Danone growth chief shares social listening insights: ‘What people mean by health is different coming out of the pandemic’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Danone and Bloom have been tracking social media conversations, here are the findings / Pic: GettyImages-marchmeena29
Danone and Bloom have been tracking social media conversations, here are the findings / Pic: GettyImages-marchmeena29

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Danone has sponsored a report that uses ‘deep social listening’ tools to track conversations about food. The research charts attitudes to personal and planetary health, as well as growing demand for a ‘fairer’ food system coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. FoodNavigator hears from Danone Chief Growth Officer, Nigyar Makhmudova, to learn more.

Danone today (30 June) released an ‘unprecedented study’ looking at changing attitudes to food.

The ‘Food Revolution Barometer’ was produced in collaboration with Bloom – a start-up that has developed proprietary social media data collection and analysis technology – and ‘change agency’ Futerra.

Tracking conversations about food and beverages on English-speaking social media platforms since 2018, the Barometer's journey starts before the onset of the global coronavirus crisis. People’s relationship with food shifted, ‘sometimes wildly’, during the pandemic and the report charts the evolution of our connection to food, both at an individual and systemic level.

So, what macrotrends have been identified and how will they impact Danone?

Nigyar Makhmudova, Chief Growth Officer at the French dairy giant, observed a fundamental change is the way people think about both personal and planetary health.

“What people mean by health is different coming out of the pandemic. Before, the focus was on physical health. Now, more [focus is placed] on mental health. Physical and mental health are intertwined, and we need to serve both dimensions,”​ she told us.

“Understandings of the environmental price [of food production] are also shifting. Previously it was about packaging. Now it is more about regenerative agriculture, replenishing natural resources with the way we harvest and produce products.”

Food for body and mind

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The link between the microbiome and other health benefits will play an important role for Danone's future innovation / Pic: GettyImages-nastco

A rising tendency to see ‘food as medicine’ is frequently cited as an upshot of the pandemic. According to the Food Revolution Barometer, ever-more informed consumers are also increasingly frustrated at a lack of ‘credible and reliable information’.

Immunity benefits, gut health and mental health were flagged as emergent need-states for consumers. These trends play into Danone’s core capabilities.

As Makhmudova noted: “Our first product, developed by Daniel Carasso, was for treating the digestive disorder of his son. It was first available in pharmacies. Our mission remains health through food.

“With advancements in science, we are learning more about the link between the microbiome and other aspects of [mental and physical] health.”

Danone intends to leverage its scientific knowledge to support innovation. “We will continue to fund scientific research and put that knowledge into products, both for babies – who for whatever reason can’t breast feed – and also ageing people… In healthy ageing we work with the motto ‘add life to the years, not years to the life’,”​ the growth executive revealed.

'New natural' and the backlash against processed food

Consumers are also focused on cutting out nutrients and ingredients with negative perceptions, from sugar reduction through to what the Barometer terms the ‘new natural’.

Already, more than 85% of Danone’s portfolio is A-B Nutri-Score ranked, Makhmudova stressed. “There is a strong workstream, which has been going on for years, on reducing sugar content without compromising on taste… That’s an important element, especially when it comes to children.”

Alongside this effort, the company is developing new processing technologies that she expects future innovation opportunities to emanate from. “The second stream is more innovative and technologically advanced – and that’s reducing the sugar content that [naturally occurs] in lactose,”​ she revealed.

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Danone is focused on keeping its labels clean but 'myths' around processed food need to be 'busted' / Pic: GettyImages-kerdkanno

On the ‘new natural’ trend, the Barometer found ‘natural and real food became the default answer to many health and environmental needs, leading to a strong rejection of processed food of any kind’.

Danone has been working to ensure its products meet consumer demand for clean labels. “We try to make sure ingredients – even stabilisers – are of natural origin… so you don’t need a PhD to understand the ingredient list…. Most of our portfolio is fresh. Of course, its processed but it’s a natural fermentation process. Most of our ingredients come from live bacterial cultures. It is understandable,”​ Makhmudova reflected.

However, she also believes scepticism about 'processing' is something food industry needs to push back on. “There is a myth to be busted. The moment cavemen put meat on a fire it became processed. There is nothing wrong with processed food.

“In this quest to fight against the processed food [myth], we need to educate but also find the right balance to make sure the processes are enhancing nutrition.”

Eating with a purpose: Food systems impact

Bloom’s AI listening tool found people are mindful of the role the food they eat has on personal wellbeing. Equally important is a rising understanding of the role the food system plays in the health of society and the planet at large.

Bloom flagged issues from food waste and the rise of the ‘planetary diet’ to growing support for a fairer food chain.

During the pandemic, food producers came to be viewed as key workers. “The people behind our food is a top conversation post-pandemic. It is a conversation happening primarily around fairness, climate change and impact on farmers… They are seen as heroes of the pandemic,”​ Makhmudova stressed.

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Farmers are the 'heroes' of the pandemic / Pic: GettyImages-okugawa

The executive believes Danone’s relationship with its supply chain can be characterised by two key elements: social and environmental justice.

“We are a multi-local, people-forward company championing social justice across the supply chain of food… We need to promote fair practices and make sure it’s not only us taking action by putting pressure on all of our suppliers,”​ she noted, pointing to the work Danone is doing on modern slavery and a support fund the company established to financially support farmers at the start of the pandemic.

