Parents No Longer Feel Food Brands Care – What’s Happened?

grocery shopping with kids

Being a parent and living through a pandemic has been tough going, both for parents and children. We know this from our recent COVID-19 tracker, which demonstrated that the health of the family was prioritised over many other factors such as personal wealth, fulfillment and the wider economy.

Given the government and media focus on the sugar and fat content in food targeted at children, we wanted to hear the parents’ voice and, specifically, how they really feel food brands and manufacturers should communicate with them. Facilitating this ‘conversation’ between parents and food brand owners means the industry can learn, adapt and enhance their strategies to align with parents’ emotional needs in these uncertain times.

We undertook this research at a category level, rather than brand, as we wanted to establish a sector baseline for the industry, from which individual brands could compare themselves in future research.

The insights we uncovered suggest a step change is needed for the food industry to connect with parents in a way that is meaningful for their deeper emotional needs.

We undertook research using our System 1 technique called ‘Brand Emotion’ to unlock the true feelings of parents across the UK, France and Germany to catalyse more powerful insights.

Maru/Matchbox’s unique Brand Emotion capability works through the principle of visual semiotics, using a smart, gamified online technique based on a proprietary set of 9,000 images, each validated over 10 years as linked to key emotions. Parents build a collage of 10 images, that best reflect their intuitive feelings. This gamified image selection is much more revealing, honest and accurate than simply asking them to give us slow rational responses to traditional rating scale questions.

From this image selection, we generate an emotional signature of how food brand communications make them feel, and in the following sections we will share our insights and learning.

Brands are over-relying on desire and instant gratification

There’s a high degree of consistency in the emotional signature of how food brands currently communicate with parents across the UK, France and Germany. If the intention was to drive brand synergies and a ‘one size fits all’, it’s working. But is that what parents want?

childrens food category

The top emotions reveal that food brands currently communicate an underlying sense of enabling parents to provide and care for their families, (Nurturing emotion). But, they also create a desire and temptation for instant and frequent consumption (Seductive and Dynamic emotion).

Parents react well to being able to provide what their children desire, but they feel this is sometimes at the expense of the product itself. Verbatim comments indicate brands are sometimes nutritionally poor and create a sense of guilt, leaving parents feeling unfulfilled in their duties. This delicate balancing game of what children desire vs. what’s healthy for them is destabilised by conflicting pressures from children, peers and media communication. In a nutshell, food for parents is a hugely emotive construct.

The ideal communication needs more than just desirability

Knowing the status quo isn’t enough to drive action for food brands. We used Brand Emotion to ask parents what the ideal communications from food brands should feel like – what’s the ideal emotional signature? By establishing both the current and ideal emotional signature, we’ve unlocked an emotional pathway on how to meet their wider emotional needs. This is the key to making the emotional connection that influences future behaviour and drives choices at point of purchase.

childrens food category

The ideal emotional signatures reveal parents have no problem with food brands being marketed as alluring and desirable items – the Seductive emotion is prevalent here. However, parents want more emotional reassurance about the brand’s credentials and integrity (Capable/ Competent emotion), focusing on ingredients and wider social or environmental impact. Parents need to feel that thought and care (Nurturing emotion) has gone into the selection of ingredients and manufacturing process. These need to transcend mere consumption and meet a deeper need of ‘Is the brand good for me, my family and even my wider community/ society’? Of course, food brands know this but what our Brand Emotion technique can reveal is the true emotional signature of your brand, communication, packaging or any piece creative to truly understand what the stimulus is really communicating to consumers – constantly checking if your development and marketing activity is hitting the desired emotional sweet spot and making fast, meaningful connections with consumers.

Looking across the 3 countries, Germany stood out from the commonality patterns shared by the UK and France. Whilst core brand values can travel internationally, different geographies and cultures may require more nuanced communication to meet their distinct emotional needs. For example, parents in Germany over-indexed on ‘Cooperative’ rather than ‘Capable/ Competent’ on the one hand and, on the other hand, they over-indexed on ‘Sympathetic’, rather than ‘Seductive’. This subtle difference indicates German parents expect food brands to be even more responsive to their needs as a parent.

Three nourishing lessons for food brands to show they care

Parents don’t have a problem with food brands promoting desirability by focusing on the most seductive attributes, but brands that rely on this alone risk being considered as one-dimensional or even irrelevant based on evolving emotional needs. With health such a high priority now, they must be sensitive to, and meet, the wider emotional needs of parents.

1. Food brands need to enable companionship and empathy, demonstrating they are authentic and genuinely understand how parents feel rather than simply enabling instant joy and consumption. The alluring images, colours and textures need to be balanced with a narrative around how the ingredients have been carefully chosen to provide both flavour and a healthy balance that has sustainable credentials – it needs to be about the impact on society as a whole and not just the family. And if they have been trying to be locally sensitive or more nutritionally driven, that message isn’t getting through to some parents. This is reinforced by our previous research on sustainability which showed parents have greater concerns about the future state of the environment for the next generation compared to non-parents.

2. Awareness of local nuances and parental needs must continue to be on the radar of the big multinational food brands. They need to avoid a potential disconnect with other local brands dialling up authentic, community based or single purpose credentials. In the worst-case scenario, local brands might find easy pickings if they have a laser focus on nutrition, sustainability or even an inspiring and locally engaging product story for their little brand. In a nutshell, multinational food brands can and do communicate with the same message internationally, but they also need to empower regional teams to accommodate local nuances.

3. Food brands need to develop foresight informed by a more holistic view of parents and consumers. Such foresight and insight generation closes the say/ do gap by reaching deep into how choices and decisions are made and exposes the emotional dynamics around these. Food brands that do this, influence and predict behaviour more accurately providing improved future brand outcomes.

This article was co-authored by Maru/Matchbox UK’s Steve Brockway, Chief Research Officer and Anjul Sharma, Director.

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