Feature

Changing tastes create challenges, opportunities for food giants

An influx of trendy startups is forcing General Mills, J.M. Smucker and other major food companies to introduce new or reformulated products.

Consumers purchasing food and beverages made with specific ingredients are forcing the industry to be more proactive in introducing new or reformulated products — positioning manufacturers with a lucrative opportunity to boost sales if they can get it right, a pair of executives told Food Dive.

At a time when the industry is facing slower growth  forcing many established companies to look for acquisitions to increase sales  officials with General Mills and J.M. Smucker said one of the biggest challenges they face is the rapidly shifting, and often unpredictable, attitudes of the consumer. For now, the trends are pretty clear and uniform: more proteins, whole grains and organics; less artificial ingredients and trans fats, as well as salt and sugar.

“The challenge is consumer values and interests around food are changing rapidly,” Ken Powell, CEO of General Mills, told Food Dive. “We have to move quicker, but when we get it right, we get rewarded. It is truly an opportunity because if we get it right it results in business growth for us.”


“The challenge is consumer values and interests around food are changing rapidly. We have to move quicker, but when we get it right, we get rewarded."

Ken Powell

CEO of General Mills


General Mills, the maker of Progresso soup, Pillsbury dough and Cheerios, has posted declining sales in some of its key businesses. Among the hardest hit was in yogurt where Chobani overtook the company's Yoplait, the segment's long-established leader, to become the U.S.'s largest brand in the segment last year. General Mills, which gets about 13% of its sales from yogurt, has committed to overhauling 60% of the business to better align with consumer trends by adding new Greek varieties, flavors, and organic options under the Annie’s and Liberté brands.

The 151-year old Minnesota company has removed artificial flavors and colors from some of its cereals; a decision popular with consumers, but not been enough to revive U.S. retail sales of cereal that fell 3% during its most recent quarter. Powell said the company also has focused on removing gluten from its products because so many consumers are avoiding it.

“These have been very, very positive initiatives for us. Consumers really say what they mean, and you do your best to address these opportunities where we see growth,” Powell said earlier, speaking on a panel about the benefits of the food and beverage industry on the U.S. economy. “And by the way, it better taste good because that is still the thing. As our nutritionists remind us, it’s only nutritious if you eat it.”


"[I]t better taste good because that is still the thing. As our nutritionists remind us, it’s only nutritious if you eat it.”

Ken Powell

CEO of General Mills


Richard Smucker, chairman of J.M. Smucker, told Food Dive it’s hard to keep pace with consumer trends because they change frequently, making it difficult to differentiate between a fad and a trend that merits a significant investment from the company. Smucker said the food manufacturer, owner of its namesake jellies, Crisco and Folgers coffee, has benefited along with other food companies from the growth of smaller, often more nimble, players.

This kind of disruption is a growing across the food industry. Legacy brands are losing market share to smaller, trendy upstart companies — Special K bars, for example, saw sales slip 39% since 2011, while newcomer Kind Bars have secured 10% of the market in just five years. Smaller players have disrupted legacy companies by embracing current flavor trends, better ingredients, mission-based brands and niche offerings. In some cases, big brands have found it easier, and cheaper, to buy the upstart to catchup. General Mills, for example, swallowed Annie's, which boasts lines of mac and cheese, cereal and yogurt, for $820 million three years ago.

In 2011, Smucker, the largest U.S. coffee producer, acquired Café Bustelo, a coffee brand that has proven popular with the millennial crowd. Smucker, whose company was founded in 1897, said even as younger coffee drinkers gravitate toward brands perceived to be hipper, that trend helps educate the public about the benefits of coffee, drawing attention to the broader industry for the beverage — which ultimately helps the company's own brands.


“Having startups and smaller companies in the industry is healthy, even for the bigger guys, because if you are listening and watching what they're doing you can learn, too."

Richard Smucker

Chairman of J.M. Smucker


“Having startups and smaller companies in the industry is healthy, even for the bigger guys, because if you are listening and watching what they're doing you can learn, too,” Smucker said. “We don’t create everything ourselves. In fact, sometimes if they do a really good job we might want to come and buy them."

Filed Under: Manufacturing Ingredients Marketing
Top image credit: Flickr user maveric2003