Tapping into our expansive food culture is a powerful way for brands to connect with people
What does the phrase food culture mean to you?
(pause for serious pondering)
I had about 10 ideas come to mind in a quasi-connected manner — from indigenous ingredients and regional cuisines to traditional holiday foods and my family’s favorite dishes. They encompass global, community-driven and very personal experiences, but largely focused on ethnicity and religious associations. Seems limiting when you consider the values and expectations people live by (or aspire to) when it comes to food that transcend traditional parameters of food culture. Don’t these beliefs also shape food culture because of the communities that form around them and their impact on food choices?
Technically, there is no definition for food culture provided by Merriam-Webster, Urban Dictionary, The Free Dictionary or Wikipedia. A blog post on The Well Essentials provides an unattributed definition, but also an explanation that resonated with me. It takes a broad view that allows for many interpretations, both familiar and emerging ideas that are driving today’s culture.
“Food culture is the connection, beliefs, and experience we have with food and our food system. It incorporates our cultural heritage and ethnicity, but is not limited to it.”
Here are a few examples of where I see different trends or movements evolving food culture in the United States as well as other parts of the world.
- There are 45 cities and municipalities in the U.S. designated as ‘fair trade towns’ after meeting a series of requirements (my hometown of Los Angeles is the latest one as of August). The purpose is for towns to build awareness for, encourage consumption of and use its purchasing power to source fair trade-certified products. Food cultures in these towns are bound to be affected by efforts from government and businesses, alike, educating residents on the principles of fair trade and shifting product preferences.
- Or, consider the explosion of plant-based foods. Originally intended for a narrow slice of the population back in the day, the financial investment in companies innovating this category coupled with the rapid expansion of product availability is staggering. National restaurant chains can’t get them on the menu fast enough, including the recent announcement of McDonald’s Beyond Meat McPlant burger. Traditional grocery retailers are carving-out separate sections in their stores. And this week, Unilever announced its intention to make plant-based eating “the new normal” by 2025–27. This movement, or trend is quickly becoming mainstream food culture!
- People, especially the under 40 set, demand transparency when it comes to their food. We’re not even talking about actual foodstuff so much as an expectation about food. These savvy consumers want to know exactly what’s in their food; where it comes from; how environmentally-friendly it is; and well, just about anything they ask. And brands are complying, promoting a granular level of information that was inconceivable 10 years ago.
As marketers, if we think beyond our familiar boundaries of food culture, we’ll discover an expansive landscape of meanings. One that is continuously evolving, creating new opportunities for brands to deepen their relationships with current customers. And also, to use food culture as a way to explore connections with a wider range of diverse audiences.