How to market healthy food—take out the 'health' part

How to market healthy food—take out the 'health' part

Brian Wansink, PhD, is the John Dyson Professor of Marketing at Cornell University and director of the university’s Food & Brand Lab, a research group that examines consumer behavior in relation to packaged food. Dr. Wansink specializes in exploring how consumer psychological traits and product marketing together influence patterns of overconsumption and contribute to obesity.

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nbj: How does behavioral science apply to the marketing of healthy foods?

Brian Wansink: One of the first books I wrote was called Marketing Nutrition. It asked: How can you take something that’s seen as sticks and leaves to some people and really turn it into a bigger enterprise and a growing market? If you’re going to take away something unhealthy you can’t just leave a void there—you’ve got to fill it with something healthy. So smarter marketing of nutrition is required because people aren’t going to give up food altogether. If you want to de-market obesity, we have to figure out how to market nutrition.

The basic way to get somebody to eat healthier, if you’re looking at supplements and functional foods, is first to find out who the real champions of that food group are. What is it about the connections consumers have in their heads about that product that make them so fanatical? After you’ve done that, it suggests what you have to focus on if you’re going to try to find other champions.

For an example, we’re doing a project for the largest manufacturer of tofu, and they’re trying to figure out how they can cause a tofu revolution in the United States. It’s not by telling people it’s healthy, because most people think it’s healthy. When we’re finding those new fanatics, it won’t be a woman in her 40s who’s already stuck in the rut of daily cooking, but it’s a woman in her 20s who’s just developing her cooking identity.

So it’s not just expanding the existing market of healthy food eaters, but moving into new markets as well. Tofu is already a key ingredient for most Asian cooking, so you don’t have to convince Asians to eat it. It’s also a key food source for vegetarians and vegans, so you don’t have to convince them either.

nbj: So you’re talking about scaling healthy foods outside of traditional markets.

BW: There’s three ways a functional food brand can grow. It can increase consumption and usage among current customers. Get somebody who eats it once a week to eat it twice a week. The second is to increase market share in the existing consumer base. If you’re at 20% share in, say, chia, you can move to 30%.

And the third thing is to try to expand to non-users. To do that, you might tell people that if you eat chia with some fruit, you’ll be full. But it won’t be to talk about the health benefits, per se. With tofu, you might say, don’t do it because it’s healthy—do it because it’s a low-cost way to fill yourself up with protein.

nbj: Why not advertise health?

BW: Healthy people—that’s a converted segment. Many of them are already using these products. If you already have pretty decent market share in your core group, that’s when you want to find different benefits in your product. Maybe it’s that it doesn’t spoil. With this tofu project, for some people the benefit is that it doesn’t go bad and they can’t screw it up by undercooking it. For new cooks, that’s an advantage.

They see that there’s a big trade-off—that healthy things might not taste as good, might cost more, and might require a lot of preparation.

nbj: So how do you influence consumer behavior at the product shelf? How do you get them to pick a healthy product over an unhealthy one?

BW: Our research shows that if you have three vegetables in a row, whatever vegetable is first is going to be selected 11% more often than the third vegetable. Even if you put the vegetables out at random, you’re still going to be influencing consumers’ choice. A lot of that is merchandising 101, but it’s often overlooked by retailers and restaurateurs.

The perception of how something tastes is tremendously influenced by your expectation. Emphasizing, say, the mango taste of a product over how much vitamin C it has is probably going to influence someone during a blind taste test. There’s a non-healthy dimension that you need to sell your product on, be it taste or fullness or whatever.

There’s a “me-marketing” aspect to a lot of natural food companies. Company heads market in a way that looks good to them, not realizing that most people they want to attract are not fanatics. It doesn’t take a lot of money just to adjust those sensory and benefit expectations at the point of purchase. So these aren’t health expectations, necessarily—it’s that something is filling or tastes great or quenches your thirst or makes you a smart person.

With soymilk, you don’t want to advertise to the core that your product is lactose-free—all soymilk is. What are the unspoken benefits of your product that can reach a mass audience? So with tofu, again, consumers might be able think they’ll be seen as a little more cosmopolitan and sophisticated because it’s somewhat exotic.

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