketing and innovation.   One of the ways we often look to create differentiation in the market is to focus on an outcome. This is frequently linked to a goal such as creating or marketing products as containing ‘the most probiotics’ or ‘the least amount of sugar’ or ‘the highest amount of fibre’.

The Problem with Being the 'Best'

While these outcomes can provide a point of difference in the market, the problem is that eventually we discover there's a floor or a ceiling we can’t get past anymore and at which point such goals become redundant. For example, there is only so much fibre you can put into a product before the amount causes digestive discomfort, rather than contributing positively to good health. 

Similarly with whole foods. There are only so many ways we can influence the natural nutritional profile of a food before we run out of options.

So what would it look like if we focused on creating better habits associated with food consumption, or on setting up better systems associated with food production, packaging and distribution, and started marketing that, rather than focusing on being the 'best', or the 'greatest', the 'lowest' or the 'highest'?

This perspective may be a useful way to help re-direct our thinking, open new avenues for innovation and provide the opportunity to tell better stories about our brands and our products to consumers.

Invest in 'Better'

Investing in encouraging better habits or in creating better food systems can stretch from food production and distribution through to retailing and consumption. There are many options that if adopted, provide infinite ways to differentiate and communicate better stories about our food.

Food reformulation targets are one well known way to invest in 'better', by providing guidelines for food production that result in healthier foods. This in turn creates currency for brands and consumers by providing evidence that a company is meeting consumers desire for 'better for you' foods. 

Other ways to create currency in 'better' include looking for ways to improve methods for farming that reduce environmental inputs, using renewable resources in production, using electric powered vehicles in distribution or encouraging more mindful snacking and consumption habits.

The Benefits of 'Better'

At a time when trust in the food system and trust in the food industry in particular is low, striving for 'better', rather than being the 'best', has a number of advantages:

It can help connect in a more authentic way with the growing, more conscious consumer.  Being perfect or already being the ‘best’ leaves little room for improvement.

It's a clear indicator of transparency – if you are not perfect, and not ‘there’ yet it indicates an openness and honest way of being.

It indicates a commitment to continuous improvement.  Just like a commitment to life long learning is one of the keys to happiness and growth, a commitment to continuous improvement for a business can have a significantly positive influence on company culture.

It may have benefits for teams.  As James Clear outlines, "the problem with a goals first mentality is that you are continually putting happiness off until the next milestone is achieved. A systems first mentality provides the antidote. When you fall in love with the process, rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied every time your system is running".  

If the system and habits we adopt keep getting better and better, team satisfaction and contentedness also has the potential to keep on improving.

If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your systems and habits instead.  Solve problems at this level and the outputs will look after themselves.

It's Not What You Know That Matters - It's How You Tell the Story

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Over the past two months the EAT-Lancet Commission report on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems was launched across 25 countries, including a local launch in Melbourne in February. 

This detailed scientific report (which also has a useful summary paper) was put together by 37 scientists from 16 countries with expertise in health, agriculture and the environment with the aim of establishing global targets for healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The group of experts set out to answer:

“What would the world’s food consumption and production need to look like by 2050 to help ensure the Paris Agreement and UN Sustainable Development Goals are achieved?”

This is important work given food production is the largest cause of global environmental change and a major contributor to population and personal health - areas that people are increasingly worrying about, as indicated in this years consumer trends research

The opportunity that global targets provide for food and beverage brands is two fold. Firstly, they provide a potential framework to audit current processes and practices and align company wide commitments for improvements with these targets, providing the groundwork for credibility and serving to build trust.

Secondly, and equally as important, is the opportunity to use this work as the basis for telling better food stories to consumers about how businesses are taking action toward improving the food system for the future.

Reflecting on my work with clients over the years, I believe we're well versed in setting targets, brand guardrails and commitments around ingredients or creating benchmarks for nutrient content, but we could be doing better at turning this work into meaningful stories that resonate with consumers. 

It's one way to provide greater levels of transparency, grow trust and create more insightful ways of communicating with an increasingly knowledgeable and informed consumer base. 

