Breaking the habit: finding growth amid boring consumer behaviours

Wednesday 08 August 2018


Nowadays there is huge enthusiasm for food. This is reflected in record viewing figures for cookery shows on TV, cookbooks selling better than ever, and social media full of food images. You might imagine this would result in culinary inspiration and diversification. However, when it comes to what we actually cook, it turns out we are pretty boring.

In the real world, away from Instagram and the latest Jamie fad, the eating habits of most people are remarkably dull, habitual and limited. A few facts: overall UK protein consumption is flat. People tend to have a very small repertoire of meals – around six. And consumers typically pre-plan them (including their choice of protein) before shopping. These facts represent both a challenge and an opportunity for food suppliers, especially key meal components such as meat.

At OC&C we have carried out extensive research on protein consumption over the past decade. Our work spans livestock farming through processing to retailing and it includes all the major sources of protein (pork, chicken, turkey, red meat and fish). To understand how consumers think about the most expensive component of their meals, we have recently commissioned research on trends in protein consumption in nine European countries: the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland and Poland. The sector faces challenges around health, cost & environmental impact that we believe are relevant for many categories.

Our research shows that the best way to drive growth is to persuade consumers to substitute protein before they go to the store. The current industry focus on in-store promotions may therefore be mistaken, given the extent to which consumers pre-plan their meals. They may be just giving discounts to the majority of consumers who would have bought anyway? Businesses that have achieved sustained volume growth are those that truly understand consumers’ habits. They have used research insights to promote specific sources of protein for specific meals. And they market their products well in advance of entering the store.

There are many successful examples, each supported by persuasive propositions (health benefits, low impact on the environment, cost and versatility). De-boned chicken thighs look as appealing as breast, are just as versatile, but 15-20pc cheaper. In terms of health, turkey mince has proved highly successful in the US taking share from beef. Meat substitute Quorn, which is healthy, low in fat and has a comparatively small environmental footprint, makes its products in formats that make them easy to drop into familiar recipe repertoires.

We’re not suggesting that it’s easy to get people to change their behaviour and anchoring such changes in eating habits is even more difficult. But substitution is much easier than creating major shifts in consumption.

Our research shows that you don’t have to settle for low volume sales. Breakthrough growth can be achieved. But it requires a deeper understanding of eating habits and meal repertoires. So, if you’re a supplier - or grocer - and would like to explore the implications of the issues raised here for your business, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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