Emerging food tribes represent a small but highly influential market segment

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Emerging food tribes represent a small but highly influential market segment
Consumers’ approach to what they eat is changing from “monolithic meat, potatoes and veggies,” to increasingly “heterogeneous” diets that go beyond sustenance to represent values and lifestyles – a shift that is translating to big business for companies that offer solutions that are simultaneously personalized and have broad appeal, according to Danielle Gould, the founder and CEO of Food+Tech Connect.

Citing data from the International Food Information Council’s recently released annual survey, Gould explained at the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Food Forward event in Washington, DC, that one in three people report following a specific diet or eating pattern – nearly twice the number of just one year earlier.

This rapid adoption of specialty dieting means that eating patterns that were once niche could be the next multi-billion dollar market, as in the case of gluten free, which five years ago “was barely a blip on the radar,”​ but is now a $4.6 billion market, she noted.

This rapid growth is driven in part by the development of so-called food tribes, which are communities of people coming together online and in person around shared values and needs to collectively express what they want out of food and from manufacturers, Gould said.

Based on her research, she said, emerging diets that could offer significant marketing opportunity in coming years include intermittent fasting, which currently has 99 groups of Facebook dedicated to it, the keto diet, the autoimmune protocol and products tailored to allergy sufferers.

While members of any given food tribe may be few and far between initially, they represent early adopters who likely have the deepest and biggest pain points, Gould said, adding “the bigger the pain point, the bigger the opportunity to unlock passion, and in today’s world where we have so many brands, the brands that are going to win are going to be the brands that are able to unlock some of that passion.”

How to become a frontrunner in an emerging trend

So, how can entrepreneurs and existing manufacturers get in on this action and gain a loyal following before a trend blows up?

Gould says the first step is to start by selecting and getting to know a specific food tribe.

When Gould’s company Alpha Food Labs worked with the Campbell Soup Co. recently to develop an on-the-go soup solution called Zen Gut for people looking for digestive health help, the first question it asked is what does digestive health mean? It asked is it all about probiotics? Irritable bowel syndrome relief? Or just an answer to digestive discomfort?

“The next step is to build empathy,”​ she said. Again, she explained, Alpha Food Labs did this with the Campbell Soup Co. by doing ethnography studies where they went into people’s homes and asked what it was like to find meals on the go.

“You really need to spend time understanding the needs, values and lifestyles of the people in these tribes because that enables you to come up with solutions and services that really meet their needs and things that are not necessarily apparent to the general population, and then design it specifically for those tribe members,”​ she said.

At the same time, she warned, the products will need to scale. So, it is important to consider the potential for crossover into the mainstream.

“With Zen Gut, the product we developed for Campbell’s was a delicious soup that anyone who wanted to drink on-the-go could. It just happened to also be that it was free from the types of ingredients that someone with digestive issues would be bothered by,”​ she said.

Ultimately, she said, companies interested in tapping into the potential offered by food tribes, such as those with food sensitivities, but hesitant because they may be small compared to the mainstream shopper should remember: “It is better to be everything to someone, than nothing to everyone.”

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