It's not what you know that matters - it's how you tell the story.

One company aligned with global targets and telling their story well is Schulz's Dairy - a family owned and run organic dairy farm in Timboon Victoria. 

Operating by a set of principles including sustainability, animal welfare, purity and community engagement, the company has developed a tribe of loyal followers by sharing their story in a meaningful way. In fact, people love the brand so much, they are paying for their innovation!

As an example of how they approach their business, when realizing the contribution they were making to the 2 billion 1-litre single-use plastic milk bottles that are used and discarded in Australia each year, the company set out to bring back reusable glass bottles.

After trialing returnable glass bottles at the local farmers markets and receiving an overwhelmingly positive response, they decided to press ahead with a change from plastic to glass.

To fund their glass bottle operation, they ran a crowdfunding campaign and after just 4 weeks, had raised over $106K from 1182 supporters! A record for this type of fund raising.

The lesson?

People want companies to lead the way when it comes to sustainability and they appreciate the efforts that go into making positive change happen – so much so they’re prepared to contribute to the cause.

Opportunities for innovation exist across the entire food system and the EAT-Lancet report provides specific targets outlining where change is required, and where it is backed by scientific evidence. It also provides an insight into the way government and public health policy may go in the near future. 

Taking responsibility for making change, where change is required in the food system, provides the basis for decision making and for telling better stories about food, brands and corporate responsibility that will resonate with consumers. This in turn is good for business, has customers feel great about purchasing your product, builds trust and is good for future generations.

EAT-Lancet Commission Report - implications for food businesses

The EAT-Lancet Commission report on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems provides global targets around food consumption and production to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Climate Agreement. For those in the business of food, it provides an insight into the issues that will influence future government and public health policies so is worthwhile being familiar with.

Good Foodies Podcast Interview - Inspiring a New Direction for the Global Business of Food

This interview aired on The Good Foodies Podcast in January this year. The podcast is all about people doing good in the world of food is a great addition to your podcast subscriptions! For more info click here.

Show Notes

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What does the future of food look like? How can brands keep up with changing consumer consciousness and build a food system that’s based on strong physical, social, environmental and cultural values? That’s the topic of today’s show with author, speaker and industry expert, Sharon Natoli.  

Sharon was a founding director of Food and Nutrition Australia back in 1997. She has qualifications in nutrition and business marketing and has worked with a range of clients – both big and small – over the last 25 years. She also maintains regular contact with individuals looking to change their eating habits. Her work revolves around preparing brands for the future by developing food centred values and leveraging these values to create a meaningful and genuine voice that facilitates trust and connection with consumers in the market.

Today’s episode should really get you thinking about your brand, your customers and the changing landscape of the business of food. One to listen back to, for sure!

In This Episode You’ll Learn

●      The approaches and values of the traditional food industry

●      The global patterns of change from old world to new world values and way of thinking

●      How consumers are becoming more conscientious and demanding more from food

●      The three traditional consumer values that are losing favour

●      The five new values that are driving change

●      Why price is a challenge and sticking point for brands producing high quality food

●      Why making positive change is good for business

●      How to balance the needs of people, planet and profit in your business

Food Businesses as Leaders of Change in 2019

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Over the long weekend I found myself distracted by a video circulating on social media aimed at encouraging people to boycott toothpaste that comes in a box. According to the statistics, 900,000,000 toothpaste boxes are thrown out each year in the USA alone and the only real purpose they serve is to make the product look better.  

The problem raised was that this is contributing to excessive waste. So the questions posed were 'why do we need it?' and ‘who can change this?’
 
The story goes that in Iceland, consumer concern about the impact of excessive packaging on the environment ultimately lead to a change in people’s toothpaste buying habits.  Now, 90% of toothpaste tubes bought in Iceland come without a box.
 
While toothpaste may not have much to do with food –  although it is good practise to follow your dentists advice and clean your teeth after eating -  the point is that the campaign to boycott toothpaste in a box is symbolic of rising consumer consciousness about the impact our habits are having on the planet. 

