June 7, 2012
(USA TODAY) -- There are few things parents are more passionate about than the food and drink that their kids consume.
So it's no accident that Honest Tea, the organic tea maker recently swallowed-up by Coca-Cola, is revamping its wildly successful Honest Kids beverage line into one that this fall will be sweetened with fruit juice instead of cane sugar. A white blaze on the front of the pouch will proclaim: Sweetened only with fruit juice.
"They're nutritionally the same," concedes Seth Goldman, co-founder of Honest Tea. "But parents don't want to see added sugar. They can get very emotional about this."
What Americans eat and drink has become such an emotional roller coaster for so many of us that it's utterly changing the way the nation's biggest restaurant chains, foodmakers and grocery chains do business. Food used to feed our bodies. Now it also needs to feed our brains. Our egos. Our nostalgic memories. And maybe even our social-media appetites.
"While we have always had an emotional relationship with food, what's different is we talk about it more, and the discussion is much louder," says Harry Balzer, food guru at researcher NPD Group. "Food is fashion. You wear your diet like you wear your clothes."
Talking about food has become so fashionable that we may be doing more of it than ever. Social-media chatter about food -- which is where we do much of it -- is up more than 13% over the past year, says Nielsen Media Incite, which tracks buzz across social networks, blogs, forums and consumer review sites. That's millions of additional social morsels just on food. The hunger for food news seems insatiable. Food Network, which had 50,000 viewers per night in the mid-'90s, now averages more than 1.1 million.
Foodmakers are listening in. They know that one of the strongest emotions that many American consumers feel toward the food they eat is fear. One week the fear is over pink slime. Then, it's about chemicals in milk. Or mad cow disease. Or too many calories stuffed into a large, sugary drink. Or even some worker's fingertip getting chopped into an Arby's roast beef sandwich.
"Every week, something raises distrust for our industrialized food system," says Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farms. "There's a real-time awareness that our food may be making us sick."
The emotional hits or misses that people feel toward the food they eat can determine everything from what Whole Foods stocks to the thickness of Stonyfield's next yogurt to the look, taste and smell of a new appetizer that Applebee's will add to its menu this fall.
Our emotional attachment to food is leading foodmakers to:
Respond to consumer concerns. Consumer research revealed to Honest Tea executives something they didn't expect: The most important word in the company's name isn't "tea." It's "honest," Goldman says. That's honest as in: We can trust what this brand stands for.
In other words, consumers just want to know what's actually in a product, and they want to know that it's beneficial to eat or drink. So, the Honest brand is looking into a better-for-you carbonated soft-drink line by next year. And it's even looking into Honest-branded foods, he says.
Consumers want to be able to look the brand straight in the eye without the brand blinking, Goldman says. They want to trust it. But that trust is always on the line. Consumers complained, for example, about a new bottle last year that was 22% lighter and which was specifically designed to create less waste. What made consumers balk was that the design change -- to use less plastic -- made it look like the bottle had less product. "They thought we were selling them air," says Goldman. So the bottle was quickly redesigned again to make it clear that there were no shenanigans.
Folks also want to trust the Honest brand to keep them healthy. "Fifteen years ago, people were choosing organic to save the world," Goldman says. Now, he says, they're choosing it "to save themselves -- and that's a much more powerful driver."
Concoct nostalgic food. When football season begins this fall, it won't be an accident if you find this appetizer on the menu at your local Applebee's: brew pub pretzel and beer cheese dip.
"The trick for us was giving customers the sense that they were at the stadium, but in a way that would be unique," says Melissa Hunt, who has been a senior chef at Applebee's for six years. After all, she asks, what's more emotional than fall, football and gathering with friends?
So, instead of a traditional salt pretzel, Applebee's opted to rethink how to make a culinary connection between the bond at a ballpark and taste expectations at an Applebee's. That meant less salt and more pepper and herbs on the pretzel. It meant a pretzel that was crispy on the outside but soft on the inside. And, of course, what to add to the cheese dip to give it the cosmic flavor and smell of sitting in stadium seats: beer, of course.
Sell better-for-you stuff. At Panera Bread, the internal name used for its food-development team is the "lust" team, because "food is such a sensual experience," says co-founder Ron Shaich.
Shaich said Panera's basic goal is to prod consumers to "fall in love" with the restaurant: "That's what I wake up first thing in the morning thinking. If you love this place, that's all that matters. Everything else will take care of itself."
So he works on the emotional cues that hit consumers at their core: no artificial stuff, antibiotic-free meats, fully posted calorie information and intangibles, he says, such as serving food on china plates instead of paper.
The chain recently starting selling a Fuji Apple Roasted Turkey Salad with turkey meat that doesn't taste like it's from the deli. Rather, he says, it looks, feels, smells and tastes like it's from one of the most memorable spots of all: the Thanksgiving table.
"This is real turkey," says Shaich. It's cut 1/3-inch thick. It's also a hit, he says, with early sales surpassing expectations.
Cater to "mouth feel." Some 29 years ago, Gary Hirshberg started with seven cows and an idea: to make organic yogurt for the masses. His company, Stonyfield Farms, is now the nation's fourth-largest yogurt maker.
Much of his free time is spent combing yogurt aisles of stores throughout Europe, searching for the next big thing in the U.S: thicker, cheesier yogurts. Europeans, who he says are more emotional about their food than Americans, want a "thicker, creamier mouth feel" when they eat yogurt. Americans eventually will, too, which helps explain why Greek yogurt sales have grown so quickly in the U.S. And that's the next generation of yogurt he's searching for: thicker and cheesier than Greek.
Get more local. Whole Foods executives know there are few things folks are more passionate about than where their food comes from.
Next year it will open a store in Brooklyn, N.Y., with something none of its stores have: a 10,000-square-foot roof-top garden. "You can't get more locally grown than that," says David Lannon, executive vice president of operations.
Most recently, it took that consumer passion for all-things-local to a new store in Kailua, Hawaii. The store has a fish bar that serves locally caught, sustainably sourced fish chopped with items such as onions and soy sauce to create an "emotional connection" to what locals ate as kids, Lannon says. The store targets locals, not tourists, with three porches where folks can sit, eat and socialize. "It brings folks full circle to their memories of growing up in Hawaii."
There's also a Whole Foods in Petaluma, Calif., where eggs are sold -- when available -- from a local farmer whose 200 chickens are never kept inside or in cages. Never mind that the eggs cost twice as much as conventional eggs. "Customers call the store and ask if that egg delivery arrived," Lannon says. "Some decide to come based only on that."
Serve "comfort" at 30,000 feet. Then, there's British Airways. It recently realized that its first-class passengers don't want fancy-dancy desserts. Last fall, it started serving what passengers told them they wanted most: comfort food. Its Crumb Crumble cobbler was such a smash, when caterers tried to replace it on the menu with a different dessert, passengers went ballistic, says Lynn McClelland, head of catering. It's all about emotions -- even the most primitive, childhood emotions, she says. When stuck high above the ground for hours in a plane, she says, "Passengers tell us what they want most is what their moms used to feed them when they were 12."
Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.