How can food makers deliver personalisation to the masses?

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Digitalisation has empowered consumers to expect higher levels of personalisation ©iStock
Digitalisation has empowered consumers to expect higher levels of personalisation ©iStock

Related tags Nutrition

As consumer expectations over personalisation continue to grow, how can food makers deliver an individual experience at scale?

Consumers are increasingly expecting a more sophisticated approach to personalisation in food. The consumer as critic and creator wants to shape the products and services they buy.

A chief driver supporting this trend, particularly among younger demographics, is digitalisation and home tech. But personalisation can take many forms.

“By its very nature, personalisation means different things to different people. There’s a corresponding breadth of response from the food industry, which continues to evolve. It’s important that manufacturers assess where the greatest opportunities lie, so they can focus innovation efforts,”​ Leatherhead Food Research managing director Chris Wells told FoodNavigator.

According to a new study from Leatherhead, a significant proportion of under 35 year olds in the UK use technology to drive health-related dietary decisions. Half of 18-24 and 25-34 year olds - 51% and 52% respectively - expressed an interest in apps or websites to suggest recipes based on factors including height, weight, food likes and dislikes, and health goals. This compared to 37% of all adults.

Tailored meal kit concepts also prove popular among this demographic. Tailored meal kits are of interest to 43% of 18-24 year olds and 49% of 25-34 year olds, Leatherhead found, compared to 31% of the general adult population. Ready meals tailored to height, weight and health goals are of interest to 32% of the general population, but this increases to 45% and 47% respectively for 18-24 year olds and 25-34 year olds.

Emotion, preference and health

Wells suggested that personalised food and beverage products fall into three main categories: emotional, preference and health.

“There’s the ‘emotional connection’ approach where products or packaging are customised with names or messages. Then we have ‘preference personalisation’ with flavours or textures tailored to an individual’s taste. And there’s ‘health personalisation’ where products are optimised for specific health benefits or nutritional requirements. It’s a broad spectrum. At one end, it can involve gifting someone a favourite food with their name on the packet. At the other, genotypic information can be used for sophisticated tailoring of ingredients to meet an individual’s nutritional needs,”​ he suggested.

Of all these areas, health personalisation represents the greatest opportunity for “breakthrough innovation​” with escalating consumer demand expected in the coming years. The level of personalisation to meet this demand is variable, Wells continued. “It can involve segmented approaches for different demographics, as seen in the dairy products for over 65s in Norway. We’re also seeing the emergence of meal deliveries based on nutritional information, which can extend to genetic testing and the gut microbiome.”

However, health should not necessarily be the primary focus of every company’s personalisation efforts. “Decisions about which area or areas to prioritise should be rooted in various factors, from technical capabilities to brand values. There is also scope for interplay between the three personalisation categories. To capitalise on demand effectively, it’s vital to understand and respond to the changing needs and demands of customers, and specific customer groups. For instance, our research shows that millennials in particular are looking for more personalised products, indicating a rejection of the one size fits all model.”

Thinking outside the app

Mobile apps and wearable devices to measure physical activity are an important driver for personalisation, while rising numbers of consumers look to websites and mobile apps for recipes. But Wells believes there is a “growing need​” for “clever apps​” that “go a step further​” in how they link fitness and food consumption.

Some food makers are already exploring this potential. Habit, for instance, offers app-based nutritional recommendations and personalised meals based on biochemistry and personal goals. Meanwhile Nutrino has developed a nutrition app using data from glucose monitors to provide food recommendations for people with diabetes.

Wells believes that there is scope for food makers should take development of these more sophisticated solutions into their own hands. “While this may require collaboration with third parties, there’s no need for brands to shy away from owning or launching the apps themselves. They represent an effective way to build closer relationships with consumers, particularly the younger demographics. Transparency is an important factor though, particularly when it comes to the use of people’s personal data.”

Wells also added that apps and website development does not “provide all the answers​”, pointing to the fact that there is a greater need for tailored nutrition among older demographics, who are nevertheless less inclined to embrace the technologies that facilitate personalisation.

Staying ahead of the curve

Consumer are increasingly looking for healthier products while the public health agenda is focusing on sugar and calorie reduction. “This trend is likely to converge with the increasing use of apps to drive health related decisions,”​ Wells predicted.

“Food manufacturers need to invest in new skills to take stay ahead in this environment. The long-term success of smartphone apps for nutritional personalisation ultimately relies on the effective use of diagnostic algorithms. When data gathered from apps is analysed and interpreted it can generate actionable insights to influence product development. This is an important factor underpinning the ability to offer individualised experiences at a scale that makes sense from an economic perspective.

“So, for instance, consumers can use apps to set personal objectives and measure their consumption over time. Manufacturers can draw on this data to recommend the best food choices based on personal needs and behaviours. Those recommendations might include a blend of their own products or ingredients along with more generic food items.”

Securing scale

A key issue facing food makers - possibly the biggest barrier to personalisation - is the seemingly contradictory goal of producing individualised products on an industrial scale.

Wells believes that to find a solution, food makers must develop innovations that manage the risk while maximising the opportunity.

“Meeting demand for personalised products can be expensive and logistically challenging. After all, for many years large manufacturing facilities have been geared up to offer economies of scale via mass production. It's not easy to cater for personalisation in these environments,”​ Wells noted.

One response can be the use of dispense techniques that personalise mass produced products, such as cake kiosks in supermarkets or other customised vending approaches.

“In the health category, this might involve the addition of vitamins and minerals, Omega 3 fats or functional ingredients to a base, mass-produced product. But clearly there will be challenges to address when personalising products at the point of dispense, from technical capabilities to health and hygiene issues,”​ Wells predicted.

Leatherhead’s research on personalisation points to the need for a paradigm shift in the food and beverage sector, Wells concluded. “The digital age has driven new capabilities and new consumer demands. And the industry is poised for significant change over the coming years.”

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