It also highlights how this rising consciousness affects consumer buying habits and if we can predict change, it opens up the opportunity to lead it, rather than to simply follow.

Currently there is a shift from a place of awareness about previously unconscious but unhelpful habits, to one of action.  This action in turn is leading to change.  Packaging is just one example. 

In the area of food, the rise of a more mindful consumer is also driving change in ingredient labeling, product sourcing, food delivery, communications and marketing practises to name a few.

As we head into 2019 and consider the issues on consumers minds, the theme of change will feature highly and the ability to lead change will provide future focused food businesses with the opportunity to gain a competitive advantage. 

In fact research by Deloitte assessing the characteristics of leaders making progress today, found "Social Supers" - those leading businesses that are doing well by doing good - were one of the top four personas confident in their ability to handle the challenges that lay ahead.

Mobilised by an innate desire to do good, consumers will be attracted to businesses that can demonstrate a social conscious when it comes to food production and consumption. 

The desire to align ourselves with businesses that are seen as contributing to the greater good is highlighted by Robert Greene in his new book The Laws of Human Nature.  Greene points out that it is natural human behaviour to comfort ourselves daily about the moral nature of our actions. 

We like to think we are good citizens - that we are good team members, we treat people well, we help the right causes and that others will see us in a good light. 

It is this law of human nature that highlights the business opportunity for leading change in 2019.

To build on our desire to feel good about ourselves and to take actions that reinforce this, the opportunity exists to review business practises through a lens of doing good - of looking for opportunities to make changes that will improve the health and nutritional quality of our products, and/or the food system that sits behind and beyond it.  

Contributing to the greater good draws consumers toward us. It reinforces their own self perceptions about doing good, and being part of a larger cause that is easy to participate in.

Food is a major contributor to personal and planetary health, it plays a role in social connection and the preservation of cultural identity.  There are many avenues for brands and businesses to tackle, providing significant opportunity to lead change, and build closer and more meaningful connections with consumers throughout 2019.
 
To leverage this merging of evolving consumer consciousness with the laws of human nature, useful questions to consider are:

  • Am I aware of the food related issues consumers really care about?

  • Do I feel well equipped to lead change and not simply follow trends?

  • Which areas make sense for me to target?

  • If I am to lead change what would that look like?

  • Do I know how consumer consciousness about food and health is evolving?

The timing is right for food businesses to lead change in 2019.  The key question is...are you up for the challenge?  

The Cream Cheese Distraction

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In a recent meeting, a dilemma arose about cream cheese.  But before you start thinking cream cheese is a food of little significance, the issue discussed is symbolic, and one that sits at the heart of the future of food.

The point raised at the meeting centred around the classification of cream cheese within the Health Star Rating system.  Depending on how it is classified (as a dairy food, a non-dairy food, or a spread) it’s Health Star rating ranges from 1 up to 3.5. 

Hours of attention have been spent by cream cheese makers deciding how best to categorise cream cheese to ensure it carries an accurate rating, according to the Health Star system. The same issue will have been addressed by other food businesses across other food categories, and in other countries with similar systems, taking hours, days and weeks of attentional resources.  

This may seem trivial until we consider that attention is a finite resource.  When we pay attention to one thing, it’s not just that we focus on advancing that particular thing, it’s that we also give something else up.  Something that may have otherwise received our attention does not.


“When you ‘pay attention’ you pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t; all the goals you didn’t pursue…had you attended to those other things.  Attention is paid in possible futures foregone.”

- James Wilson Williams


The question this raises is that if we have limited amounts of attention, is contemplating whether cream cheese is a cheese, a spread or belongs in another category altogether, the best way to be directing that attention? Is the future of food about getting the right number of Stars or traffic lights on a label, or is there something else that we are giving up that could represent a better way forward?

The validity of the Health Star system to improve public health is yet to be proven, and despite decades of effort to reformulate foods, we consistently hear that more needs to be done. If the tonnes of salt, fat and sugar that have been removed from the food supply to date are yet to make the population healthier, how far do we need to go before we start to make an impact?

