Hi, I’m Adam Yee. I’m a food scientist and I do a podcast called My Food Job Rocks where I interview an expert in the food industry every week. We have interviews in categories such as product development, food safety, marketing, sales and law from founders, engineers, scientists and professors. We currently have over 200 episodes and more than 100 articles. My full-time job is working on alternative meat projects at an innovative startup in Boston.
Bee Wilson has no use for packaged foods, but most of us have our favorites. The spotting of new trends and the design of new products is a fast moving field, and Adam Yee has his finger on its pulse. It’s more complex than you think. We get a glimpse of that world in this guest post.
My day to day job is to observe what’s happening in the food industry, take notes, and then use that data to either give advice or create great products. My specialty is plant-protein technology where I’ve launched plant-based protein bars, started my own company, collaborated with a billion-dollar chicken company within that company, helping food startups scale, and now working as an early employee finding innovative ways to improve our current food system.
This article is split into two “segments”. In the industry, we do have current practices that cost a lot of money that help us understand the significance of trends. We’ll go through those methods but the issue with trends is understanding how they come to be, and how long they’ll last. Inspired by other industries, these techniques might help you focus on the next thing in 5 to 10 years and ignore the things that will die off in a year.
How to Get Good Information
There are several methods that we as formulators and marketers use to gather enough data to say “we need to get into this segment”. If you have the luxury of spending six figures on a 50 page report, then great but you probably don’t. There are more scrappier methods.
To get this out of the way, most big companies use data aggregate software/services like Mintel or SPINS to gather what’s selling at what volumes. This data is very important in a retail perspective as companies use this data to show to retailers that their new product aligns with the trends.
But for the person reading this, it’s probably not as important. A much cheaper solution is to go to a variety of trade shows and take your time to insightfully observe trends. In Natural Products Expo West, debatably the largest consumer packaged goods expo with over 85,000 attendees, has thousands of new companies that go and showcase their innovative new product, and the more established companies also show up showing that they are innovative too. Expo West houses over 3500 companies of all shapes and sizes from the person who just started to the General Mills of the world. Taking time to sort out who’s there allows you to systematically understand what’s happening right now and see what’s going on.
What is always true is that small companies are more innovative than big companies. Big companies need ingredient scaling and they have a lot more moving parts. Small companies have the freedom and tenacity to go faster. A big company can take 2 to 5 years to launch a product but a small company can take 6 months if pushed. If a big company launches an innovative product like a plant burger or an ancient grain snack, then that trend has gone mainstream. Once you understand the layout of a conference like an Expo West, you can sort what’s a big company versus a small company based on where they’re at in the show and how much square feet they own.
Speaking of Expo West, one of my favorite interviews on the subject of trends was talking to Eric Pierce. He runs a division called Business Insights at New Hope which is part of Expo West and the way he understands trends is so insightful, it’s scary.
Eric’s job is to find trends and because he’s with the largest trade show in the world, he has the resources and data to do so.
To find trends that last, there has to be something behind it. Eric calls this a “force”. A force is the consumer’s needs, wants and concerns based on the current climate and as forces start to add up and become more significant, this pushes the trend along. Ideally, products that satisfy the more forces are more successful. Forces can range from a variety of topics and are generally thought of as complicated problems. Things such as animal welfare, high-fat diet, convenience, and taste are all examples of forces.
I’ll give two food examples. One is sparkling water, and one is plant-based burgers.
We think of La Croix as just fancy flavored water (and it is). Though it kind of lost its steam, La Croix is a shining example of how forces gained enough momentum to catapult its rise to fame and overall created a dominating category.
The biggest force that convinced people to buy La Croix is because it was the best alternative to soda. Soda was considered unhealthy and too sweet. It was also a legacy brand. Those three forces, too sweet, too unhealthy and too old helped boost La Croix to gain a lot of sales.
Though La Croix is fading, other sparkling waters with new hip graphics and value propositions like Waterloo, Ugly Drinks, Aura Bora, and to a deeper extent, White Claw, have catapulted using the same forces or added more forces that helped La Croix.
Beyond Meat is much more interesting. Though we’ve always had plant-based burgers, why did Beyond Meat reinvigorate the category? The forces became more intense as time went on. Beyond Meat had the following forces push them (whether or not these forces are true in your eyes, the data is consistent on why people eat it):
- People are saying a plant-based is healthier
- I feel bad for eating animals, so I don’t want to eat meat
- Meat has an impact on the climate, so I don’t want to eat meat
- Meat has too many antibiotics so I don’t want to eat meat
- I love the taste of meat, but there’s no good substitute
Beyond Meat’s meteoric rise was because the criteria was satisfied. It satisfied what the consumer wanted in multiple different ways. As people are starting to notice it, a lot of copycats have entered the market.
