Food industry and the culture wars: how to market to diverse and divided populations

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

An era of polarising debate is a 'very challenging moment in history for CPG brands'. Image: Getty/We Are
An era of polarising debate is a 'very challenging moment in history for CPG brands'. Image: Getty/We Are

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Brand purpose can be a helpful tool in reaching some audiences, but it is not relevant for all categories and all brand strategies, reveals fresh research.

Should food and beverage brands put sustainability at the heart of their communications, or is it simply an internal matter? Should brands have an agenda on progressive issues? And if so, how do you balance that with the need for return on investment?

There is no one rule for all, concludes new research from UK-based food and drink brand agency Huxly Global. Different types of brand and product have different dynamics.

The debate about purpose has become polarised and dogmatic, Huxly noted. Successful brands are driven by a belief and a sense of purpose, stress some. Others argue you should never give someone a reason not to buy your brand​.

“It feels like this is a space with a lot of strong opinions and confusion,”​ said Huxly founder Joe Goyder. “It’s quite hard to know the right things to do.”​ He added: “This is a very challenging moment in history for CPG brands. We have a number of enormous pressures on the industry at a time where our population has never seemed so divided.”

To attempt to bring some clarity to the debate, Huxly polled 1,500 UK consumers about their cultural attitudes and behaviours. It asked 75 questions covering four key topic areas: gender and orientation; race and immigration; the environment; food behaviours and category purchase including the plant-based and alcohol-free categories.

The results identified four consumer types. ‘Conscientious’ consumers made up 38% of those polled. This group is mainly female, over 40, and well-educated. They want to make changes to support ecology and disadvantaged groups. They will pay more for sustainable brands, but they are less affluent than other groups, and more at risk from rising prices.

Next up are ‘traditionalists’, who made up 35% of those polled. This group is largely male and financially successful. They resist change and aren’t interested in altering the way they eat and drink. Just 36% of them like to try new products as soon as they come out, lower than any other group.

The ‘in control’ cohort (14%) are focussed, hardworking and sober city dwellers. 60% are aged 18-39. They are engaged with technology and open to trying new things. 73% of them agree ‘I avoid drinking alcohol’. They are most likely to use instant food delivery services. They have only lukewarm support for sustainability – the freedom to enjoy their lifestyle is priority.

Closely behind those ‘in control’ are the ‘progressive hedonists’, making up 13% of the poll. This group have progressive attitudes to the environment, gender, LGBTQ+ etc, but their priority is having fun. 58% are aged 18-39. They are big users of streaming and social media. They will pay more for sustainable brands.

These groups have different priorities, stressed Huxly. For example, over 60% of the conscientious consumers and progressive hedonists said they like to see people with LGBTQ+ orientations in advertising from the brands they buy, compared to 41% and 29% for the ‘in control’ group and ‘traditionalists’. For these two groups, messaging on progressive issues is likely to be an inefficient, potentially negative, use of marketing spend. Goyder referenced Budweiser’s infamous 2019 Superbowl advert touting its commitment to sustainable energy. “Bud is a large, mass-market beer.”​ He asked, tongue in cheek: “Do the average mid-Western pickup-driving Budweiser drinkers really engage with that type of messaging?”

Credible messaging on progressive issues is, however, likely to drive appeal to the conscientious group. What’s more, different categories have different dynamics and will reward different strategies. For example, within the alcohol-free and plant-based categories, the market is mostly driven by consumers with progressive values, and this is likely to be a source of advantage.

If you’re goal is to be a challenger or steal a part of a large market (eg Innocent, or Tony’s Chocolonely) then putting a sense of mission at the heart of your brand has the potential to be helpful, therefore. But be credible, stressed Goyder. “Understand your buyer base and which themes unite them. Recognise your ‘conscientious’ and ‘young hedonist’ targets probably support a wide range of causes.”

For mass penetration focus on what unites, not divides 

If you want to reach everybody, on the other hand, you need to reach a diversity of groups – and ages. Marketing too often makes sweeping generalisations about how younger generations feel on these issues, complained Huxly’s research. For example, generations are meaningless as a means of understanding consumers. They are all diverse, and all of the consumer segments identified by Huxly appear in all generations. Different groups also have plenty in common. We all want to enjoy good times with our family, food, fun, the outdoors, and progress in life.

For mass penetration, therefore, food marketers should focus on themes that unite us not divide us. Take Cadbury’s emotive ad telling the story of a little girl buying chocolate with buttons for her mum’s birthday. Or Mars’ darkly-humorous ad involving two campers salivating over a Twix (and two bears salivating over a pair of campers) which engages with most people on a comedic level.

“The classic advertising strategies – showing your product, and its unique sensory qualities, in the context of emotionally driven events – have the ability to build universal appeal,”​ pointed out Goyder. “This strategy allows very large brands in established categories to address the whole market to achieve market leadership and the efficiencies of production, distribution and communication that come with that.”

Big brands still at risk of getting left behind

However, for the bigger brands this strategy does create a risk that challenger brands will pick off parts of your consumer base with mission led marketing. To counter this, Goyder advised that mainstream brands nonetheless need to make supply chain more sustainable, and continue to act in an ethical way, to avoid getting left behind by competitors and to avoid deterring progressive customers.

“Different brands have different ambitious,”​ he concluded. “Some say you should not have any sense of mission. Others say you should. What we are recognising is that depending on the ambition of your brand and depending on the category you are in; very different rules are likely to apply.

“If you want to reach everybody in the market and build a market leading brand, then avoid all the sorts of issues that might potentially divide your audience. Brand purpose can be a helpful tool in reaching some audiences, but it is not relevant for all categories and all brand strategies. But challenger brands, targeting progressive audiences, can achieve significant share, using progressive values to build the appeal of their propositions.”

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