Perhaps there is an alternative - one that has not received enough of our attention. And that alternative could be to give more attention to the adoption of eating habits that improve our food culture, putting more focus on how we eat, rather than simply on what we eat.

Directing our attention toward the French way of eating is one useful place to start.

A recent study assessed elements of the French way of eating and their association with rates of overweight and obesity. After reviewing the habits of 47,219 participants, the researchers found that those who followed traditional French eating habits, such as sitting at a table with other people, eating three meals a day at set times, and considering meals as a moment of pleasure, were 11% less likely to be overweight and 24% less likely to be obese.

From a public health perspective, a change of this magnitude would be considered a highly effective step forward.  It raises the question - if we are seeking strategies to address overweight and obesity in Australia and globally, an equally effective, and perhaps less complex way to inspire change may be to divert some of our attention away from contemplating how to classify foods, and encouraging people to take time out to sit and eat, preferably with others and to eat with pleasure.

It could be that encouraging the development of a food culture where we eat less, and take more time doing it, is a positive pathway toward a better future, where inspiration trumps regulation and food is recognised for more than its physical attributes.

As we head toward 2019, some questions to consider are:

  1. What type of food culture do you believe will be best for the future and what can you do to contribute to this vision?

  2. How do you want the next generation to think about what it means for food to be 'healthy'? 

  3. What values about food are driving your product development and marketing efforts?  Do these values need review to be relevant to today, and to lead you well into the future?

If you would like a sounding board to help answer the above questions, please get in touch. And for five tips on how to eat like the French, check out this short video.

Mindset Matters More than Product

Ben

Growing up, my son's favourite super hero was Spiderman. He spent many hours in his well worn Spiderman outfit shooting pretend web at the walls and jumping off the couch catching imaginary villains. So when the movie came out in 2002 starring Tobey Maguire, it was a must-see occasion.

The story line sees Spiderman defeat Green Goblin - the alter-ego of billionaire Harry Osborn who is plotting to kill off his board members as revenge for their plan to fire him. Good defeats evil and the streets (and board rooms) are safe again.  But it's the advice that Uncle Ben gives Peter Parker  when he first learns of the powers he has acquired after being bitten by a radioactive spider that  stands out for me - “With great power comes great responsibility”.

I was reminded of this quote recently when hearing the news arising out of the Royal Commission into banking. The nature of the findings meant the commissioner himself came out blasting the Australian financial services sector for putting greed and the pursuit of short term profits ahead of honesty, ethics and integrity.  If Uncle Ben were alive today, perhaps his mentoring may well be in demand!

As a result of past behaviour, the finance industry is now struggling with low levels of trust, a battle that is familiar to those of us working in the food sector.  Given this common ground, I was interested to review the recommendations outlined in the Deloitte Trust Index for banking which was released a fortnight ago.  From my perspective, one of the most noteworthy findings was this:

"Customers consider the mindset of the seller far more important in rebuilding trust than the detailed characteristics of what is being sold. The companies that get this, at the deepest level, are exhibiting the kinds of behaviours that genuinely build trust".

Demonstrating values such as respect, following through on commitments (integrity), and proactively disclosing mistakes (honesty), were shown to be aspects of an organisation's mindset that were important elements for re-building trust.

So if we consider how the learnings from the banking sector can be applied in the food sector, it is clear there are opportunities for building on current efforts around being more transparent, a common way that we aim to address trust. An opportunity also exists to focus on how we can adopt a cultural mindset of honesty and care, of making sure we follow through on commitments, and of being humble and open when we make mistakes.  These are all ways to indicate that relationships matter more than transactions, and that a company shares the same values as consumers.

In a practical sense, some ways to do this include:

  • A business purpose that includes a vision for the food system

  • An ethical management team aligned to a core set of food centred values

  • A clear set of commitments linked to implementing these values in practise, with accountability through regular reporting of progress

  • Communicating honestly

  • Implementation of robust quality systems linked to production and regulation 

  • A commitment to responsible marketing and a consciousness not to mislead

If we can expand our focus beyond the everyday need to sell products, and aim to build long term relationships with consumers by indicating an honest, open, humble, responsible and caring mindset, we will be well placed to build trust, create greater customer loyalty, develop greater resilience for our organisations and place the food industry as a whole in a better place for the future.