A multi-local approach to sourcing allows Danone to support biodiversity in the regions within which it operates. The company’s US brand Too Good ‘saved’ a local lemon species by providing its farmers with a place to sell the produce, Makhmudova told FoodNavigator.

“By sourcing locally big companies have the opportunity to preserve biodiversity… All companies can play a role in helping local farmers to survive and play a role in protecting biodiversity.”

Collaboration with the supply chain enables Danone to advance its environmental agenda in other ways as well. The company was an early proponent of regenerative agriculture. It revealed plans to ‘sharpen’ its focus on regenerative agriculture in 2017​ as part of efforts to make its value chain carbon neutral by 2050 (an ambition originally announced in 2015). 

“Our approach to regenerative agriculture is about supporting farmers adopt practices that deliver higher yields,” ​Makhmudova said. “Danone and other big manufacturers have the scale to influence change.”

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Soil health is at the heart of regenerative agriculture / Pic: GettyImages-Mintr

Soil health is central – with practices like reducing tilling, crop rotation and cover cropping supporting carbon sequestration and boosting harvests. Higher yields result in higher farmer incomes – which also feeds into the discussion around social justice.

“It’s about making sure profits in the supply chain are fairly distributed,”​ the Danone executive observed. “But a second dimension is very important – and that’s supporting [farmers] with knowledge and access to modern technology.”

To this end, Danone is investing in AI and precision farming, Makhmudova said, calling out Danone’s investment in New York-based purpose-driven AI company How Good. “These start-ups without investments would not be able to develop these technologies and deliver them to farmers at scale.”

The rise of the ‘planetary diet’

As consumers come to understand the role that their dietary choices play, the barometer suggests they are increasingly aware of the so-called ‘planetary diet’.

During the pandemic, plant-based foods ‘became cemented as the central element of the planetary diet’, the report suggests, ‘yet people sought compromises and balance to lessen the pressure and enjoy food again’.

Flexitarian diets – made possible for many by innovation supporting an improved organoleptic profile of plant-based foods – continue to gain steam.

Makhmudova sees no tension between Danone’s core dairy business and its large plant-based unit.

“There is no contradiction between dairy and plant-based because people are voting for flexitarian diets,”​ she said. “There is no ‘bad food’ there is a bad way of producing and consuming it.”

GettyImages-Elena Medoks dairy milk
Plant-based and dairy options have a role to play in a more flexitarian future, Danone believes / Pic: GettyImages-Elena Medoks

Danone is confident that dairy will continue to play a long-term role in nutrition and the company is therefore working to lessen the negative environmental and animal welfare consequences of some dairy production systems. “We don’t see that dairy will fade away. What’s important is our farming practices are as sustainable as possible.”

At the same time, Makhmudova stressed that ‘plant-based is not an alternative’ to dairy.

“Plant-based is a great way of enjoying food and getting all the nutrients Mother Nature has for us,”​ she told us.

While plant-based is often associated with a health or environmental halo, the innovation and growth expert insisted that the true cost of plant-based production must always be top-of-mind. “It is an important question that we go with practices and formulations that are good for the planet.”

Danone’s Alpro brand is working alongside the WWF to support bee populations. In France, the beans it uses are sourced within a 50-mile radius of its production factory. In the US, all soy that goes into its Silk products are sourced in North America.

“Having a very local supply chain is reducing our impact on the planet. There is a danger [that plant-based diets won’t be planetary diets] if we are not looking at the total impact of plant-based on the planet.”

Tech dev for the future of food

While on the one hand the Barometer identified the desire for a back-to-basics approach to food, exemplified by the demand for ‘new natural’ products, on the other it found consumers are increasingly optimistic about how technological developments will shape the food system.

Likewise, Makhmudova is bullish on the impact technology will have on food production, consumption and distribution. She sees these two ‘polarised’ trends for ‘simple food cultures’ and tech-enabled advancements are likely to develop in tandem. “It will not be one or other. It will be a combination of the two extremes and everything in between.”

Asked to predict the top tech trends that will shape Danone’s future, the growth expert noted AI enabled formulation and sourcing and personalised diets ‘based on knowledge of gut health and personal wellbeing’ are likely to gain traction.

“In Danone we have a medical nutrition division which helps people with serious medical conditions… We already have the capabilities. Obviously, this is not a mass production model, but it gives us insight to inform future innovation.”

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Danone expects quick-commerce will continue to grow / Pic: GettyImages-Motortion

Digitalisation is also expected to have a significant impact on how people shop, with the rise of ‘food on demand’ and so-called ‘q-commerce’.

For Danone, these e-commerce innovations offer some specific opportunities. “The opportunity for Danone is to develop our online B2B business to make sure our products are available for these immediate delivery groups. We are also working on B2C with our products on a subscription basis.”

For Danone, the Barometer’s findings validate some of the group’s long-held investment priorities. “Danone was talking about all of these themes already because they are strongly embedded in our mission to support the health people and the planet through food… It proves the investments we are making in this area are worthwhile,”​ Makhmudova said.

The company also hopes the research can help provide a springboard to food systems transformation and support collaborative efforts moving forward. “We strongly believe in collaboration and want the report to… help the industry together to advance the way we eat for the health of people and the planet.”

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