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Big Data: Big Influence on our Food Industry

Picture of by Dr. Raphaëlle O'Connor

by Dr. Raphaëlle O'Connor

Raphaelle has over 25 years’ experience in the ideation,
development, and commercialisation of food chemistry,
food science, food technology, and nutrition.

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Big data was once only something that big business could take advantage of but now, thanks to the growth and availability of certain technologies, start-ups and smaller companies can also access and benefit from what big data has to offer.

Increased consumer understanding, shopper behaviour and an ability to design and develop food products that your customers actually want through real-time insights are just some of the benefits that advanced analytics can bring to food science strategies worldwide.

Additionally, it is also useful as a way of saving costs in everything from product development to marketing and branding campaigns as businesses can gather real consumer insights on a larger scale and focus their spending on areas and products they know will be more successful.

What is big data?

For those who may be unfamiliar with the concept of big data, it simply means the examination of a very large volume of data using advanced systems with the goal of analysing insights over a period of time to achieve business growth. 

Big data has been around for many years but the food and drink industry has only started to use it to its full potential during the last few years.

Man cycling bike through busy street with cars

For example, every time a pizza arrives at your house in less than 30 minutes, that is thanks to big data systems calculating delivery times, distance, and even traffic levels.

When you visit Burger King and order or pay through the app, you are providing the company with data about who you are, what you ordered and at what time you ordered it. All of which is extremely valuable information that can help the company understand aspects of their business such as which products are popular, and more importantly, which ones are not, allowing them to redirect their spending and adapt their product portfolio.

Balancing the right combination of new product launches with existing product offerings is something I touched on in more detail in my last article when discussing how to avoid product cannibalisation.

Even from an at-home perspective, brands like GeniCan have created a bin attachment which operates barcode scanning and voice recognition to measure food waste. It also cleverly partners with Amazon Dash to reorder items that you have thrown away.

Big data is increasingly present in so many parts of our everyday lives and most of the time we don’t even realise it.

When a company incorporates advanced analytics into their strategy, it shows their willingness to learn more about their customers and how they can improve their products or services which is great news for us as consumers.

How can big data help improve the food industry?

It can be difficult to keep up with changing market trends and consumer preferences, especially when there are so many new brands and innovations appearing on shelves on a daily basis.

This can often lead to consumers feeling increasingly overwhelmed through a paradox of choice which, consequently, may lead to reduced product trial and sales as consumers have too many options to choose from and so eventually choose none. Using advanced analytics in food science to develop products, flavours and nutritional profiles that customers actually want and search for can, therefore, work in your favour.

There is a lot of conflicting information available from a consumer and an industry standpoint which further highlights the importance for each company to be as well informed about their own customers as possible. 

As a food and/or beverage business, your number one focus should be to constantly learn about what your customers expect from you and the products you create. Big data methods are a great way to do this consistently. As soon as you lose sight of your customer focus when developing future strategies and products, it is easy for your product quality to decline and you could start to lose customers.

As previously mentioned, one of the main advantages of big data is the ability to help businesses create new products or redesign existing products or brands. I touch on this in my case study on Disruptive Innovation in Plant-Based Products.

Amazon Fresh is a great example of a company that uses data analytics to break into a new industry. Evidently, their size and ability to scale is a key factor in how they were able to become a leading player almost immediately after launching, however their ability to leverage data to understand the how, when, and why consumers shop for food online was what allowed them to understand this new market and its customers, and try to fill gaps that may have been present in other competitive offerings.

Big data can only take you so far, however, and for Amazon Fresh, one major challenge still remains – the consumer preference for choosing their own fresh produce is still highly prevalent. It will be interesting to see how Amazon works around this and which direction they choose to go in next. No doubt, using advanced analytics will continue to be a big part of their decision-making process either way.

How can food businesses benefit from big data?

Be social, just ask!

So many brands wonder how they will be able to find out what their customers want and they often completely underestimate the power of actually asking them.

Use your social media channels to ask your customers what they want to see more of, what flavour they would like to see you create next or ask for their thoughts on two different packaging options for a new product or rebrand.

Collaboration is key

We can also look to Ireland as another method of utilising big data in a big way. The Origin Green program that Bord Bia launched in 2012 is based on using large data sets to work towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. It later expanded to also examine factors such as water quality and biodiversity.

The program works mostly thanks to the collaboration of many levels of the supply chain, including farmers, food producers and the government. Without the agreement of each of these elements, it would be impossible to implement such a successful initiative and achieve smarter, more sustainable and more transparent farming practices on a national scale.

Consistent user experiences

Quality control is a crucial element for food and beverage brands to get right as quickly as possible. Brands cannot afford the cost (in both financial and reputation terms) of recalling products and risk consumers having a different (negative) user experience every time they purchase their product.

For example, imagine you purchase a pint of ice-cream from a new brand for the first time and you love it! It’s delicious, the tub is almost overflowing with ice-cream and there are plenty of chocolate chips. You had such a good user experience that you go back and re-purchase the week after. This time, however, you find that the tub is not quite as full as the first time and there are very few chocolate chips. You are disappointed because you developed high standards based on your first experience which have now been lowered due to your second experience not being consistent with the first.

By listening to consumer complaints using meta-data and advanced analytics or tracking the food supply chain with big data systems, you could ensure that the user experience is more consistent over-time leading to enhanced consumer satisfaction and repeat purchases.

The key to success is in correctly analysing the results

It is clear that using big data can greatly help so many food and beverage businesses to further understand their customer’s preferences and expectations, design products based on real market insights, and improve their overall working methods and efficiency levels. 

The difficulty with large-scale data sets lies in knowing where to start and how to correctly analyse the results. Without proper implementation of the latter, the whole process is potentially pointless and may guide you in the right direction.

If you have plans for new product development or changes in recipes or nutritional profiles, send me a message. As a food scientist, I work with many international companies and brands of all sizes and across many sectors to help them work towards their objectives for product design and development.

Schedule a free 20 minute call with me or send an email to [email protected] to have a chat about your business on a 1-1 basis or via a workshop format at your company.

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