Time for a fresh perspective on the food and beverage landscape. Sure, we’ve gone through major twists and turns that have made the market tricky to navigate. But now’s the time to move forward and reset the table with insights into the rapidly changing needs and expectations of today’s consumers.
As David Portalatin, food industry advisor for the market research firm NPD Group, put it: “The rate of change in U.S. consumers’ eating behaviors continues at a dizzying pace. Anyone hoping to return to normal must understand that there is no normal, only an ongoing evolution as we respond to new realities.”
In his report Eating Patterns in America, Portalatin pinpointed six determining factors driving the new norm:
- Economic transition (the shift away from stimulus safeguards to uncertainty)
- Inflation (belt-tightening when it comes to food choices)
- Income bifurcation (the impact of the widening gap between high and low incomes on food purchases)
- Sticky behaviors (home-centric eating patterns like eating most meals at home that the pandemic intensified)
- Total wellness (a heightened awareness of how food affects physical and emotional health)
- Return to convenience (back to school and work requires quick meal solutions)
As the new era of innovation continues to serve up challenges and opportunities, savvy food and beverage brands are finding innovative ways to keep pace with changing dietary preferences and eating behaviors.
“America’s eating patterns are shifting to adjust to new realities, and food manufacturers, foodservice operators and retailers will need to adjust their offerings and services accordingly,” he notes. “Although the one constant is change, there is a constant to count on, the U.S. consumer will always need to eat, and then it’s a matter of figuring out what, how, when and where.”
Domino's Makes Economic Transition Easier to Stomach
Economic transition may be leaving a bad taste in the mouths of consumers, but brand brainstorms are serving up smart ways to soften the blow.
Take Domino’s limited-time promotion that gives away free pizzas to people whose student loan payments have resumed. This October, over 43.5 million Americans have had to start making monthly loan payments after a more than three-year pause. Debt is not a good thing any way you slice it, but Domino’s will deliver some relief in the form of $1 million in free pizzas as part of The Emergency Pizza for Student Loans Program.
As Senior Vice Preside Kat Trumbull said: “When life gives you loans, Domino’s gives you free pizza!” The promo is an extension of the brand’s Emergency Pizza Program, which treats rewards members to an in-app voucher for a pizza pick-me-up.
In a twist on income bifurcation taking a bite out of business, student loan borrowers are typically higher earning consumers who favor major fast-casual brands, according to Restaurant Dive. The well-educated consumer bases that gravitate to these chains are expected to do some belt-tightening as they navigate their loan payments. Watch for fast casuals to follow Domino’s lead and deliver student loan relief-themed promotions of their own.
Walmart Provides Inflation Alleviation
As a special gift to its customers, the retail juggernaut is spreading cheer with its new “inflation deal,” which makes the high cost of holiday spreads easier to stomach. The deal removes the extra cost that inflation is heaping on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa dinners.
“Saving money remains a top priority for our customers, and this holiday season, we’re building on the investments we made last year knowing they need it now more than ever,” announced Walmart U.S. President and CEO John Furner. “We’re better positioned than ever before to deliver on our purpose, to help customers save money and live better, especially during the most exciting time of the year.”
Major restaurant brands may have to rethink making any additional menu hikes to offset inflationary pressures and ease tightening margins. It’s reasonable to expect that loan repayments, inflation and other financial considerations will prompt more bargain shopping in the grocery aisles as well, as Gen Z and millennial foodies balance the demands of their palates and their wallets.
Bread SRSL Grabs a Slice of Total Wellness
So what are today’s consumers hungry for and willing to spend money on? A heightened sense of the importance of nutrition is sharpening the focus on foods that promote wellness.
“What is beyond question,” stated Andy Welch, founder of the gluten-free sourdough bread company Bread SRSL, “is that the food and drink narrative changed after COVID-19 as large swathes of the public looked a lot closer at their eating and drinking habits, tracking down ingredient decks and recipes that improved both their physical and emotional well-being (gut health, brain health, protein intake), whilst rejecting excessive amounts of those damaging ingredients (salt, sugar and lazy carbs) and production processes born from convenience not common sense.”
According to Mintel’s 2024 Global Food and Drink Trends report, clarifying processed content and techniques to give consumers a sense of trust and confidence is the top trend to watch in the new year.
Mintel research reveals an urgent need for brands to develop trust with clear communication about any processing their products may entail — and not every kind of processing carries negative implications. Emphasizing positive forms of processing is key to helping consumers make informed decisions about product purchases.
“Many types of processed foods and processing techniques are valued by consumers on positive grounds linked to attributes like tradition, health and naturalness,” says Megan Stanton, associate director, Mintel Food & Drink. “Examples include stone-ground flour, cold-pressed oil and fermented dairy products.”1
Small Bites Stick for Big Convenience
Snackable food items, especially those that fuse flavor and function, are on the rise as convenient forms of meal replacement for consumers who are back to the busy, grab-and-go lives they led pre-pandemic. Datassential found that nearly 30% of consumers surveyed ate their last snack as a meal, and snackers are partaking 2.3 times a day, with millennials and consumers with children snacking the most.
As Mondelēz International reports, snacking consumption and frequency has undergone significant growth — and the shift is sticking. “Changes in eating habits and customs, more time spent at home post-pandemic, reduced mobility, increased importance of convenience in the work-from-home setup, the need to reduce anxiety and the greater supply available at home may have facilitated this market increase,” the company explains in its State of Snacking report.2
“Consumers continue to turn to snacking as an accessible, affordable treat to ease or reward the demands of daily life,” Mondelēz International CEO and Chairman Dirk Van de Put stated.2 “Despite rising grocery costs, three-quarters (75%) of consumers agree they always find room in their budget for snacks, especially millennials (80%).”
Mondelēz International survey results show that consumers increasingly look to snacks for a sense of emotional and physical well-being, with a balance of nutrition and indulgence.2
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1 Mintel, 2024 Global Food & Drink Trends Report, 2023
2 Mondelēz International, The Fourth Annual State of Snacking 2022 Global Trends Study