Fresh role for food
Colm Carey on how our thinking on food has taken on a whole new flavour
There is a new way of thinking about food in Ireland. It is not just that people are tasting and testing new food experiences, we also talk about food a lot more. Not so long ago a stir-fry was considered rather daring and exciting. Even the word casserole was at times considered risqué and a posh way of saying "stew".
FINGER LICKIN' GOOD: TV cooks like Nigella Lawson, pictured, and Jamie Oliver have done much to give food shows a new celebrity status and fine cuisine has assumed a new reality TV.
A meal at the local Chinese restaurant was a bit of an adventure. Indian and other ethnic foods were practically unknown. The language of food was impoverished and the vocabulary was limited. But there was something nice about the way we spoke about food at the time. It was all very matter of fact.
You had your dinner and then got on with life. Houses were the same. You lived in them rather than spent half your life talking about them. Shifts in lifestyle creep up on us until we find we are living on a different planet to the one where we thought we inhabited. For many people, the dilemma lies in deciding what not to eat.
Nomadic people follow their food source. These days food follows us around. Everywhere we go we are presented with opportunities to eat. Fuel stations no longer just replenish your automobile. They cater for your body as well.
Food has become a lifestyle accessory. "You are what you eat" has taken on a whole new meaning as the food we buy carries lifestyle signifiers. If you have extra virgin olive oil and a selection of continental cheeses in your home, you are quite clearly saying that you have different values to the person who stocks lard and cheese slices.
Cookery books are best sellers all year round. From Loyd Grossman to Derry Clarke, the authors are celebrities and time is of the essence. The old "first catch a rabbit" recipes of Victorian days would not cut the mustard with today's ready steady chefs.
We have moved well up the hierarchy of needs scale. We do not worry about where our next meal is coming from. We worry more about problems such as obesity that come from eating too much and particularly over-indulging on the wrong foods. With rates of overweight and obesity rising sharply in children, increasing focus is being placed on what they eat, how much and the role marketing plays. Previous research suggested that the bigger the portions children are served, the more they tend to consumer. But American researchers have explored the concept.
In a study published recently in Appetite, scientists took an in-depth look at the eating habits of a group of children aged four to six using detailed food diaries. The amount of foods eaten previously in the day seemed to have little or no bearing on a child's food intake at meal time. What was the biggest influence?
The factor that had the greatest influence on how much a child ate at any given meal was the amount of food they were served. This adds to the growing body of evidence which suggests that children are normally unable to naturally adjust their food intake in line with their requirement. Be responsible, refrain from piling plates high with food.
The food industry has evolved to such a degree that we can have whatever we want, whenever we want it. When people get to this stage they no longer look to food to fill their stomachs. They look to it to amuse and titillate them. We do not get hungry in the real sense of the word. We get peckish, or we feel like eating.
We switch from fixed meals to grazing. In this new world, order brands have to work hard to break through the noise. Food has to provide interest as well as sustenance. It is not enough to focus on basic product attributes.
People want to know what benefits a product will bring to them and use a repertoire of benefits to categorise the desirability of brands. Ease of cooking, organic heritage, nutri-ceutical benefits, presentation, convenient packaging and, of course, taste, all constitute good reasons for buying or rejecting a brand.
We have a lot of choice and choice delivers power. Food producers who want people to move in their direction have to speak the consumers' language and convince them of product and brand benefits. Otherwise, they inevitably lose out. At conferences up and down the land there has been talk about maintaining customer relationships. But at the same time the distance between customers and decision makers has become greater in recent years.
People respond well to brands and companies that they feel have real integrity. But integrity has to be demonstrated rather than simply articulated.
The challenge to those involved in the marketing of food products lies in building relationships based on the integrity that lies at the base of all mutually respectful long-term partnerships. Those who succeed can look forward to a rosy future.
The key to success lies in recognising that for all our apparent sophistication you do not have to scratch too deeply to find some very frightened and insecure people lurking underneath. Concerns with allergies and obesity, combined with heavily promoted miracle diets and wonder cures, have introduced a sense of neurosis into what should be a healthy relationship.
A successful food brand will reconnect with consumers through the use of a verbal and visual vocabulary that removes anxiety and replaces it with comfort and reassurance based on sustainable product and emotional values. In the final analysis, the old saying 'healthy mind, healthy body', rings true.
Colm Carey is director of The Research Centre
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