Overall, we could do well to acknowledge and implement Uncle Ben's timeless advice.

P.S. Stan Lee, creator of the Spiderman character and many other superheroes, sadly passed away earlier this month at the age of 95. He will be well remembered for his contribution to turning comics into a legitimate form of story telling and sparking the imagination of children everywhere that they can turn themselves into everyday superheroes.

Leading in the Decade of Disruption - interview

I recently caught up with Matt Church Founder of Thought Leaders and author of Next - Thoughts about tomorrow you can talk about today.

Matt talks on the future across various industries sharing his insights around navigating in the decade of disruption. In this interview, he shares some of his thoughts and highlights their relevance to the business of food.

Key insights:

One of the biggest shifts we're seeing is that of the educated consumer. People want to be involved in the buying process and businesses will need to develop levels of expertise that match this more informed consumer.

The emergence of radical transparency and responsibility is a critical influencer of future success. Selling is no longer command and control, transactional or about pushing products. It's increasingly about creating partnerships with the buyer.

On the balance between standing out and fitting in, this is playing out in the move from customer service, through to customer intimacy and now to customer inspiration. For brands and businesses it's now about taking people to a place they didn't know they wanted to go.

For a copy of Matt's book Next https://lnkd.in/gtJBS7v

International Forum Signals Change Ahead

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The International Forum on Food & Nutrition held in New York on 28 September, at the end of a week that saw the city host the UN General Assembly and the World Economic Forum, provided a platform for leaders shaping the future of food to share their vision, current challenges and recommended actions. 

Just like the global economy influences local investment decisions, remaining informed of global changes in food and nutrition research and policy, and connecting this information with local strategy is critical for those looking to remain well positioned for the future.

Of the many presentations throughout the day, the one that struck me the most was that by Dr Dariush Mozaffarian from Tufts University. Dr Mozzafarian is the researcher responsible for changing recommendations around saturated fat in recent years and is a leading thinker in the application of food and nutrition research to shaping policy and advice. 

He shared three insightful assertions that signal how the future of public health policy and food and nutrition advice will likely evolve.  Each of these has implications for local strategy in the marketing and production of food. Below is a top line summary: 

Insight 1: Stop talking about obesity and start referring to health.
It is common practise to refer to obesity as being the main public health problem facing the world today. However it's not obesity that's the downstream problem of a poor diet. Rather, it's poor health outcomes. Sub-optimal health that results in an inability to work productively while also drawing on public health services, imparts significant costs to governments.

What this means: 
This viewpoint is consistent with consumer trends research showing people are shifting from a focus on 'dieting' and calorie counting to lose weight toward a greater focus on lifestyle, general health and wellness.  This has been evidenced in a downward trend away from the use of 'diet' as a claim on food products and more toward the use of new brands or nutrient based claims instead.  'Diet' yoghurts for example, have all but disappeared in recent years with brand names shifting toward those that depict a healthy lifestyle.

Insight 2: Take the Blinkers Off 
When promoting healthy eating, and talking about trends, there can be a tendency to have blinkers on when spreading messages about what to eat. Dr Mozzafarian's recommendation is to stop and think about what we really mean before jumping in. He used the current focus on promoting "plant based diets" as an example, saying that much of what is wrong with the world's diet comes from plants (excessive intakes of refined starches and added sugar).

Taking care to fully understand the meaning behind the recommendation to eat a 'plant based diet' is important - even vegan and vegetarian are not necessarily the best way to communicate what's healthy.

What this means:
Don't just follow the latest vernacular. Understand what it means and be clear on how to interpret and apply the messages you use. 

Insight 3: People eat food, not numbers.
The reductionist way policy makers are defining foods as healthy has an historical root in the way governments addressed the prevention of scurvy and pellagra in the 1920's-1940's. However this approach, which involves targeting a nutrient or handful of nutrients to fix a problem, is not working well for the reduction of chronic disease. 

