Remember the days before natural was a “thing” in food and beverage? Natural food stores were the province of hippies looking for patchouli oil and whole milk yogurt. The natural aisle (or perhaps half of an aisle) at grocery retailers was relegated to the back of the store, near the pharmacy. Natural products were packaged uniformly in brown cardboard boxes with green lettering.
Natural was fringe-y, virtuous, monastic, the kind of thing your crazy aunt who followed a macrobiotic diet was into.
Then, natural became a “thing.” Full grocery chains were built on the category, eventually to be gobbled up by the country’s largest retailer. Natural departments expanded in stores, specialty brands popped up, consumer demand for organic and non-GMO food spiked, keywords like ‘gluten-free’ and ‘plant-based’ became part of the average consumer’s lexicon. Natural went mainstream.
Now, we’re entering a post-natural era.
Natural Isn’t a Category Anymore
Consumers are changing the definition of natural and better-for-you. They still want organic, non-GMO, whole-ingredient, “clean” food. But today, those attributes have become product features and benefits, not category definers. And certainly not something you should stake your brand’s entire premise on.
We call today’s consumers “conscientious consumers” — they’re interested in brands that are clean, sustainable, fair trade, and all the other natural badges, but they’re not willing to sacrifice status or flavor or comfort or convenience in pursuit of those things. They’ll buy non-GMO snacks for their kids at Whole Foods, then hop into their SUVs to drive home. They’re flexitarians when it comes to the natural lifestyle.
This is a demographic shift from the conscious consumers of the 1960s and ’70s, who were devoted to saving the whales, eating whole food, and sticking it to Corporate America.
What’s more, these young consumers are willing to forgive or overlook certain attributes of a brand if it delivers a benefit they want. The consumer mindset has shifted from intrinsic reward (the satisfaction of eating healthily or supporting the environment) to extrinsic reward (looking great in those workout clothes). They’ll accept low-calorie products with fillers and artificial sweeteners if those products help them stay slim. They’re OK with organic and non-GMO products manufactured by huge global brands. They’ll sacrifice what used to count as “natural” in pursuit of diet goals, glowy skin, or brand status.
Better-for-you-ish is OK to them.
What’s Driving the Post-Natural Shift
Some of the demise of natural as a meaningful category — or word, for that matter — comes from consumers. But some of it comes from brands themselves. We’re seeing a number of experienced marketers leaving the big consumer packaged good (CPG) sector and jumping to small startup food brands, bringing with them the tricks of the CPG marketing trade.
Too, we’re seeing the influence of investor money coming from the tech community into the BFY food and beverage space. Backed by tech dollars, upstart food and beverage brands are chasing quick success in a dynamic market, and they’re willing to shortcut on values traditionally held by natural aficionados.
Perhaps more influential is the rise of celebrity culture globally — sparked by social media, especially Instagram, where consumers can see in real time what their favorite celebs and influences are eating and drinking and using.
Look at Gwyneth Paltro’s omnipresent Goop brand. It’s the avatar for the new, quote-unquote, naturals. Goop’s products are pseudo-science that features selective acceptance of non-BFY ingredients and traits.
And today’s better-for-you consumer freaking LOVES it!
What’s Next for Natural Brands?
So, what does this all mean for brands still playing by the rules of the natural game?
Let’s say you’re the founder or leader of an established natural brand, and you see one of these upstart post-natural brands screaming toward you in your rear-view mirror.
Your best line of defense is having an ownable, believable, authentic brand ethos — a defined way of being and behaving in the world. You must stand for something above and beyond your product, no matter how great that product is.
These new players are most certainly basing their brands on ingredients, which is an unsustainable approach to branding a BFY company. They’re content to cash in on the latest trendy ingredient, pocketing sales of Goop-endorsed, $38-a-box mushroom tea until mushroom tea isn’t a thing anymore. These post-natural brands will shine hot and bright — and quickly burn out.
For a great example of how a legacy natural brand can play in the post-natural world, look at Bob’s Red Mill. The company redesigned a large segment of its line to catch the post-natural consumer’s eye with an appeal toward vitality and energy and liveliness, not just wholesomeness.
Existing natural brands have an opportunity now — to have a bold, distinctive voice and to connect that voice to a younger consumer less concerned about being true to the natural ideal and more focused only on external results and identity.