Food means different things to different people. For some, it is merely a source of energy and is seen as fuel. For others though, food is a large part of their daily routine, so much so that other activities are often planned around mealtimes and other consumption rituals.
Food can be a connector. A conversation-starter. A way to trigger thoughts and build relationships. Our love of food beyond the need for survival is what makes us unique.
Each culture around the world has created their own rituals involving food and beverage consumptions and I want to consider those in this article alongside a brief analysis of consumer behaviour in the context of the modern food and drink industry and from a product development perspective.
A ritual can be defined as…
…an intentional and sequential series of behaviours performed before, during, or after an event in a specific context to achieve a desired result. It usually induces a higher emotional response that occurs in a fixed way over time with little variation and has a specific intent. A ritual could take place after the gym on the way home, in the car after a day of work or just before going to bed.
This piece is about understanding how product design can be used to create new customer experiences and rituals as well as provide new value propositions and commercial opportunities in food and drink innovation.
There are several areas to consider when looking at consumers and their rituals around food and drink. Food rituals can be created and defined through stories (what do consumers enjoy doing together e.g. ordering pizza at home during a football match), symbols (shopping at a certain supermarket), power structures within a country or company (lunch patterns – where, what, and who you eat with matters), control systems (family food patterns and choices), routines (after-work drinks, cake on your birthday, protein shakes before the gym…) and finally habits (the way in which people select, cook, serve and eat foods that are available to them).
Rituals can enhance the enjoyment of consumption because of the greater involvement in the experience they prompt. Beyond change in meaning, ritualised consumption can lead to changes in cognition in the form of more mindful states when eating.
From the intricacy of Japanese tea ceremonies to the ornateness of holiday dinners, food-related customs hold big sway in cultures around the world. They all reflect in some way an element of that particular culture’s values and common stories, whether long inherited or deliberately chosen.
While some of our food rituals can be traced to religious traditions, others are more secularly instituted, family-oriented or even individually constructed. These grander social customs might evoke more conscious nostalgia, but science suggests that even the smallest practices we enact around our eating can have surprising results.
Food is much more than an amalgam of biochemical nutrients. Modernity itself can be the course of nostalgia and in order to resist the standardisation and homogeneity of modern life, people like to “customise” their eating habits and patterns to reclaim connections or suit previous experiences, personal needs and preferences.
Choosing consumer-centric over organisation-centric
When people or events seem to be “out of control”, one may rely upon food to feel they are regaining power over their uncertain circumstances. Subconsciously, busy customers are regularly seeking to reclaim control and rediscover authenticity. Companies should avoid the organisation-centric approach of “what can we make” and “how we can sell it to our customers”?. By using empathy and adopting a consumer-centric approach of “what does our customer need and how can we solve that problem for them”, innovators, entrepreneurs and strategists alike can create a systematic ritual design process through food and provide a new framework for food innovation.
With a strong yet subtle connection between rituals and the sequence of thoughts, emotions and actions, it is critical to place empathy at the core of product design to reveal meaningful insights. By doing so at the onset of a project, designers, developers and scientists can recognise customers as human beings, understand their feelings and see the world through their eyes. The outcome is a more consumer-centric innovation process of products and services where users have a natural connection with the brand built on trust and authenticity which results in a win-win scenario from both the consumer and the company side.
What about rituals in our newer, faster-paced world? I believe that this topic links into our growing need for personalised nutrition offerings where we can purchase food products that fit our individual lifestyle and needs. To put this into context, I have come up with three different consumer perspectives which I believe are strong drivers of certain food rituals in our daily lives. Let me know what you think and if you would add any other drivers.
- Scenario A – Comfort: “My working days are chaotic and I struggle to stay focused and energised throughout the day. I need something healthy that will help me settle down and recharge my batteries before going again. I need to stop for a moment, connect my mind with my body, eat or drink something convenient and comforting, nourishing and soothing.”
- Scenario B – Coach: “I should start caring more for my health and wellbeing as I am growing older. I want to pay more attention to what I eat and drink to enjoy a healthier and longer life. I want to reconsider my nutrition habits and I am convinced that small but slower steps can have a bigger impact than immediate drastic changes, but I do not know where to start. I wish there was a convenient everyday product that could help me on that journey.”
- Scenario C – Unplug: “My days are packed trying to keep the show on the road. Every so often, I need to take a break, breathe, unplug and relax. I don’t have much time, I need to enjoy every second of my break and take care of myself. I need to refuel and get my mind back on track before becoming overwhelmed.”
Each one of the scenarios above could be a new product or usage occasion for companies, retailers and manufacturers within the food and drink industry to build upon. Product managers have a unique opportunity to create a meaning and purpose from a user experience perspective, and design consumption rituals for busy consumers who are looking for an anchor or a reliable pillar that they can lean on for their health and wellness. I want to raise awareness of various lifestyle consumers who allocate this timeless slot to relax, focus on themselves, and create a bit of me-time where they can appreciate the pleasure of the blissful moment. I would call this an “inperience” of sorts, where the nourished body, soul and mind connect on the inside.
Building Effective Brands Through Consumption Rituals
A significant component of building effective brands in the long-term is to understand how consumer habits adapt over time. By tapping into experiences, inperiences and emotions discovered during the NPD process and consumer insight tests, you should be able to find at least one point of differentiation or individualisation that you, as a brand, could build a new consumption ritual around.
While there is a need for greater understanding of the nature of consumption rituals surrounding food and drink, especially in terms of mechanisms linking ritual performance to the outcome, I believe rituals can add structure to life events and justify moments of connection to self or others. By commercialising science in a meaningful way, companies can encourage specific ritualistic behaviours, define consumption occasions and refine their benefits. This approach will ultimately enhance the perception of brand authenticity and build trust with the target audience in mind.
By applying systematic ritual design and lean innovation principles (empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test), iNewtrition and I can help you develop and build product categories and brands that intentionally enhance user experience with targeted results as well as specific health benefits to enhance the consumer experience with new food and beverage consumption occasions and alternative delivery formats for nutrients.
Book a consultation with me here if you would like to discuss your brand and consumer consumption occasions. My consultation calls are all carried out virtually and remotely so you can smoothly fit it into your schedule and you don’t have to worry about travelling.
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 Mark S. Rosenbaum, Germán Contreras Ramirez, Jeffrey Campbell, Philipp Klaus. The product is me: Hyper-personalized consumer goods as unconventional luxury. Journal of Business Research, In press, corrected proof, Available online 23 May 2019
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