Linda Eatherton

Thirty years ago, consumers collected, customized, and concocted a robust repertoire of recipes. They hand selected each ingredient to put personal stamps of authenticity, quality, safety, and creativity on every meal. Food manufacturers were merely support players to the daily orchestration of “from-scratch” home-cooked meals.

Over the past generation, however, kitchen time across the globe has given way to “quality time” and the demands of dual-income households and multitasking lifestyles. Cooks seemed to be enthusiastically abdicating their role to helpful convenience-food manufacturers offering solutions in a box.

Yet consumers never signed away their rights or their desires to control what they ate. Industry mistook skyrocketing convenience-food sales as affirmation of a power transfer, and enthusiastically seized the opportunity to be the food provider to the world’s families.

In a world where hardwired consumers are setting, influencing, and reshaping corporate behaviors, we theorized that empowered consumers are now making their move to take back control of the food supply. Late last summer, we conducted a survey in five countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Argentina, and China. For the exercise, we put consumers in charge and made them CEO of the world’s food. The survey, Food 2020: The Consumer as CEO, set out to determine what consumers worldwide want from the food they eat and where they think food companies should place priorities. The insights that emerged paint a picture of consumers wanting more—more information, more choices, more accountability, and more control. And they want companies to do more to help people in need around the world.

Specifically, three product development themes stand out:

1. Consumers worldwide are more alike than different in their food desires and expectations.

2. Healthier eating continues to be a rising priority and a growing frustration.

3. Food safety is not negotiable.

While not surprising that taste remains “king” as the top food priority around the world, many other considerations are nearly as important. Globally, 74% of consumers cited taste as the key consideration in buying foods, yet the same consumers claimed quality (73%), price (70%), and health benefits (53%) were also top priorities.

Taste expectations have migrated from “tasting good” to “delighting the senses.” Food industry innovators must now stretch to find ways to excite family taste buds daily with new creations at home and away from home. The meal boredom that drove moms to stuff their recipe files is now the boredom that food manufacturers face in focus groups around the world.

And consumers’ demand for an exceptional food experience is closely followed by their demand for foods that are truly better for the body. But the barriers to eating for better health remain high. Taste remains a critical hindrance to healthier eating for 43% of the world. Even more of a barrier is the inability to get clear information about which foods actually contribute to a healthier diet (44%). Survey data indicated that by 2020, nutritional value and health benefits are likely to surpass price as key considerations in food purchasing.

Rising concerns about processed foods are being driven by the proliferation of troubling headlines, blogs, and scientific discoveries that challenge component ingredients, sources, processes, and practices. So it is not surprising that the survey indicated consumers want to have a much stronger say about which ingredients and how many ingredients they want in each food product. Sixty-seven percent worldwide put this request at the very top of their list of things they would change if they were CEO of the global food supply. Nearly two-thirds of global consumers would put food safety at the top of the priority list if they were CEO.

If we accept the data as a plausible prediction of consumer behavior, it might be time to rethink the future of the food industry. We find ourselves in uncharted territory economically at a time when consumers are exerting their power both as a group and individually. No one knew what a blog was five years ago. Today there are thousands of food blogs and bloggers around the world. Their impact is changing the game.

We can doubt consumers or we can fully reinstate consumers as part of the R&D process. Ivory tower corporate control is all but dead. The consumer is in charge. With technologies and virtual workspaces, the true food innovator of tomorrow will be the one that opens the doors to its food innovation laboratories globally. Embracing and engaging consumers globally as partners in the R&D process will be the key to sustaining and growing our industry. It is clear that the food company that innovates WITH consumers, instead of simply marketing TO consumers, will hold the winning ticket to growth by the year 2020 or sooner.

Impossible expectations? Possibly, but try telling consumers that.

Linda Eatherton ([email protected]) is Senior Vice President, Partner, and Director of the Global Food and Nutrition Practice for Ketchum, a global communications and public relations firm. She is based in the firm’s Chicago office—200 E. Randolph St., Suite 3530, Chicago, IL 60601.