Beyond the research: Lessons in foodservice marketing from the makers of Spam

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Foodservice marketing can be an especially fickle thing as the tastes, preferences and demands of consumers change over time, affecting both the kitchens that serve consumers and the companies that equip and supply those kitchens.

Nearly 10 years ago, Hormel, the food manufacturer known primarily for its eponymous chili and oft-maligned canned meat Spam, was struggling to meet the demands of changing demographics and evolving tastes.

What the company has done since then, as thoroughly highlighted in this Bloomberg piece, offers some keen problem-solving lessons for marketers across the entire food industry spectrum.

Problem 1: Hormel wasn’t particularly open to taking risks.

Solution: Get over it.

OK, this one seems pretty straightforward, but it was an important step for Hormel, for which tradition was one of its core tenets through either neglect or intention.

Companies in the food industry, whether a 125-year-old titan like Hormel or a 6-month-old start up, must acknowledge that a constantly changing landscape requires an openness to trying new things, some of which will inevitably fail.

Problem 2: Hormel didn’t know how its product was being consumed. Or, more importantly, why some of it wasn’t.

Solution: To reach its desired audience, Hormel had to go beyond what one of its vice presidents called “traditional marketing insight.” Their solution was to bring in an anthropologist, who went to where people were to study how they ate — in their homes, dorm rooms and offices, at backyard campouts and highway convenience stores. Her decidedly nontraditional insights fueled product development and marketing direction for Hormel.

I’m reminded of a short story I once read about the designers of a “mouth-friendly” ice cream scoop. Instead of asking people how they used ice cream scoops, the designers used field research to see it for themselves, which is how they learned a lot of people licked the scoop before dropping it in the sink — something many people might not have admitted to or thought about when answering a direct question. The result: the Zyliss scoop that’s easy to lick.

Maybe manufacturers of pre-packaged soups or sauces or frozen pastries don’t need to know how everyday consumers eat their food — but maybe they do. Consider if you know enough about how your product is used in the real world, and if not, how to rectify it.

Problem 3: Hormel didn’t know that what it “knew” wasn’t right — or at least wasn’t the complete picture.

Solution: Through its research, Hormel learned its biggest competitor among young consumers wasn’t healthier snacks; it was smartphones. The company responded with “one-handable” prepackaged wraps that became one of the most successful new products in the food business.

Modern food companies often have big stores of data about their customers, about end-consumers, about trends and fads. But before interpreting the data and using it to drive business solutions, companies have to assume it’s valuable and accurate information. That may not always be the case.

As the Hormel story notes, “people invariably say their diets are more healthy than they are.” The key for those in the food industry is to disentangle myth from reality.

How to do that can vary from on-site visits to social science research. Sitting next to diners in restaurants, standing beside the line cook and even monitoring social media can provide insights beyond numbers on a page.

Have you gotten any market insights from unexpected places or methods? Let us know in the comments.

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