August, 2013

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

A proprietary Cargill survey of more than 1,000 consumers investigated parents’ attitudes and drivers of food and beverage purchases for their children. Key findings of the Cargill Gatekeeper Purchase Drivers Study included:

• Parents are more likely to seek foods and beverages that appeal to the whole family rather than products and meals that are just for kids.

• Parents are unsatisfied with the healthfulness of current options across key categories of foods and beverages popular with kids.

• Parents tend to seek positive attributes such as whole grains and fiber rather than avoiding the things they perceive to be unhealthy, such as fat, sugar and sodium.

“We know it’s important to meet the nutrition and budget expectations of parents, while also satisfying kids on the taste dimension,” said DeeAnn Roullier, marketing research manager, Cargill, Minneapolis, MN. “Our research provides a more specific understanding of gatekeeper purchase drivers in categories heavily consumed by kids.”

This research was conducted as part of Cargill’s childhood nutrition initiative, which aims to help food and beverage manufacturers and foodservice operators formulate products that improve the nutrition profile of products targeted to children.

Family-Friendly Versus Kid-Centric

Today’s parents are more likely to take a family approach to food rather than seek products and meals that are just for kids. This means parents apply greater scrutiny to both taste and nutrition for a broader set of foods and beverages that the entire family consumes. According to the survey, only one-third of parents said they often prepare separate meals for adults and kids. Eighty-one percent of parents said it’s important for the foods they purchase to appeal to the entire family.

When determining whether it was the kids or the parents who compromise on the kinds of foods they eat, it was the kids: 89 percent of parents said they ask their kids to broaden their tastes, and 69 percent said they ask their kids to try more adult food.

Importantly, parents of the Millennial generation (ages 18 - 32) are more likely to say family appeal is important compared to older parents, which suggests that young consumers moving into parenthood are likely to adopt a family approach.

Satisfaction Versus Purchase Intent

The study looked across nine food and beverage categories (cereal, cookies, crackers, bread / rolls, snack bars, fruit juice / drinks, frozen pizza, ice cream and carbonated soft drinks) that are popular with children to determine the key attributes that resonate most with parents. Compared to the general population, parents show a low level of satisfaction with the healthfulness of most of these categories. This low satisfaction drives high purchase intent for healthier products. Cargill’s results indicated a high level of intent to purchase healthier products in eight of nine categories and highlights opportunity gaps for each category. The biggest opportunity for a healthier product was with cookies, which showed a purchase intent satisfaction gap of 24 points.

Seeking Versus Avoiding

Parents are more likely to seek positive attributes in food and beverage products than to avoid what they perceive to be unhealthy. A majority of parents (76 percent) say they check the nutrition information on unfamiliar products.

When compared to the general public, contrary to popular belief, the Cargill survey revealed that parents are actually less likely than the general population to check the nutrition facts panel (65 percent versus 71 percent), but more likely to say they check nutrition highlights on the front of the package (65 percent versus 55 percent). Perhaps the busy lifestyles of parents keep them from studying the back of the package, but make them more likely to review the front.

“Seeking” is about positive nutrition, including nutrient density, inherent benefits, and foods and beverages that are naturally rich in nutrients like fruits and vegetables, as well as foods that include whole grains and balanced energy. “Seeking” was a key driver in many categories: cookies, bread/rolls, snack bars, crackers, cereal and fruit juice/drinks.

“Avoiding” is about reducing the attributes consumers perceive to be unhealthy, such as fat, sodium, calories or sugar. “Avoiding” was the top purchase driver in only one category — frozen pizza.

“Pressures on food and beverage companies to formulate more nutritious products for kids are coming from all angles — consumers, NGOs, the government, as well as many customers’ own internal nutrition targets,” said Roullier. “Those pressures are typically focused on limiting nutrients that are perceived to be less healthy, especially fat, sodium and sugar. Our research suggests that consumers are largely interested in positive nutrition.”

