Ten years ago, I wrote the Food & Health Handbook together with Julian Mellentin. Back then—way back in 2003—we named the afterword “The Future is iNutrition” as a way to describe the direction for functional foods. It is with some delight I notice that ten years down the line, the title is still relevant. It’s still defining the future, and we're only halfway there.
A paradigm shift
Today—in 2013—we realize that the full consequence of iNutrition is still to be seen because it is nothing less than a paradigm shift. Old producer-led and category-focused models are slowly eroding as new consumer-led, need-focused business models emerge. This is, of course, a challenge for the industry as we noted back in 2003: “The challenge for the food and drink industry is, to paraphrase Philip Kotler, to move from customized products for the few and the rich to products customized for everyone, and to complete the transition from production-orientation to customer-orientation.”
But the inspiration for new consumercentered business models was already in place. We could model the idea of iNutrition after the successful iMac. Again in 2003: “In all categories of consumer products there is a growing desire for customization to meet individual needs. One of the best examples is the Apple iMac, a computer that—as a good brand should—enhances the user’s individual identity and image. iMac uses innovations in design which were revolutionary in the world of PCs, which had hitherto been boring grey plastic boxes. The message that an iMac sends through its design features—and which also reflect in its advertising—is that iMac is technology which is about you, the consumer and your lifestyle.”
Three industries converge
Apart from iMac, the inspiration for iNutrition in 2003 came from the burgeoning markets for functional foods, mobile phones and the internet. It still does.
Then, functional food success came not from having the most researched ingredients but the best understood benefits. This is still true. Then, internet success came not from replicating distribution and communication models from the real world, where the producer was leading the dialogue, but from handing over the initiative to the consumer. This is still true. Then, mobile phone success came not from having the most advanced technology but the most relevant. This is still true.
We have seen just how successfully Apple has taken over the mobile initiative from traditional phone category brands like Motorola and Nokia with its even more consumer relevant iPhone technology. Apple kept a close eye to the consumer need and disregarded the mobile phone category norms. So today, you cannot develop a nutrition concept without involving a website and a mobile phone app. The tools for iNutrition are in the hands of the consumers, and they will help accelerate this development.
But how shall we best predict this acceleration? Let’s start by looking ten years back to understand where we were, and then draw a straight line to where we are today. That’s trendspotting. If we then project this line into the future, we will develop a pretty good working theory, and if we can understand the drivers of change and couple them with some manifestations we see today, then we start to understand the long-term consequences. Let’s do a little futurecasting, using excerpts from the Food & Health Handbook as our baseline.
Drivers of iNutrition
• The consumer in 2003: “The increasing fragmentation of consumers’ perception of what is healthy in terms of food and beverages. Increasingly, individual consumers seem to regard health as an extensive menu of options from which they select the dishes that make the most sense in the context of their individual beliefs, their individual health needs and their individual lifestyles. In effect they customize their nutritional choices to meet their own nutritional needs.”
• The consumer in 2023: The consumer is seeking empowerment, hence she is no longer willing to act as a passive listener and follower of experts or brands. She wants to listen, search, understand, and then make a considered decision.
• Social change in 2003: “To the changes in consumer beliefs about health must be added the result of social changes, which have resulted in longer working hours, greater social and geographical mobility, greater social isolation … and the breakdown of the traditional structures of living, such as the family.”
Nutrition companies addressing this change in the U.S. market found great success in healthier snacks—convenience in a box or bag with fewer nasties—from such names as Annie’s, Food Should Taste Good and Popchips.
• Social change in 2023: For the mature developed economies, changing socio-political conditions make iNutrition a desirable trend for both the welfare system and the consumer. As the consumer takes on a more proactive role in managing her health and nutrition needs, it releases pressures on the burdened social medical system. Examples of this include the renewed interest in medical foods by companies such as Nestlé, not to mention consumer-centered, self-managed health portals such as MDVIP, ZocDoc and WellnessFX.
• Science in 2003: “The improved understanding of individual nutritional needs as a result of advances in genetic sciences—often referred to as nutritional genomics—is also forecast by some to lead to a future in which consumers will be able to select foods and diets that optimize their personal wellness and resistance to disease.”
• Science in 2023: This driver would not have manifested itself so clearly without the enabling driver of technology. From mobile phones to internet to social networking, digital technology has transformed the way in which the consumer accesses information, services and brands. This has made iNutrition a real possibility for her.
• Loss of trust
Want an overarching super-driver for 2023? Too many accepted sources of yesteryear—from experts to politicians to big corporations—have compromised with the truth. Hence, there has been a gradual erosion of trust in received wisdom and messages for the consumer. She will want to find the answers herself.
