Helping food marketers in their sustainability quest
That is the mission of market research agency Future of Food Institute. Founders Durk Bosma and Etienne Zervaas take stock and explain their philosophy and plans.
What opportunities and threats do you see for food brands?
A paradigm shift is taking place in the food chain. Sustainability is a competitive advantage (or a disadvantage for the brands that don't move along). New food technology companies are entering markets with new products and new earning models. Previously unthinkable products and services are successfully finding their way to the market. Think of products based on insects and brands that deliver directly to the consumer. But also consumers who have started to produce their own food with the help of a cooperative.
Technological progress offers many opportunities for sustainability in the food chain, but also facilitates new connections between the links in the food chain. This, combined with increasing sustainability awareness, makes the food world one of the most interesting fields of activity for marketeers at the moment.
In the coming years, the world population will increase and will have more money to spend. Globally, the market for food is growing by around 5% per year. A huge opportunity for food brands, but only brands that combine sustainability with consumer preference will grow'.
Do you think there is a need for change?
Yes. The food chain is widely seen as one of the causes of the climate crisis. Food security is under threat, because we simply don't produce enough food to feed 10 billion mouths. In addition, our current food system is linked to common diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and various types of cancer. The good news is that at the same time our food is part of the solution. A lot is already happening in the field of sustainability.
The European Union is coming up with the 'Farm to Fork' program, a comprehensive reform plan for agriculture and the food system. Nutrition is also high on the agenda at the UN. 10 of the 17 SDG's (sustainable development goals) relate directly or indirectly to sustainable consumption and production of food.
What is the big idea behind the Future of Food Institute, founded in 2018?
Ultimately, it is the consumer who decides what is successful. It is only when more sustainable food is on his plate that impact is achieved. Knowing how to seduce and support consumers in making more sustainable choices is therefore more important than ever. Because successful brands combine being good for the planet with gaining consumer preference.
Our mission is to help accelerate the transition to a more sustainable food system, with the consumer as the driving force. We do this by providing knowledge and insight into the consumer. What are the drivers? What is stopping them? For example, we know from large-scale research that it is very difficult to get people to adjust their behaviour based on abstract motivations, which is 'a better climate' for many at the moment. But we also know that there is a substantial group of consumers who are quite willing to consume more sustainably, but most of all want to benefit themselves immediately. Those people buy vegan products because it's hip and trendy. There is also a large group that wants to consume more sustainably, but doesn't know how. For this group it is important to take them by the hand, for example by informing them about what exactly sustainable choices are.
Good question: how do you define sustainable food?
Sustainability has many sides. For example, something can be sustainable from one point of view, but not from another. Think of Tony's Chocolonely. They have profiled themselves as the brand that makes the chocolate world sustainable by offering fair prices to the producers. But you can ask yourself whether the product chocolate itself is so sustainable. It comes from far away and it contains a lot of sugar.
Sustainability mainly has to do with the use of scarce resources. In particular, it is about no longer depleting the soil and increasing diversity. But it also has a socio-economic component and health is an important one. The tricky thing is that experts do not always agree on what exactly is sustainable. And most consumers have only a limited idea of what is sustainable.
According to FoFI, what is the impact of the corona crisis on sustainable consumption?
Covid-19 has increased sustainability awareness by exposing the vulnerability of our food system. It has led to an increasing demand for healthy food and the need for a more resilient food system. We see all kinds of initiatives emerging on a local scale. Think of local producers working together to set up a meal box. Farmers who open a drive-in greengrocer's. The crisis is fueling inventiveness in people.
However, looking at consumer behaviour as a whole, we see little impact. People have started to eat something healthier. Just because there was more time and attention available to prepare the food. For the individual consumer, sustainability is hardly higher on the agenda'.
How do you help food brands?
With the insights we offer, we help food companies develop the right products, for the right consumers, with the right message. Encouraging consumers to make sustainable choices is not the same as influencing buying behaviour with traditional marketing tools. It requires specialist knowledge and deeper insights. There is a big difference between what people say and what people do in the supermarket. In many categories we see the whole market dynamic changing.
We help brands to understand these dynamics and to discover the new rules of the game. For example, we now know that the consumer's perception of what is sustainable does not match what experts know to be effective. Consumers underestimate the impact of meat consumption and overestimate the impact of packaging. If you know this in your category, you know how to tell a sustainable message and how to turn sustainability into brand preference.
One area we pay a lot of attention to is nudging, i.e. unconsciously influencing buying behaviour. If you can promote sustainable choices with the help of subtle interventions in the food environment, that's great of course. Together with the National Fruit and Vegetable Action Plan, we are researching all kinds of nudges in different environments. What works and what doesn't? And what does a restaurant visitor actually think about trying to influence their behaviour? By mapping the effects on both sales and visitor experience, we learn a lot. Knowledge that food marketers can use to stimulate sustainable choice within their own target group.
What are your further plans?
Very simple: make impact. If we deliver useful insights, brands can make sustainability more successful, for example by hitting the right chord in an advertising campaign. Or because they bring product innovations to the market that are picked up by consumers more quickly. And given market demand, we expect to grow rapidly. And growth goes hand in hand with making an impact. The more successful we are, the more impact we can make.
A large-scale consumer survey in 7 European countries is planned for the autumn. Last year we did this survey only in the Netherlands, but we're getting more and more questions about the state of affairs in other countries. How far is the consumer? What can marketers learn from this? What are best practices? With the help of sponsors, we can make the research available free of charge to anyone in the food sector who wants to make it more sustainable.
In addition, we can offer all kinds of regular market research that other agencies also do. Think of innovation research, communication research, etc. We can answer any ad hoc research question in the field of sustainability. Where we are different from other agencies, our drive for sustainability is an absolute specialization in that area. This gives us a lot of specialist knowledge about the sustainable consumer.
Finally, we are building a research community. A group of consumers that we can regard as front runners. By doing research among these front runners, we know what works and what doesn't work. Moreover, they can keep us informed of what is going on.