Data dive, hands-on approach both advocated as trend spotting methods

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

iStockPhoto Rawpixel Ltd.
iStockPhoto Rawpixel Ltd.

Related tags Natural products

What drives new trends? Is this best discovered seeing them unfold in real time at hands of innovators, or are they better discerned via a deep dive into marketing data?  Both approaches were presented at the recent Healthy & Natural Show in Chicago.

The show, which debuted last week at the city’s Navy Pier venue, was put on by William Reed and brought together exhibitors and attendees in the dietary supplement, natural foods and personal care product categories.  Included in the show was a day of education that featured presentations by marketing maven Blake Mitchell as well as Canadian marketing consultant and publisher Ryan Benn.

Old fashioned shoe leather

Mitchell, who sited his consulting business Interact on Shelf in Boulder, CO to be immersed in the food innovation culture there, uses a hands-on approach to uncovering new trends in the food space. Mitchell makes it a goal to talk to as many “makers” as he can each year. In Mitchell’s view trends start with one person doing something new and connecting with a local market. Those trends then start to show up on local shelves and in the new flavors offered by vendors and so forth. Putting in that time, racking up frequent flyer miles and wearing out a few pairs of shoes along the way—being “uncomfortable” as Mitchell puts it—is his method to uncover the kernels of trends before they germinate and grow into a plant that anyone can spot.

“I like to look at trends like a Seurat painting, finding the interesting little dots that make up a whole movement,”​ he said. “I think we spend more time in grocery stores looking at what’s on the shelf than anyone else.”

Mitchell and his team spend thousands of hours a year flying to different locations where food trends are developing, such as farmers markets and other open air venues such as sampling events.  He and his team even traipse through street food hotspots such as Mexico City. It helps him get a feel for how consumers are interacting with new offerings, he said.

“The value of these is being close to your market. When you do a demo at a farmers market, you are hearing directly from the consumer. We also tour nearly every trade show, including the second tier shows. These are the places where we continue to find these interesting dots,” ​he said.

The data behind the trends

Benn, on the other hand, takes a more data-driven approach to trying to discern what moves consumers.  Benn gave a talk ostensibly meant to give a snapshot of the market for healthy & natural products in Canada. Benn said in reality there is little difference between these two markets in terms of the character of the consumers within them.  Benn uses his Alive publishing group, which has lately evolved into a global brand, as a platform for helping brands connect to consumers as well as a way to do research into the market.

“When people ask me how is it being in the publishing industry I say, I don’t know. I’m in the health industry.  If I were just in general interest publishing, I’d probably be out of business,”​ he said.

Benn detailed the results of a comprehensive survey his company conducted into how consumers view health & natural products, where they go to get information about them, and how much time they spend shopping for them.  One of the key takeaways was a ranking of the words consumers use to describe the products as a way to peek into their thought processes. The data was gleaned from interactions with more than 1,200 consumers, Benn said.

“If you want to take a picture of one slide, take a picture of this one,”​ Benn said. “This is the one that cost $50,000.”

The most prevalent terms consumers used to describe the products were words or phrases such as “Important, strong/strength, natural and organic.” ​Among the less prevalent words used in the survey were words such as “exercise, good diet, eating right, and weight.” ​The research is potentially valuable because marketers can use the exact words that motivate their customers in their messaging to them, Benn said.

Benn said he believes there is little difference between the health conscious Canadian consumer and his or her counterpart south of the border, so the data takeaways are common to both markets.

“A large percentage of Canadians continue to believe that vitamin and mineral supplements are important and effective.  Low sugar products are showing a huge rise, as are products that say they are free of artificial ingredients. ‘Local’ as a trend didn’t exist four years ago and now it is at the top of the curves the top of the curve. And for protein products, more Canadians are choosing products based on whether it contains the specific type of protein source they are interested in,”​ he said.

Canada's not so small

While the two markets are similar in terms of makeup and motivations, Benn said there is an interesting dichotomy that figures into their relative size. The Canadian market for healthy & natural products is significantly larger than one might assume based on a quick check of relative populations.

“The difference is in Canada, with a population of 33 million, we’ve still got a big middle class. There are about two fifths of Canadians who can afford to buy these products.  But in the US, with a population ten times our size, you don’t have much of a middle class anymore.  Only about 15% of Americans can afford these products, so the overall size of the market for these products is only about four times bigger here,” ​he said.

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