Symbolic Choice Now Driving the Future of Food and Beverage

May 16th, 2013 Posted by Uncategorized 0 comments on “Symbolic Choice Now Driving the Future of Food and Beverage”

Consumers are making food and beverage brand decisions based on perceptions of healthier choice.


How are you aligned with rapidly shifting attitudes about healthier choice?

By Bob Wheatley

We have arrived in the midst of an unprecedented era where accelerating shifts in contemporary food culture are rapidly impacting changes in consumer demand. Said another way, cultural dynamics are at work that will impact food and beverage preference and purchase decisions. Consumers are in full march to separate:

  • The real from the fake
  • The better quality from the ordinary
  • The good from the bad

This post is intended to break down and summarize the conditions that will move businesses forward or backward based upon their consistency and compatibility with mental markers consumers now infer on their food choices.

What’s happening to brand decisions…?

Consumers are increasingly making brand selections on the basis of  symbolic choice – a perception of whether or not they believe those choices can help fulfill their lifestyle aspirations and desire for improved health and wellbeing.

This awakening that food and beverage preferences can impact wellbeing is changing the product value proposition. Food and drink choices are morphing into an intentional tool that helps optimize energy, vitality and health. And in doing so these decisions become an expression of how consumers see themselves — and how they want others to perceive their lifestyle aspirations.

  • Food and beverage options that match, fulfill and represent a solid connection to these interests will prosper. While other categories may suffer rejection and enter various stages of consumption curtailment or decline that will be difficult to reverse.

If you run a business in food or beverage categories – this may well be one of the more important strategic discussions we should have. 

Here are the most salient conditions and compelling behavior shifts that impact the move to what we’re calling The New Era of Symbolic Choice:

  1. As recently as 2004 studies showed that consumers did not necessarily connect being overweight directly to disease susceptibility or being unhealthy.
  2. Sustained communication about obesity’s health impacts has rewritten the book on what overweight means. The outcome: symbolic logic is connected to how we see the long-term health consequences of our dietary preferences and decisions.
  3. Food and drink is tethered to our social and emotional wellbeing. And it’s no surprise we place greater stock, interest and attention on these products because we ingest them.  What’s happened: a clear and direct sense that food and beverage choices have consequences attached to them – either good or bad.

An example: foods with perceived ‘excessive levels’ of certain ingredients (such as sugar) are increasingly seen as ‘lower quality’ food experiences – thus less real, pure or good. The density of these ingredients can signal a loss of control over health and future quality of life.

It’s important to note these decisions are not necessarily pure analytical judgments based on science or irrefutable fact. Perception is a true catalyst in how these things evolve. A great example of this is the meteoric rise over the last 10 years of serving organic milk to children. What was once a relatively narrow, fringe business in the 1990’s started to shift when concerns voiced by organic food groups and trade associations started to spread that synthetic hormones in milk, used primarily to boost production levels, were associated with causing premature adolescence in children.

  • In 1996 Horizon Organic had about $8 million in retail sales. By 2011 it was approaching $500 million.

rBST groundswell moved outward from the natural foods community and by the early 2000’s organic milk was adopted by a broader audience of educated women who perceived it as a marker for better parenting practices. Organic milk purchase went from symbol of environmentalism to symbol of good health and then good mothering.  The dairy industry changed entirely as witnessed in 2008 when both Kraft and Walmart moved all milk source purchases to hormone-free.

Science aside, the key indicator here to consumers: “substances that are artificial and sound ‘toxic’ should not be allowed in my food.”

Consumer choices therefore become highly intentional decisions that serve to convey to ourselves and to others the higher quality life we want. Thus you are indeed what you eat!

Key guidance: making foods and beverages in a way consumer’s will trust

Trust has moved far beyond just a communications construct to becoming an axiom for superior product formulation strategies.

As stated earlier business operates now in an environment where perceptions about certain ingredients and their density in foods or beverages can be seen as a symbolic choice of healthier, better for you and thus higher in quality. Fiber and protein claims are on their way up as consumers automatically “impute” certain benefits to these ingredients. 

The current cultural shift favors these qualities and characteristics:

Natural and organic

Local, real and fresh

Nutrient density (more than energy density)

Super premium

Everyday indulgences

Contemporary global cuisines


A move towards quality: the distance between what is perceived to be homemade and real versus what is seen as mass-produced or potentially fake is accelerating.

So where do we go from here?

Restaurant quality meals

Real ingredients

Artisan like snacks

Portion control packaging

Just to name a few. The consumer is looking for signs and symbols of trustworthiness in brand behavior and in the products themselves. The goal for food, beverage and retailers: minimize perceived health risks while maximizing the users ability to project their lifestyle goals.

The drivers:

1. Optimize my desire for self-control and self-improvement

2. My higher quality life requires higher quality food choices

Where do you think we’re headed?

Editorial note: information for this post gleaned from the Hartman Group study on symbolic choice.

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