Food tribes: Fighting the good (food) fight

Think about the last time you went out to eat with friends, or the last time you invited someone to your home to share a meal. If there were more than three people in your group, I’ll bet one of them had a dietary restriction or food regimen that limited your dining options. And I’ll bet you happily and somewhat easily accommodated, finding no shortage of restaurants or recipes to meet the group’s collective needs.

From raw to keto to gluten-free, uber-niche “food tribes” are the new normal. While the landscape’s a lot to keep track of, this increasingly nuanced way of categorizing and communicating food products actually holds a bright future for brands, marketers, and consumers alike.

It’s been a big year

Remember this time a year ago? The weather was still warm, the kids were heading back to school, and only 1 in 7 people followed a specific diet regimen. However, in just 12 months, that figure has more than doubled to a ratio of 1 in 3.1 Food tribes aren’t just a rising trend, they’re an exploding market.

Food tribes aren’t just a rising trend, they’re an exploding market.

Because of the fragmentation that defines tribalism, no single food tribe comprises a very large portion of total food tribe market. For example, two of the largest tribes—Paleo and vegan—clock in at just under 4 percent and 8 percent of the whole, respectively.While it’s clear that food producers should deliver products that speak to these fast-growing tribes, the relatively small size of each group makes poses a barrier to large-scale success. So, what’s a food producer (and its brand and marketing teams) to do?

All together now…

There are challenges for consumers, too: the pervasive, dogmatic passion created by food tribalism appears to be stressing us out. Eighty percent of consumers say they come across conflicting information about food and nutrition. Sixty percent say it makes them doubt their choices.1 So many facts and alternative facts, betters and bests, and competing narratives around what it means to eat “healthy”—and all most of us want is peace of mind and a full belly.

Studies reveal that half of us flip the package to read nutrition facts and ingredients when making our purchase decisions. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, what we’re looking for are simple truths like non-GMO, a short list of ingredients, and products made in a more environmentally sustainable way.1

This figure reveals that, at our core, the majority of us share a baseline desire that sounds something like this: “I want food that’s good for me and for the world around me.” Food tribers just happen to practice a more specific and regimented manifestation of that desire.

Connecting the dots

If food tribalism is here to stay, and if we all share the same basic desire, how does a food brand talk the talk without isolating everyday folks? Our take: Connect with the fringes, and you’ll attract the middle.

Imagine two consumers: Jill, a young professional who follows a strictly paleo lifestyle, and Lisa, a middle-aged mom who wants what’s good for her family but doesn’t have the time, knowledge, or discipline to follow a particular food regimen.

And let’s say they’re both shopping for burgers. Your burger, as the food producer, stands out because it’s designed to look clean, relevant, and fresh. Jill picks it up and starts reading the details because she must see the things she’s looking for: non-GMO, freshness, low-fat, free of nitrates, grass-fed. Lisa picks it up and thinks, “Hmm. Non-GMO? I think that means it’s more natural, which is good. I know fresh and low-fat are healthier, so I like that. I’m not exactly sure why nitrates are bad but if they’re not in there I’m sure that’s better for my family. And grass-fed is nice because I like picturing cows happily munching away in an open field.”

Connect with the fringes, and you’ll attract the middle.

That’s a bit simplistic, but you get the point. Because consumers like Lisa have a tacit understanding of what’s good for them and the earth, and share Jill’s desire for healthiness, you as the food brand can reach both audiences. When your packaging stands out and communicates detailed product info that nails Jill’s food tribe needs, you convert Lisa at the same time.

Food tribes, FTW!

Food tribes are good for consumers and good for food producers because they push us all towards a better world. Food producers are pushed to innovate, delivering food that’s increasingly healthier and more sustainable. Consumers are pushed to be more knowledgeable about what goes in their bodies and its impact on the world around them. Marketers and branders are pushed to be more transparent, precise, communicative, and respectful of discerning consumer needs and tastes. Long live food tribes!

Need help reaching your food tribe (and the rest of us)? Our team loves crafting brand strategy and design that helps your product stand out on shelves. Contact me—I’d love to hear from you.