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Debunking the Big Myth Behind ‘Big Food’

A new study by Leo Burnett shows that eating and purchasing behaviors are more segmented than once believed.

It’s true: “Big Food” is in for some big change. Americans are increasingly moving away from eating and purchasing processed Big Food products—six in ten Americans, to be exact. But this doesn’t mean that they are entirely leaving Big Food behind or are all doing so in a uniform way.

Pushpa Gopalan, SVP, strategy director at Leo Burnett USA, and Elizabeth Knapp, SVP, research director of the HumanLab at Leo Burnett Worldwide, have recently published the outline findings of a large-scale study into the food-shopping habits and eating behaviors of 4,600 Americans. The study, which included 105 foods and eating occasions with 74 attributes and 100,000 food substitutions, sought to provide a more in-depth and detailed look into this larger trend affecting Big Food.

The study found that not all consumers are leaving processed foods for health reasons, as is often assumed. Instead, their findings showed that relationships and behaviors toward Big Food were highly varied. In their findings, Gopalan and Knapp identified six types of grocery shoppers, defined by their motivations concerning health, quality and convenience.

A consumer focus on health is often viewed as the driving force behind this changing eating behavior; but it is not the only force. For example, many moved away from processed foods for more sensory and indulgent food experiences, not necessarily healthier ones. Even among those opting for health, that motivation might entail organic products for some consumers while for others it may mean abstaining from certain ingredients.

Perhaps most importantly for big brand marketers, Knapp and Gopalan’s research found that consumers did not necessarily consider Big Food an enemy, despite the present shift. "We saw people ascribe quality, convenience, nostalgia, and trust to these brands and think of them fondly. Which, to us, spells opportunity."

So what does this mean for brands and marketers? Knapp and Gopalan advise that companies “play to the spectrum” of consumers in the market. Avoid easy blanket assumptions, and, instead, be aware of the product’s role in the specific motivations of a consumer group.

February 17, 2017