Dr Mozzafarian went as far to suggest that this method, applied most commonly in the form of front of pack interpretative nutrition labels, is flawed and potentially misleading. While reducing added sugar, added salt and added trans fat makes sense, total fat, saturated fat and even calories are misleading metrics to focus on.  

What this means:
Highlighting the nutritional profile of a food can be useful in the targeting of messages to particular consumer groups. However classifying foods as healthy or not based on the presence of a handful of negative or positive nutrients may not be the most effective way to exert positive change in eating habits. Consider complementing any nutrient based claims used in marketing, with additional information on the benefits of the whole food, a greater understanding about where the food comes from, who made or grew it, how to best prepare and serve it, or promoting eating together with others and the sharing of food around a table.

For a full transcript of the day see this link. Dr Mozzafarian's presentation (15 minutes of viewing time) starts at the 2 hour 07 minute mark.

Overall
Staying in touch with global thinking and connecting the insights to local actions helps create effective strategy. It can also save time by assisting with decision making. Often we are faced with many options when it comes to prioritising food and health related marketing messages and selecting those that align with global changes in research and policy direction can build a brand's reputation over the long term.  

What's Next After Clean Label?

It wasn’t that long ago that outside of letter writing, a phone call was the dominant way to communicate with distant relatives.  Today, this method of communication has been joined by a myriad of other choices.  It’s not that phone calls are irrelevant, it’s just that keeping in touch can now be achieved in many different ways.

This same evolution is occurring with the factors that consumers draw upon to determine their purchasing decisions.  While in the past it was primarily about taste, price and convenience, it is no longer that simple.  Today, consumers take into account multiple data points when deciding where to spend their dollars. One of the most important of these variables is health and wellness. However the way this is being defined is also changing and evolving. 

While the nutritional value remains an important consideration, it’s now joined by a myriad of other considerations.  For packaged foods, this has most recently been a focus on the nature of the ingredient list. In fact the ingredients list is now being scrutinized even more so than the nutrition information.  Research by Nielsen found while 66% of consumers evaluate the nutrition information on a product, 75% assess the ingredient list. Nutrients have now been pipped at the post by ingredients - much like texting has overtaken phone calls as a way of staying in touch.

However these changes gradually evolve and are not necessarily new. For those looking to be future ready, it’s timely to consider what comes next?

Last week I caught up with Justin Nel from Mintel to find out. Mintel will be well known to many for their Global New Products Database, along with their consumer insights and global trend tracking services.  Based on what they are seeing now, Justin’s viewpoint is that ‘safety’ is the next important area that food businesses must address to reassure consumers their products are 'good for them'.   

In an era of fake news, food fraud and product tampering, according to Mintel’s research, 29% of Australian consumers don’t trust the food and drink industry to provide food that is safe for consumption.  After the events of this week around tampering of fresh strawberries, and recent recalls of sprouts, salad kits and chocolate products, it's likely this issue has been further exacerbated.  

We clearly have a skeptical consumer base that needs convincing before purchasing and Justin’s advice is to get on the front foot.  Full disclosure and complete transparency are needed now more than ever.

“Consumers really want to know everything about the food they are buying. It’s not just what’s in it but how the product was made and where the ingredients have been sourced. They want to know everything they can about the product’s life cycle - from the start to the finish when it appears on the shelf at the retailer.  We refer to this trend as providing full disclosure”.   

According to Justin, social media is a great way to be at the forefront with this. Rather than waiting for a consumer to ask, use social media platforms to push the relevant information out.

As a result of this evolution in consumer values, there’s been a shift in the advice Mintel are providing to their clients . Previously the priority was to highlight provenance and legacy and to build a consumer connection that way. Just like nutrients and ingredients, while that is still important, there’s a swing now toward reassurance about a product’s safety.

And the way 'safety' is being defined is not simply an absence of contaminants.  It's about transparency, labeling, the nature and degree of processing, the ingredients and clarity around the connection between farm and fork.

