It would be a mistake for marketers to think that 'premium quality' is something only affluent consumers are seeking, that it is only about indulgent occasions or that it pertains to certain types of upscale 'luxury' products or brand names. Contrary to what many experts believe, it is the consumer, not the industry, who is redefining quality.
Every day, consumers make decisions about what to eat and drink. And, every day, they face unprecedented levels of choice.
At The Hartman Group, we know that consumers are seeking ways to take greater control over their product choices driven by any number of lifestyle factors, eating habits and occasions for shopping. These trends are identified through the unique application of ethnography, where our researchers with Ph.D.s in cultural and social anthropology literally immerse themselves alongside consumers in their native environment: where they live, shop and use products in the contexts of their very busy, complex day-to-day lives.
Take Ann who commutes from the suburbs to the downtown Seattle law offices where she works as a legal assistant. Like so many fellow American consumers, she begins her daily jaunt into the city by stopping for coffee. Ann bypasses the ubiquitous 'one on every street corner' shops of the global coffee giant going out of her way in pursuit of the 'perfect' cup of coffee at an obscure little drive-thru coffee hut.
In another home, in a different part of the country, Betsy reaches into the freezer and pulls out a pack of Uncrustables to pack in her two kids' school lunches and a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich for herself that she can heat in the microwave and quickly eat before rushing off to work.
Then there's Pam and Claude, affluent Baby Boomers with no kids, only three dogs at home, who buy their weekly staples at Safeway but willingly travel ten miles off the beaten path to shop at Trader Joe's for more exotic or unique food products.
What's going on here?
One does not have to look too deep into the major trends impacting the marketplace, whether it be the near-death experience of carbonated soft drinks, increased organic usage, the shift toward 'all things fresh', 'local' or 'artisanal' to see that consumers are redefining the meaning of 'quality'.
While many food and beverage marketers would like to think consumers are willing to pay more for higher quality products, premium quality isn't about price alone.
In the case of Ann it's about experiencing a coffee unlike any other she is aware of - the perfect amount of sweetness and coffee that makes her happy and rejuvenated. For Betsy, convenience and reliable brands equals quality, and this feeling extends to the retailers who carry her preferred brands. In the case of the empty-nester Boomers Pam and Claude, quality means seeking and finding unique, distinct items that make the every day special.
When it comes to identifying trends in the food and beverage marketplace, the methods and practices deployed to identify the trends are often as diverse as the trends themselves.
We've always believed that while it is interesting to learn about what products consumers are buying, or where they are shopping, it is far more important to understand the 'why behind the buy' - to get a sense of the bigger picture trends shaping current and future behavior for years (not weeks) to come.
The new consumer culture has wholly reconfigured our notion of quality and continues to do so.
In the consumer lexicon, adjectives such as 'well-designed' (64 percent), 'genuine' (45 percent), 'unique' (41 percent), 'real' (34 percent), 'distinctive' (33 percent) and 'special' (31 percent) are used by consumers to match their own intentions as they pursue the 'finer things in life (Hartman Interactive survey on understanding the new meaning of quality, 2006 (n=1,004)).
Evaluations of quality are a function of interaction with products in a retail setting (i.e., supermarket, restaurant, etc.) and information sources. Consumers typically use a wide variety of sources in acquiring information to help determine a product's quality including their social network (e.g., friends, family members, co-workers, etc.) and independent professional publications.
Consumers are definitely making conscious decisions to seek out higher quality: four in ten households are intentionally choosing higher quality products (41 percent) and more distinctive flavors (41 percent).
What's more, virtually all consumers (94 percent) now eat (at least some of) the same foods every day that were once reserved for special occasions. (The Hartman Group survey on consumers' food preferences, August 2007 (n=1,142)).
Like it or not, our complex global economy and our flexible production and distribution systems have given consumers access to goods of unparalleled quality and distinction.
As we move ahead, food and beverage manufacturers, marketers and retailers must be mindful that selecting higher quality foods is not reserved for special occasions and that a growing number of consumers are choosing higher quality foods for everyday consumption.
Remember, higher quality, from the consumers' vantage point means:
> Seeking distinct flavors
> Seeking more fresh (i.e., less processed) foods
> Interest in locally produced foods
> Seeking hand crafted or artisan produced foods
> Willingness to pay more for quality
The Hartman Group's report on Premium Food Experiences: Understanding the Consumer Redefinition of Quality will be available November 2007. For more information about this report contact Blaine Becker, Director of Marketing at The Hartman Group.