How will COVID-19 impact health food perceptions?

By Nikki Hancocks

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | KIWIS
Getty | KIWIS

Related tags Consumer trends Consumer attitudes COVID

Health food and drink experts have revealed what they believe will be the biggest purchase drivers and the biggest innovation pitfalls post-COVID and how brands can cater to emerging needs.

In a webinar hosted by Fi Global Insights (from Food Ingredients Europe), Rick Miller, associate director for specialised nutrition at Mintel,​ Peter Wennstrom, founder and lead consultant for Healthy Marketing Team​, and Julian Mellentin, founder of food and drink marketing consultancy New Nutrition Business​, outlined some of the key consumer trends which will be accelerated due to this pandemic.

Fear and comfort

Miller said the fact there is no cure or vaccine for COVID-19 is causing a great amount of fear, and this is going to be an ongoing purchase decision driver.

“The generation that will lead this trend in the post-COVID era, is the millennials - those in their late 20s to late 30s.

“We’ve been tracking consumer responses to the outbreak and we’ve found this particular generation is the most fearful about how it will affect lifestyle, health, finances and they are the most likely to make changes to the way they spend as a result of the crisis. I believe they will drive the purchase of specialised nutrition products."

Driven by this need for comfort, Wennstrom said there has been an acceleration of the 'back to basics' trend which has seen people baking bread, making their own kombucha and kefir, and generally enjoying getting down to the nuts and bolts of the ingredients of foods.

He added that this need for comfort has also driven the ongoing 'snackification' trend, adding that snacking 'has never been more important' than it is today.

Miller agreed, adding: "Fear also causes people to develop comfort behaviours. We see that with the uptake in alcohol, dessert and treats. It’s important to remain aware of emotive drivers as much as health drivers."

Health versus indulgence​ 

"We’ve got to remember that taste is paramount when it comes to functional food and beverage, whatever its healthiness,"​ Miller added. "If it doesn’t provide the taste you will only snap up a small percentage of consumers."

Confirming this point, Mellentin said he thought the biggest innovation opportunity is 'healthy indulgence'.

"Make the product delicious but give it an aspect that makes it 'OK' in the consumer's eyes. One very successful example of this was 'Oreo Thins' - Exactly the same as an Oreo, only thinner. You can repeat that across all categories. The biggest successes give people something they consider healthier and also allows them to make a pleasurable indulgent choice."

Wennstrom agreed this has been a highly successful area of innovation, adding: "We are seeing more and more indulgence categories being re-engineered to become functional. It started with proteins and now we see additions of plants, herbs, spices, fibre and more. It’s just the way forward. The older generation believe healthy is not tasty but they're wrong, this is the way forward."

Julian added that this dependence on taste reveals one clear potential pitfall for healthy indulgence - if the main reason for purchasing the product is taste, then perhaps that's what the consumer will ultimately revert to.

"Protein ice cream has been a big area of innovation and Halo Top created that market. Their sales soared in the first year but then they collapsed because other brands joined the market, some with even tastier products. Then a more indulgent 'gelato' brand was launched which wasn't healthy but it tasted amazing and this took sales away. So sometimes the choice of category will have an affect on how important the taste is."

The importance of belief

'The era of belief' is the trend that has seen perceptions and beliefs become more important than facts. Wennstrom explained it has become imperative to understand who your audience is, what their beliefs are and what drives these beliefs because they will follow their health beliefs as though they were their religion.  

Mellenting warned that one of the most frequent causes of new product failure that he sees, is when a brand bases its innovation on what it thinks​ the consumer wants, without doing research to confirm this or to find out why ​the consumer wants it.

"So often a company will say 'we think consumers want this', but they haven’t understood people’s beliefs or what motivates them."

He added it's this 'era of belief' trend which hammers home the importance investing in building consumer awareness about the health benefits of ingredients. He said: "While you may have a great product with great science, the fact is people will go first to the products they believe in."

While it is a given that immunity focused products will enjoy a surge in interest, this is another area where shoppers' beliefs will have a big impact on how the trend plays out in sales. 

The experts agreed that those ingredients that are most likely to succeed during this period are those with well-established connections to immunity and they specifically noted vitamin C, vitamin D and probiotics as the front runners.

Sustainability versus health

Consumers' own belief systems continue to come into play when it comes to perceptions of sustainability.

Speaking about how brands can possibly get the right balance between sustainability and health, Mellentin pointed out that the sustainability of a product is analysed using completely different criteria from one consumer to another.

"There is a huge fragmented consumer group and people’s beliefs will change. Some people think 'local' means sustainability. You’ll have the consumer who says 'I live in Wales and I’d rather eat Welsh sheep than lentils from Egypt'.

"Then there are those buying plant-based products but they aren’t worried about where the products have come from or the fact they've travelled all over the world during production, so different people rank products with different criteria."

Wennstrom pointed out that consumer interest in 'provenance and authenticity' will become more mainstream following the boost in interest in regional brands during this pandemic.  But he agreed it's impossible to be everything to everyone when it comes to sustainability and he suggested one way to remain trusted is to be open with the consumers about what the brand does and doesn't do.

"We did research with Millennials and identified the dilemmas they are facing when shopping as they are struggling to find the right line between selfish, sustainable, altruistic, convenience, health.

"If you have to use plastic bottles you have to talk about the fact you know you are using plastic and this is a concern and talk to them about the dilemmas."

Total wellbeing

One mega consumer trend has been the interest in 'total wellbeing' and 'holistic health'. This is driven by a number of sub-trends which are each getting their own boost during this period. 

Wennstrom points out that the ‘Wellness witchcraft’ trend has seen an increased interest in ancient remedies, herbs, spices, and wellness rituals, which has seen the rising interest in natural and foreign ingredients such as turmeric and matcha.

Similarly, the ‘prevention through plants’ trend sees consumers look to plant-based diets to help them prevent ill-health. Wennstrom explains that they are choosing these foods due to their wide ranging health-benefiting aspects such as anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatories and fibre.

Miller said he believed one big opportunity for innovations post-COVID, would be in health snacks which tap into the 'holistic health' trend.

"I think we will see a blurring of the lines between categories where brands will look to encompass several health areas to make one holistic product. We’ve seen that in areas like snacking. If we think about what a snack might have been in the past, now it has to provide functional benefit – mood boost, beauty, prebiotics, probiotics. I don’t think brands should be afraid to try this because it about providing total wellbeing."

Discussing the challenge of innovating with nootropics, Mellentin said that main difficulty is that nootropics don’t provide very tangible benefits. He even went on to describe nootropic innovations as 'a sea of failure'. 

"Effectiveness will drive repeat purchase. If you fall short then you add risk to your strategy.

"The difficulty is you need to have a big dose for these to be effective. If you try and provide this in food and beverage it affects the flavour. Caffeine is a good example because its one where, without exception, people feel a benefit, that’s why its been out energy drink for 400 years. You’ve got to find a way to get consumer loyalty and I think soft affects are a hard sell. If you go into nootropics you need to think it through very carefully.

Mellentin warned that another area of health which has the potential to go down the same path as nootropics, is immunity, in that these products aren't going to give the consumer a tangible health benefit. 

"You have to invest in brand building for several years. Often failure arises because people have very high expectations about how quickly something will be a success."

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