Food Trends & Innovation: Branding Will Decide the Winners at Expo West

02.28.18 / Diana Fryc

Trends. Are you tired of following the whiplash of what’s next in food? No? Me neither. My favorite trade show of the year, Expo West (or better known as the Natural Foods Expo), is just around the corner. This show touts itself on being “the world’s largest natural, organic and healthy products event,” and it is frankly THE trade show for food, beverage, health, and wellness right now. I love seeing our clients and partners, but I’m mostly excited about innovation – real innovation, not just flavor profiles. I’m talking about revolutionary thinking about food, nutrition, and extensions that align with brand positioning.

Plant-Based Protein

We can probably call this a mega-trend at this point. The continued desire to eat more plant-based foods is part earth sustainability, part health, and part animal-welfare related. The bigger guys are doing it well (I’m looking at you, Tofurky, Field Roast, and Amy’s – you guys are killing it with line extension right now), but we see a lot of up-and-comers continuing to move into this space too, like our friends at Hilary’s. Specifically, Beyond Meat has caught my attention. Yes, it’s super kitschy that the burger “bleeds,” but the strategic merchandising next to ground meat in the meat department is freaking brilliant. I’d like to shake the hand of the salesperson that convinced Kroger to do that. There’s your zag. This trend is going to be around for a while, and we are excited to see how it grows beyond soy-based products and outside some of the basic products.

Sugar-Free or Low-Sugar Beverages

I’m not talking Stevia or some other sweetening substitute. I mean removing sweet flavors from the palate completely. The continued sugar backlash is creating quite the demand for alternative beverages (AKA not soda or traditional juices). Add the sugar tax and you’ve got a beverage consumption shift happening that is going to bring us whiplash. I anticipate 2018 to be just the beginning. I find it interesting that many traditional beverages like water (yeah – the clear stuff) and tea are rising in popularity. I suppose that’s to be expected, everything old is new again. Add sparkling beverages like DRY and drinkable soups and broths and you’ve got a full-on rebellion happening. Coke and Pepsi are certainly watching and taking note – as is evidenced by Diet Coke’s recent rebrand, but I don’t know that they are moving fast enough. My bet is there will be several portfolio acquisitions in their future to offset decreasing traditional soda sales. If you’re a brand considering a purchase, now might be a good time to clean up your books.

Ethnic Flavors

Consumers’ demand for something interesting and new is extending away from earlier trends of Mexican, Chinese, and Thai. An infusion of Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, and African flavors are showing up on the shelves. As these are new flavors to the traditional American palate, it’s easy to position these as healthier options to the traditional Americanized version of our current “ethnic” options. While Korean and Vietnamese have been in my rotation for a while, I’m excited about the influx of “legit” Middle Eastern flavors becoming more accessible.

Biohacking

As consumers become more comfortable with the idea of using science to maximize the benefits of food, we are now seeing biohacking cross over into more conventional diets. From the more conventional Whole 30 to intermittent fasting, eating well has become a lifestyle. While Bulletproof and Soylent are my current brands to watch, I have a feeling Expo West will produce more food and snack options for those that have become comfortable with hacking their food for performance purposes.

Root to Stem

Eating the leaves of beets or the roots of cilantro doesn’t sound very exciting to me. However, if you are a foodie or a person interested in your environmental footprint, this might be for you. The flavors and nutrition from fruit and vegetable parts we have traditionally thrown away are becoming vogue. This trend is so new that I’m not sure I’m going to see any Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) on the floor just yet, but it is picking up speed in restaurants and homes of the more adventurous chefs. What I do expect to see are the beginnings of these conversations in the fresh produce sections of the show. How it will manifest for the average consumer (outside of maybe food delivery services and the produce section) is yet to be discovered. I’ll be curious to see how this trend might manifest in the next 12 months.

Meal Delivery

In the beginning, there was Schwans. Yeah – they’re still around, but being first to the market doesn’t make you the winner. Newer and hipper brands like Martha & Marley Spoon (sorry – Martha is my queen) will continue to grow. This category is getting incredibly crowded, and the winners won’t be the ones that have the best recipes, cheapest meals, or fastest delivery – it will be about the brand. Other than Martha (who is already a titan in the foodie world), the others will need to figure out their brand in order to stay in the game.

Instacart, Amazon, and even Kroger and Walmart will likely disrupt this category. They already have strong existing brand equity, supplier partnerships to support this area, and a robust operational infrastructure. They can deliver exactly what Sunbasket and others are doing with little heartache to their business. In the case of Instacart, the Uber of grocery shopping, they have a lot of flexibility because they are not limited to one retailer. The consumer that stays with them will be the one that wants to shop but is fickle about their commitment to a single retailer or brand and doesn’t mind paying for the convenience of having someone else do the shopping. (I love that my shopper texts me during their shopping trip to help me navigate inventory!) The newer brands will need to figure it out quickly and buckle up. It’s going to get bumpy through this transition. These brands will likely not have a booth at Expo because they sell direct to consumer, but they are on-trend and competing for those grocery and CPG dollars. They’ll probably be walking the floor looking for ideas or partner vendors.

Cannabis and Hemp Infusion

OK, OK, cool your jets. I am actually not sure this is a mainstream trend yet. However, with the growing number of states legalizing marijuana and the number of people that are warming up to the idea of it not being “the Devil’s drug,” cannabis and hemp seem like the next frontier for CPG. There is still a lot of research and development going into learning the health benefits of this product outside of recreational use. But one thing is for sure: It’s not going away, as evidenced by the financial investment into the high brand and packaging that is hitting the market. It will be interesting to watch how (and if) the recreational and functional (I’ll call it) parts of the product break apart for the different product shoppers. I fully anticipate Expo to be the place for this trend to break out into the CPG world.

As you can see, some trends may not be ready for CPG primetime, but it’s fun to watch the genesis transform. Sometimes you need to hit the floor and see the brands live before you really know if they’ve got legs. I’ll be sure to follow up after the show to reveal what mattered on the floor – not just what stood out.

By the way – if you are interested in seeing our work at Expo this year, here are the brands you should visit: Wedderspoon, Essentia Water, Second Nature, DRY Sparkling, Hilary’s Eat Well, Sahale Snacks, Living Intentions, Teton Waters, Alden’s Ice Cream, Atlantic Naturals, and Derma E. And if you want to meet up to chat, book a time today!

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