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Winning the trend-tracking game.

You can't tell a fad from a trend without a scorecard!

Keeping an eagle eye on trends is essential for success. And how does one stay ahead in the trend identification and tracking game, or determine whether what's hot is a flash-in-the-pan fad or a timely trend with sustainable sizzle? Is the current interest in French/Parisian bistro a fad to capitalize on for a quick market hit, or a trend worthy of in-depth exploration and execution?

Food trends are evolutionary--with roots and origins in multiple lifestyle, demographic and cultural trends. Take the Latin foods explosion as an example. Latin-American cuisine, originating from the mainly Spanish-speaking countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean islands, is a natural extension of the American consumer's continuing love affair with Tex-Mex and Mexican foods and the spicy, hot, multidimensional flavors that we've come to enjoy. The dramatic growth of the Latino population in the United States, expected to become the largest minority early in this century, is another key factor in this trend's evolution. Increased exposure to all things Latin--NAFTA-influenced business travel, vacations to Mexico, the Caribbean and other "hot" destinations, and of course, the enticing rhythms of popular Latin music--fuels the Latino culinary fire.

Trends have longevity (three-plus years), while fads fade after one to two marketing seasons. Both fads and trends have broad appeal, but a trend offers multiple interpretations across market segments. A graph (below) depicting the continuing evolution of Latin foods, flavors and restaurant concepts illustrates the S curve of a trend. A fad looks like a sky-rocket with a descent as sharp as its upward burst.

First identified more than two years ago, the Latino trend curve shows products and ingredients at every stage of the trend life cycle. Stage 1 is detection, identification, initial awareness and introduction. Stage 2 represents increased awareness and familiarity, popularization, wider acceptance, recognition. Both stages offer opportunities for new product introductions or positioning shifts. Stage 3 depicts maturity and saturation where flavors or concepts are already mainstream, offering limited market potential unless repositioned or revitalized.

Identifying a trend requires monitoring change. In the food world, the first step is to select indicators to be watched: media, products, retail outlets and restaurants. Second, check these indicators at regular set intervals, looking for patterns. The third step is to measure or quantify the change. This is the critical step that takes trendtracking from gut feel to serving as a valid tool.

Quantifying the change validates your intuition. For example, chipotle chile use in recipes in the food media increased from 29 in 1994 to 45 in 1997 to 89 in 2000, according to the FOODWATCH Media Database, documenting the consumer's movement to more authentic Mexican ingredients and flavors. Chipotle chile's increasing popularity illustrates the consumer's easy adoption of a smoky-hot "new" Mexican ingredient after widespread use and acceptance of mild green chiles, chili powder, jalapenos, nachos, etc. In fact, McCormick & Co. is capitalizing on this evolving consumer interest with its introduction of ground chipotle chile and ground ancho chile in its gourmet line this fall, making these Latin ingredients available in mainstream supermarkets in an easy-to-use form familiar to every American consumer.

The strength of a trend can be gauged by two important factors-the ease with which consumers can adopt it and the extent of its influence and exposure across several aspects of consumers' lives. The Latin cuisine trend scores high on both points.

Latino flavors-beginning years ago with mildly seasoned ground beef tacos, tomato salsas and guacamole, and continually evolving-are already familiar and interesting to the American consumer. Latin ingredients and foods are becoming more available in supermarkets and restaurants across the country, and the cooking techniques, such as grilling and marinating, aren't new.

Another indicator of the strength of the Latin trend is the predominance of Latino influences in all areas of our culture, from politics to pop music to Gusto magazine. All things Latin are "in," and everywhere!

Analyzing the strength of a trend in the context of your company's market position, product development timetable and marketing strategies is possibly the most critical factor in making a sound business decision about whether to pursue a trend. How quickly can you bring a concept to market? Does your concept fall in Stage 1 or early Stage 2? Does your concept fit easily into the way consumers are eating and cooking? If you can answer "yes" to these questions, then perhaps it isn't too late to ride the Cocina Latina wave.

Choosing what trend indicators to watch depends on the spectrum of your market, your consumer and your customer. Is your product high-end and specialized, targeted to the innovative and experiential consumer, or do you market mainstream products to a broader consumer base? For successful introduction, the concept/flavor of a new mainstream product needs to be in or moving into the popularization and recognition phase, Stage 2, of the trend evolution curve. Choosing and monitoring even a few key trend indicators can provide valuable marketing insight.

Trade shows-fancy foods, gourmet, FMI, NRA-that are not specific to your business can offer good trend indicators. (If you're in the deli business, the deli show doesn't do it!) Track new product introductions, either on your own or using a service. Watch a specific group of restaurants or chefs. Select a few consumer culinary magazines to review regularly. The January issues of Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Cooking Light and Food Arts focus on trends. Analyze where the magazines' "hot picks" fit in the consumer mega-trend demands of convenience, health/wellness/nutrition, good taste/flavor and value, and how these relate to your marketing strategies.

Analyze industry studies, recognize their slant and use the information pertinent to you. Read your local newspaper food section; track and study the content. Watch shoppers in the supermarket-what's in their carts? Develop a couple of networking resources for regular discussions about trends. Look for food clues in non-food places-the movies, TV, the bookstore, the gym. Food is being sold everywhere.

If you decide to use a professional to help you create your trend-tracking scorecard (or maybe to catch up), buy smart. Know what types of information, studies or services are available. When hiring a trend consultant, provide detailed information about your business, your market, your products and how the trend information is to be used. Ask about the supplier's process for determining trend indicators and how recommendations are made. You want to pay for database insights and information, not smoke-and-mirrors intuition. The trends professional, like any marketing services provider, will be of most value to you when you've clearly outlined your needs and objectives.

Linda Smithson and Eleanor H. Hanson are partners in FOODWATCH, a company involved in food-trend tracking, analysis and insights.

BIRTH OF A TREND

Emerging

Stage 1

Churrasco (Brazilian meat skewers served flaming at the table)

Expansion of high-end restaurants by quality chefs using Latin themes - beyond the E/W coasts

Chimichurri

Cajeta

Arepas

Ropa vieja

Accelerating

Stage 2

Expansion of mid-priced chains Rodizo Grill -chain of churrasco rest.(CO & TX), Samba Room - Latin/Cuban Cafe Mexican cheeses - chihuahua, cotija, queso fresca

Mojitos; ceviche/seviche; fruit salsa/green salsa; jerk seasoning; jicama, plantain; habanero, ancho/poblano chiles; guava; flan; empanadas; chorizo sausage; barbarcoa-pit roasted meats; camitas

Mainstream

Stage 3

Jalepeno

Mango, lime

Expansion of counter service chains with more menu diversity than Mexican cliches -Chipotle Grill - hip Mexican fast food by McDonald's

Dulce de leche

Fajitas

Pico de gallo

Nacho/taco/enchilada/burrito
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Author:Smithson, Linda; Hanson, Eleanor H.
Publication:Food Processing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Words:1246
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