Help me help myself
iNutrition is centered around the satisfaction of consumers’ needs. The biggest barriers for success may lie within your own organization and the way you define your brand and your category. Is it driven by a true understanding of consumer needs, or by “how we do things here”? If the latter, you may need to start by consumer-centering your corporate culture.
The consumer of today and tomorrow is not a passive consumer in need of rescue. She is an active, demanding consumer who wants to do it herself. Your role is to help. Manifestations of consumer empowerment that we see today center around three important steps: education, coaching and enabling success.
• Consumer education: The first step to empowerment is knowledge. A very simple example here is the educational campaigns of Five-A-Day (servings of fruits and vegetables) and the way it was leveraged by Innocent and similar brands. This underpins the truth that consumer education is the first role of marketing for any nutrition or lifestyle-related brand.
• Consumer coaching: The second step to empowerment is to coach consumers to do it themselves. From Nike and Weight Watchers to Kellogg’s Special K, we see how coaching of consumers to keep them motivated to reach their own goals is becoming a more and more important role for a brand. With the Mayo Clinic’s release of an app called Anxiety Coach, we can see how this coaching puts ever more advanced self-help techniques in the hands of consumers.
• Enabling consumer success: Consider Gympact, which "holds people to their fitness goals by charging them $5 for every missed visit." This is a very simple demonstration of the final level of consumer empowerment–enabling success. Additional examples might include Fooducate’s mobile app to allow healthier shopping in the grocery aisles with a simple barcode scan, or Lift, a social network designed to track and support the achievement of personal goals from nail biting to dieting and exercise.
A consumer-centric model
iNutrition is consumer-centric. This means we need to align brand purpose with product benefits, corporate culture and values. In a consumer-centric world, the consumer’s experience of your brand will become more important than how you define your category, so you must give consumers access to your brand wherever they need it, not just where you traditionally distribute it.
Your brand values must correspond with theirs, as well as with your whole corporate ecosystem. This ecosystem is made up of an increasing number of brand partners with whom you cooperate for the mutual satisfaction of your consumers’ need. Here are a few consequences of this new model for nutrition businesses.
• Brand experience: Products and services are quickly copied and the commoditization of benefits happens faster and faster. In the emerging markets, we prefer to call this the “democratization of benefits,” as the poor aspire to have the same benefits as the rich. The key difference here is my satisfaction with the brand experience. Look at the recent success of such IP-protected ingredients in the supplement market as 7-Keto and Relora, both fan favorites of the Dr. Oz crowd.
• Brand access: Accessibility is key and channels of delivery are no longer to be decided by brand owners on cost/fit considerations. Rather, consumers will increasingly dictate channels and brands need to be available where and when consumers need them. Look at Blueprint, recently sold to Hain Celestial, with its direct sales model of ultrapremium juice and cleanse beverages.
• Brand values: Transparency in the entire value chain will transform it into a chain of values. We have already seen how the transparent market is cutting out the middleman in distribution. Now, it also makes it possible to see the full cost of the product. Raj Patel’s “$200 hamburger” is a strong analogy for the diffuse spread of costs across the supply chain in a low-cost-focused system.
Consumers increasingly think and ask—So what’s the cost to the environment of this product? To animal welfare? For working conditions? Look at the dramatic growth in certifications around both Non-GMO Project Verified and fair trade, not to mention the very public declarations to abandon gestation crates in their supply chains by such pork powerhouses as McDonald’s, Burger King, Oscar Meyer and Kroger.
• Brand partners: iNutrition means that producers center around the satisfaction of a consumer need. We will see different brands across categories partnering together. A beverage brand partners with a gym brand to offer a one-stop solution. Brand partnerships are based on sharing of values and result in ecosystems of producers solving a problem and satisfying a need. Look at the unexpected pairing of Thorne Research with Helsinn to develop OncoQOL, a line of hypoallergenic supplements designed to support the needs of cancer patients.
Ecosystems of products and services centered on a consumer need, like Nike +, are a winning model. The purpose of the brand—making you a better runner—is delivered with an empowering set of digital as well as physical products.
A corollary here would also be corporate ecosystems, like the franchise model of McDonald’s, that are able to stay close to consumers’ shifting needs over time as well as across countries and cultures. The ability to combine a global brand purpose with global transparency and local sourcing is a winning combination for the future. Look out for multi-local business models.
Peter Wennström is a global expert in food & health innovation & marketing. He is founder of the Healthy Marketing Team, a London-based consultancy, and author of FourFactors of Success. He thanks Rukmini Gupte for her contributions to this article.