If a communications agency had a shop window, selling its wares over the counter, it would look like a chemist. There’d be a vast array of potion bottles all intriguingly labelled. You’d be able to purchase two bottles of buzz and a good dose of awareness. Each bottle would comprise a long list of different ingredients, but the first and most important would always be consumer insight.

The business of successful brand communications is wholly underpinned by a genuine understanding of people and what makes them tick. You can’t create content that resonates first with the media, and subsequently with consumers, if you don’t have a clear vision as to why your brand or product is going to become slotted into their lives. American politician and diplomat Adlai Stevenson famously stated in 1952 “understanding human needs is half the job of meeting them[1]”, sixty years later, the sentiment still runs true.

Insights come in all different shapes and sizes, from a small life detail of a particular audience, to a universal truth of the human condition (she sweepingly states!).  However, in each case, the insight unlocks something, the potential to grow an idea.

A key insight for communications planning this year, across many brands, is a shift in culture, primarily driven by the far reaching impact of social media.  Food has become an integral part of modern self expression. According to research compiled by NRN “what was once a source of fuel for everyone, as a source of solace and pleasure for many people, is now a vehicle for self-expression, a point of pride, a political statement, a declaration of identity and much more.”[2]  Politics and potatoes seem unlikely bedfellows, but if we think in terms of creativity it begins to make sense. “food allows people to connect with other people. It’s a signifier. It allows them to distinguish themselves from other people.”[3] So it’s also tentatively associated with popularity too.  Here’s some of our most recognised global politicians using food to send the all important “I’m an everyone kind-of-guy” message.

The annual Waitrose Food Trends Report summed it up nicely ; “From healthy eating and the explosion of food photography on social media, to our desire to entertain others through cooking, food is today’s hottest social currency: through it, we tell others about ourselves.”[4] For several years now, food has developed into a mainstream hobby of our nation, arguably with as much interest, creative flare and self expression as the fashion industry. Some restaurants, products and ingredients are revered as aspirational labels, where reservations and in turn possession of, are coveted as hotly as the latest designer handbag.

So what does this mean for food brands building their communication campaigns? According to Food Manufacturing “today consumers in general want food items that are fresh, creative and made just for them. That is where the customisation trend comes in – and it’s hotter than ever in the fast-growing casual segment.”[5] 2016 saw several brands leverage the customisation trend to gain media cut through on both owned and earned channels.  The award for most being most visible, and kicking off the approach into the mainstream, must go to Coca-Cola with their personalised bottle project. Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign, which saw the brand replace their iconic logo with “your name”, launched in April 2013. The outcome of the campaign saw the brand’s Facebook community increase globally by 6.8% and contributed to the reversal of declining sales.[6] It’s since seen a number of brands adopt their own iteration, namely Nutella and Marmite to successful effect. The future of personalisation, particularly in conjunction with tech is currently bubbling away in the restaurant sector, with several well known high street chains set to announce personalised ordering mechanics and apps this year.

Personalisation works as an impactful strategy to enable traditional brands to fight back against digital upstarts that have personalisation baked into their heritage[6].  According to Marketing Week; “personalisation isn’t about calling consumers by their name, but rather about brands making an emotional connection with them as individuals that transcends labels and packaging.”. Powerful stuff if you harness correctly!

The development of the popularity of food photography is an obvious form of self expression that’s highly apparent across all social channels. At time of press, #foodporn currently groups 109,532,828 images of mouthwatering food pics, contributed by brands and consumers alike. Whilst this highly saturated stream has been the food hashtag of 2016, 2017 looks to see the rise of more creative and interactive tags such as #ChefMode. Looking closer at the stats, this increase is shared imagery of food is also linked with the increased popularity of cooking at home.  39%[8] of people see eating out as less of a treat than they used to.  Simply put, with consumer’s increased diligence and careful sourcing of products, food at home is often better. Furthermore, it provides the homecook with an opportunity to demonstrate creativity and flare.  The kitchen island has become the stage for cooks at home.  For brands, however, that’s a lot of noise to cut through. The impact we can already see off the back of excessive image sharing is many brands adopting a video lead content strategy, a medium still just out of reach for consumers. With lenses and easy image editing programmes, a beautiful shot of pretty food isn’t a stretch for the amateur snapper. It’s still, however, only the preserve of brands who can afford quality production values of video.

Whats-more, show-off cooking is not as complicated as it once was.  We’re not talking nouvelle cuisine, it’s all about a feast for the senses, an accessible way that mainstream cooks can get creative on their constant hunt for inspiration. The freakshake phenomenon is not just about flavour, but the fantastical visual. Content inspiration is a rich territory for brands to leverage that can be seeded through both owned and earned channels. Trend hijacking in this case is an interesting route, particularly when budgets are limited, to ensure comms work feels culturally relevant.

This shift towards the use of food for self expression, coupled with a constant thirst for inspiration, has created a key moment of opportunity for brands looking to engage with their target consumer on an emotional level.  If consumers are happy to use brands to reflect their own identity, values and taste, a powerful connection can be made, placing the brand at the heart of the consumer’s lifestyle. Brand building expert and speaker Denise Lee Yohan’s research corroborates this point; “great brands aim for customer’s hearts, not their wallets.” What better approach to capture the consumers’ hearts and imaginations than with the alchemic potions from that communications shop window, to conjure up sentiment and emotion between consumer and brand.


[1] Adlai E Stevenson; US diplomat & democratic politician; Speech; Columbus Ohio; 3rd October 1952

[2] Bret Thorn; Senior Food Editor; National Restaurant News Report; NRN; 14th September 2015

[3] William Hallman; Psychologist; Department Chair of Human Ecology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick

[4] Rob Collins; Managing Director; Waitrose Food and Drink Report 2016

[5] www.packagedfacts.com; Millennial Menus: Culinary Trend Tracking Series; Report; 30th March 2016

[6] Leonie Roderick; www.marketingweek.com; website; 10th November 2015

[7] Leonie Roderick; www.marketingweek.com; website; 10th November 2015

[8] www.waitrose.com; Waitrose Food Report 2016