For decades, food advertising has attracted fickle consumers through catchy jingles, memorable campaigns and special offers. But shopper perceptions have changed so food and beverage products are no longer viewed as just tasty commodities.
From soda to beer and candy bars to tacos, the ways the food and beverage industries reach consumers are changing. Social media is now a major asset, and companies aren't afraid to make personal or political statements to generate buzz across platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
In order to grab the attention of an increasingly busy consumer base, food and beverage manufacturers will continue tailoring their marketing strategies to meet the ever-changing tastes and behaviors of their target audiences. This means an overhaul of current advertising strategies, and keeping an eye on how they will need to further evolve in the future.
Let’s get social
Russell Zack, senior vice president of products and solutions at HelloWorld, told Food Dive that having a strong social media presence is no longer a bonus for food and beverage brands — it’s required.
“Some of the best ways to get direct consumer feedback is via the social media channels. And that can be anywhere from what Taco Bell does with getting consumers to provide ideas for what their next food item should be on their menu to finding out about issues with quality control,” Zack said. “Social gives [brands] the ability to collect information that’s informal and in real time.”
Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who studies social influence, consumer behavior, feels similarly.
"It’s harder to participate in or shape the discussion if you’re not present," Berger said. "Rather than have to bring consumers in to a focus group and pay them to get their opinions, social media offers real time feedback on how people feel, what they like and dislike, and what can be done better."
His advice to companies on using social media to market their products: "Start with understanding your consumers and why they share. Then use content to turn your customers into advocates."
Social media also provides brands with a free platform to interact with their consumer audience and market themselves. Today’s shoppers, especially millennials — a target demographic for many companies — expect their brands to have unique “personalities” they can interact with on social media platforms. While these interactions include answering consumer questions and advertising new product innovations, companies shouldn’t stop there. Younger consumers enjoy seeing their brands react to and share content that is trending on Twitter and Facebook, even if it’s not directly related to food.
Denny’s creation of a “zoom-in” Twitter meme — a photo which asks viewers to zoom in on different points of the picture to reveal hidden text that eventually reaches a punch line — a few weeks ago garnered 150,000 likes and 100,000 retweets on the diner chain’s official Twitter page.
The image’s text makes no mention of Denny’s pricing specials or menu items. In fact, the zoom-in text concluded with this line: “Has this distracted you from overwhelming existential dread lol.” This strange ending may not reflect Denny’s restaurant environment, but dark, dry humor is popular among Twitter users. The gamble quickly paid off: the meme was the restaurant chain’s most popular tweet of all time, and brought thousands of eyes to the company’s page for free.
This strategy may not work for all companies on social media, but it's one way some can curate an online presence that is trendy, shareable and unique.
Not politics as usual
In the aftermath of a divisive election and in the midst a controversial presidency, brands may be tempted to ignore the political sphere altogether, fearing they may alienate a valuable portion of their consumers. This could be a risky move, however, as politics are difficult to avoid in today's crowded marketplace.
“Brands who have a global audience really do need to make a statement about where they stand politically, and you’re seeing those big global brands like Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola make those statements — most of which are about inclusion."
Senior vice president of products and solutions at HelloWorld
“Brands who have a global audience really do need to make a statement about where they stand politically, and you’re seeing those big global brands like Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola make those statements — most of which are about inclusion,” Zack said. “There’s also so much consumer choice out there, so brands need to be very clear about their position in the world.”
Anheuser-Busch’s Super Bowl commercial “Born The Hard Way,” which depicts the immigration of co-founder Adolphus Busch from Germany to the United States in the 1800s, was met with both praise and criticism. Some consumers called for a boycott of Budweiser products following the commercial’s debut, claiming the ad was made in response to President Trump’s immigration ban.
Ricardo Marques, Budweiser's vice president of marketing, told Adweek that while the ad’s timing was “super relevant” to the current state of the country, it was a coincidence.
“There’s really no correlation with anything else that’s happening in the country,” Marques said. “We believe this is a universal story that is very relevant today because, probably more than any other period in history, today the world pulls you in different directions, and it’s never been harder to stick to your guns.”
Zack said it's vital for companies to have an impermeable response and media game-plan ready if they decide to make a politically charged ad.
“Anything can be misrepresented, anything can be possibly misconstrued, and if brands are making these statements, they need to be prepared for any type of response — good or bad — that consumers will have in response to those comments,” he said.
Brand missions are another form of advocacy that consumers respond to favorably. These initiatives include animal welfare, environmental sustainability, ethical employment, supporting local farmers and participating in programs that give a percentage of revenue back to charity.
For some consumers, buying a branded product isn't just a purchase, but an endorsement. As a result, shoppers who seek them out often are willing to pay more for items that align with their values.
“Younger generations really expect this as part of their loyalty to a brand, and they expect to identify with not only the product they’re consuming, but what the brand actually stands for,” Zack said.
Still, while advertising socially or environmentally conscious initiatives is key to capturing younger demographics, Zack said these missions are less important to Generation X and baby boomers. Brands should identify the causes that are important to their target audience and market these ideals alongside their products in order to help distance themselves from the competition.
The future is virtual
While the content of advertising is important, the social media revolution has changed the way many people communicate. The majority of consumers now have access to smartphones and regularly visit Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat for both entertainment and news. Brands have responded to this shift by moving beyond TV and magazines to tap into today’s most coveted ad space: a person’s cell phone.
How do companies pull this off? They use what's called augmented reality.
“Augmented reality looks to add some sort of digital message experience that is layered on top of a real world experience,” Zack said. “It has to do with the capabilities within the mobile device and also the ability for a brand to continue to earn a consumer’s brand loyalty by supplying ‘surprise’ and ‘delight’ types of experiences.”
Snapchat has been popular for many food brands looking to leverage this kind of engagement. Zack cited Taco Bell's recent sombrero Snapchat filter as a fun, successful way to heighten discussion of the restaurant among patrons.
“When there is competition for shelf space, leveraging the mobile device to create an additive experience can really help in terms of mind share, and of course share of wallet."
Senior vice president of products and solutions at HelloWorld
Augmented reality also can be used in grocery stores where consumers can point their smartphones at a product and see if a special offer or product reward pops up on their Snapchat screen. It can be used to place information about the product on top of it in a mobile device.
“When there is competition for shelf space, leveraging the mobile device to create an additive experience can really help in terms of mind share, and of course share of wallet,” Zack said.
While augmented reality may be the technical marvel right now, virtual reality could be what changes the impact of food advertising in the future.
“When we talk about virtual reality and food, that resource is really, so far, untouched,” Zack said. “You can see opportunities for food advertisements within virtual reality video games, and that could really change food advertising.”
Los Angeles-based Project Nourished is creating virtual reality dining experiences that are free of caloric intake but maintain taste, smell and touch.
Founder Jinsso An told the Telegraph that "the experience merges physical and virtual environments into one, which means you can still chew, feel, smell and taste, but without taking in calories."
This technology is currently being used to assist with weight loss, allergy management and eating therapy. Zack said he can “imagine this coming together with food advertising or testing in the future."
“[Project Nourished] is really futuristic stuff. They have an aromatic diffuser which is used to create the smell, a virtual reality headset so you can see the actual food that you’re going to eat, special types of utensils, and a virtual cocktail glass to drink,” Zack said.
For now, manipulation in food advertising is expected to focus predominately augmented reality.
“That was something that was started last year with global brands like Coke and Starbucks, and now you’re also going to see it being leveraged by smaller brands — ones that may not have a global footprint — that are really looking for new ways to engage their audience,” Zack said.