About This Survey:

Cargill’s marketing research group conducted this online survey of more than 1,000 people fielded in November 2012. The sample consisted of general population consumers and parents of children ages 2 to 12 so that parents could be compared versus non-parents / general population. More than two-thirds of the respondents were parents. Parents were asked about food and beverage purchases for their child(ren), while the general population was asked about purchases for their household.

 

Let Them ‘Seek’ Produce!

So what can the produce industry learn from this Cargill study?                 

First, the various efforts to use cartoon characters to sell fresh produce have never gained much traction. Why is this so? Well, one reason may be found in this Cargill study. Consumers look for food appealing to the whole family, rather than looking to maintain separate pantries and create separate menus for children and the rest of the clan.

Second, produce marketers should take heart. This study, which was done not of produce but of many traditional snack categories, finds that parents are not happy with the healthfulness of these foods, which means they should be open to alternatives — although those alternatives still have to meet many criteria, including tastiness, convenience and economy.

Third, when marketing an item, this study finds it is better to accentuate the positive rather than eliminate the negative. In other words, market an item as high in fiber, rich in a vitamin, or “fresh,” rather than promoting the item as fat free or low in sugar.
 

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It is a challenge to know precisely what to make of this study. For example, the idea of a perspective in which shoppers are focused on items that appeal to the whole family would seem to marginalize specialty items. But the fact that 89 percent of parents say they are asking children to broaden their palates, and 69 percent of parents are asking their children to try adult food, implies that parents will buy what they enjoy and try to “sell it” to their children — theoretically encouraging sales of specialty items.

 Tangible opportunities can be explored with this behavior. The study claims that parents want to buy healthier cookies, but find the choices to be unsatisfactory, so there is a big shortfall in satisfaction on these purchases. The question for the produce industry is to ask whether we can get into the heads of these parents and get them to broaden their snack options so they skip the cookie aisle entirely and buy produce as a snack instead.

This is an area for better research and one has to suspect that Fresh will struggle. So often, cookies, chips and other snacks are bought without a usage occasion in mind — things you just put in the pantry for some moment when using them seems right. Some friends come over unexpectedly so you make coffee and put out some cookies. It snows so you make the kids and their friends hot chocolate served with vanilla wafers, etc.

Perhaps some fresh and frozen fruit could be used in this way. Whip up smoothies for the neighbors? And surely some of the use of produce is predictable, such as replacing cookies in a lunch box with an apple or a couple Clementines. The study starts the mind rolling on an area for more in-depth research — how to move people into produce from other snack categories.

On the marketing end, this whole idea of “seeking” seems powerful. The notion that consumers are seeking positive attributes in their foods rather than wanting to focus on downer stuff — less fat, less sugar, less salt — plays into much this columnist has written about regarding the necessity of avoiding marketing produce as a medicine. The idea of consumers as “seekers” might be a happy compromise. The industry can still market based on health, but in a positive manner.

What actually drives purchase decisions is a well studied mystery. Many of these types of products mentioned in the Cargill study are impulse items. A good promotion or a new flavor can lead to different outcomes than what would have been predicted by any survey of consumers.

It is also problematic that all these product categories are on consumer shopping lists even though we all know perfectly well that more healthful alternatives are available. It likely means that the produce industry has to do more than emphasize healthfulness.

When low carb diets were the rage, many hamburger chains started offering burgers on lettuce leaves to meet consumer demand for low carb options. So something —  be it vanity, medical issues, a search for healthfulness — led lots of consumers to change their diets to pursue the goals they had set for themselves. The challenge is to help consumers set goals of the sort that keep them out of the cookie aisle all together. Then the consumers will be looking for other snack items, and produce has a fair chance of picking up a lot of business.

Consumers establish the life they intend to lead long before they walk in the store. If their life goal isn’t aligned with the world of produce, these consumers will spend their shopping trips seeking healthy cookies and frozen pizza. They will always be disappointed, which means there is always an opportunity for the produce industry to try again next time.        pb