So to understand forces better, if you see a weird product at the grocery store or an article about something you can’t even fathom, it’s important to realize what series of events lead up to this being on the shelf.
Unlocks are when either technology or authority allows others to rethink strategy and rush to make a profit. What does that mean?
The point of an unlock is that a certain authority (business or academic) makes a statement or invention so interesting or impactful that people will innovate. This either takes a lot of time or a lot of money.
One recent unlock not related to food is when Jeff Bezos told shareholders that they will be spending their whole billion-dollar profit to make a pandemic-free supply chain. Amazon has the technology, money and authority to unlock this type of discussion. Other types of innovative unlocks are Walmart shifting to grocery and Space X sending astronauts to space. All examples deal with companies making big statements or executions to get the job done. It gives permission for everyone, big or small, to innovate and create a better system.
So let’s talk food.
Cell-based/Clean/Slaughter-free meat is one of the most exciting technologies to grace the food scene. Though not commercialized yet, the unlock for people to throw money at the technology was when a scientist named Mark Post from the University of Maastricht created the first burger made from cells that opened the door in 2013. Though it tasted bland, it ignited the world with the possibility that it can be done. Post’s research was funded by Google’s co-founder Segey Brin and took 2 years of intense research to make one patty that costs $325,000. Now with dozens of well-funded companies all over the world, people have claimed they can make the same amount of meat for a little over $10 bucks.
Other examples of unlocks in food was the commercialization of stevia (natural high intensity sweetners thanks to a bad perception of aspartame, and now introducing new alt-sweetners like allulose), whey protein (Leprino used to dump whey in the rivers because it was waste and now it’s worth it’s weight in cheese sales), and microwave technology (heat your food in seconds? Now let’s innovate the packaging and formulations to make it safe and delicious).
The Long Tail
The long tail is a statistical model/theory that boils down to the fact that products don’t have to be popular or mainstream to be successful.
We know that there are people who don’t like processed foods and have the luxury of growing their own tomatoes or whatever. There are a lot of people who make a lot of money saying processed foods are bad and then they launch their own processed food line.
As a food scientist, it’s easy to get caught up on this discussion. I choose to appreciate that we can have fresh fruit at the supermarket but also freeze-dried fruits in my cereal. Now more than ever there are exciting products that cover every single form and diet.
What we miss as consumers is the big picture. In the past, we didn’t have nearly the variety we have now. You couldn’t eat mangos in December or sushi in Ohio.
The best products and the best brands know who they’re selling to. If you don’t like it, there is someone who will die for it. It’s important to realize this: we live in a world where we have the luxury of choosing what to eat. Unfortunately, this leads to echo-chambers and misinformation but the point being is that because we can choose, we can innovate faster because we understand our consumer better.
Here’s an example: TV is an interesting industry. 60 years ago, we had about TV 3 stations in black and white. When cable hit, this increased to less than 100. With the introduction of not just Youtube, but Netflix and more and more tools to make content faster, higher quality and cheaper. Now the possibilities are endless. Because more people have access to choose and because it’s easier to create products, we as an individual consumer can watch what we want and don’t have to worry about missing a show or watching commercials we don’t like.
To translate, this is exactly what’s happening in our food system. The choices we have are more plentiful, manufacturers are more flexible, and food companies can now sell product directly to you.
The big takeaway from this is the concept of a majority share in food is broken and what’s left is hundreds of micro-trends that can be easily innovated into something better. If you’re looking for something to innovate and follow, it’s not one big trend anymore, but hundreds of micro-trends.
Faster than You Think
If you really want to invest in the future of food and find ways to make a difference and you have a clean slate, I highly suggest getting ideas from the book The Future is Faster Than You Think. Though it dives more into tech like automatic cars and virtual reality, it’s important to understand that technology is going faster and faster and food is no exception. What could be a trend today could be forgotten next week.
The pandemic was supposed to halt innovation but we are now seeing it more than ever before. Remote work has forced people to adapt to technology. E-commerce sales and plant-based product sales skyrocketed during this time, and the companies who are in the research phase are not slowing down. Some industries have taken a hit for sure, but overall, it’s been a net positive in innovation.
To understand trends is to find ways to hit where the target will be, not where it’s at. Understanding how trends happen by analyzing the forces that drive them and the technology that’s available, allows you to make a rational decision to go all in.
Next week: News and notes about food in the middle of a pandemic