Thinking full spectrum about how health & wellness is defined and incorporating many aspects of the food production process into communications, marketing and innovation is becoming less of an option, and more of an expectation for those looking to maintain future relevance. Just like phone calls have been joined by texting, social media and it's various applications, addressing consumer interest in health & wellness is about offering multiple platforms from which to reassure consumers about their choices.

To view the full interview with Justin, click here.

Why ‘Positive Rebellion’ Favours Food Brands

Between 2012-2016 McDonalds lost 500 million transactions to competitors. In an interview with Fast Company last week, CEO Steve Easterbrook said the reason was because the company had ‘lost a meaningful connection with customers’.  Rather than eating at McDonalds, people were going elsewhere, both to traditional rivals and to new fast-casual restaurants including Sweetgreen (est. 2007) and Shake Shack (est. 2004). 

The answer to the problem, according to Easterbrook, is to introduce a new Quarter Pounder made with a fresh beef pattie instead of a frozen one, and to have the meat cooked on the spot upon ordering.  For a company known for its predictability, this is a significant move and one that will involve major changes to its supply chain. 

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As I read this story last week, it made me reflect on whether the proposed change would be enough to fix the problem. 

There are two questions that came to mind. Firstly, does a fresh beef pattie cooked upon ordering create a more meaningful connection with consumers compared to offering a frozen one?  The answer is partly yes.  Research shows people are seeking to include more fresh foods more often and are looking for convenient ways to do this.

The second question was whether the potential uplift in meaning would be enough to shift behaviour and prompt consumers to choose McDonald’s over its competitors.  The answer to this question is likely not.  

Creating a meaningful connection with consumers that is strong enough to influence behaviour today requires more than a change from frozen to fresh. This is a good start, however more needs to be done.  It's an argument I put forward in my new book, Food for a Better Future, along with offering a potential solution.   

So, other than the fresh food, what is it about food chains such as Shake Shack and Sweetgreen that has these outlets maintain a meaningful connection with consumers, and as result experience growth rates of up to 41% in 2017? 

The answer may lie in the fact that they stand for something more than selling 'better for you' burgers and fresh, locally sourced salads.  In fact their brand personifies a sense of ‘positive rebellion’, and this connects them with the growing number of people who are seeking to ‘rebel’ for the greater good of society.  Food that is better for you is part of it.  But it's not the full picture. 

According to Larry Fink, head of the world’s largest investment firm Blackrock, the mood of society has changed and now demands that businesses, both public and private, serve a social purpose. This is a clear signal that doing more than simply selling goods and services is also good for business. 

For those in the food sector, the most congruent way to demonstrate this is to develop values that serve a purpose connected to food.  And these values often mean rebelling against the traditional, business as usual approach to food production, marketing and retailing. 

Shake Shack do this through their umbrella commitment to ‘stand for something good’.  This is demonstrated by the type of ingredients they use, their transparent supply chain and their environmental commitments.  For Sweetgreen it’s that they are always looking for ways the business and its customers can be a positive force in the world and on the food system. The company’s food ethos includes a commitment to scratch cooking, transparency through working with farmers who are doing the right thing and sustainability from store design to waste management, local sourcing and food safety. 

A key distinction is that by taking a stand and voicing their beliefs, both Shake Shack and Sweetgreens lead customers, rather simply following them.   

In the article in Fast Company, the Menu Chief at McDonald’s Corporation, responsible for keeping an eye on food trends and determining when to adopt them, states that a key insight she’s learned is that what consumers say they want and what they actually buy are two different things and that this is a challenge.  “That’s kind of the secret sauce,” she says. “What’s an emotional need you can answer?” 

When looking to create greater brand meaning, that emotional need could be the need to do good.  People are looking for a greater sense of meaning and are seeking ways to spend their dollars with companies that share their values. Creating greater brand meaning by developing values that are centred on your food, and which are supported by genuine actions over a long period of time, is a key way forward for brands looking to build and maintain future relevance.