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Innovating for success: Top 5 consumer trends in agri-food F

ood glorious food, hot sausage and mustard!Northern Ireland’s growing agri-food industry has plenty to sing and shout about. Since the Agri-Food Strategy Board launched its Going for Growth scheme, the sector continues to go from strength to strength, contributing £4.5bn to the local economy (Invest NI, 2015). Local food producers are at the forefront of building a larger, more export-driven private sector and are now recognised as a key driver in the Northern Ireland economy. Central to the strategy’s focus on sustained, profitable growth has been the concept of an integrated supply chain, based on the needs of the marketplace. It has been encouraging and timely to see so many food businesses engage with consumer research and development in creating new market-led products. At the Food and Consumer Testing Suite (FACTS), situated within Ulster University Business School, we have had the opportunity to assist some of these companies as they strive to meet consumers’ changing tastes and preferences. But what are consumers’ needs and desires in this increasingly competitive climate? Here are five significant consumer trends currently shaping the agri-food industry.

1. Health by stealth Consumers are increasingly seeking healthier alternatives to their favourite foods, but are unwilling to compromise on flavour. To meet the demand, manufacturers have reformulated some of their highest-selling products, with reduced sugar, salt and fat versions among the most prominent offerings. More recently, key health trends relating to natural and wholesome ingredients are being viewed as a way to ‘add value’ to a product. Promoting the quality of our grass-fed livestock in Northern Ireland is one example of how local producers can differentiate themselves in a global market. One company, we have been working with, has taken our love for grass to a whole new level. Squeeze Wheatgrass is the only UK producer of a ready to drink wheatgrass shot and is being hailed as one of Northern Ireland’s fastest growing health food companies (Check: www.squeezewheatgrass.co.uk).

2. ‘Free­From’ Foods There is a growing, global trend towards the avoidance of certain food ingredients, with gluten-free, sugar-free and fat-free diets becoming increasingly mainstream. In

response to consumer demand, there is a burgeoning market for innovative products which make it simple for people to manage their food intolerances, allergies or specific dietary needs. Our final year students are currently working on a marketing plan for a local start-up, New Found Joy (Twitter: @NewFoundJoy), whose brand is aimed squarely at those with a sweet tooth. The Portadown-based bakery offers a wide array of pre-packaged gluten-free ‘tray bakes’ such as caramel squares, rocky roads and even brownies!

3. Learning the craft The popularity of artisan and craft products has grown in recent years due to consumer expectation for quality products and demands for ‘something different’, for local produce, unique flavours and for brands that tell a story (Mintel, 2013). Artisan/craft products are usually local, focused on highquality ingredients and produced in smaller quantities compared to mainstream manufacturers. The market for craft beer in Northern Ireland is one that has expanded over recent years and is predicted to continue to grow steadily. Marketing researchers in Ulster University Business School (Miss Fiona Roddy, Dr Lynsey Hollywood, Dr Darryl Cummins, Professor Mark Durkin) spoke to a range of craft brewers across the island of Ireland such as Carrig Brewery, Tempted Cider and The Black Donkey. All had experienced growth and we identified four key motivations driving their businesses: passion for the craft, independence in running their own business, citizenship and fulfillment. Such emotive factors play a significant role in shaping their brand narrative and were thought to enhance consumers’ perceptions towards the reputation, quality and credibility of their products.

of climate change on food production and diminishing non-renewable energy sources "sustainability" is one of this decade’s buzzwords. Food producers today need to ensure that they apply sustainable practices throughout the supply chain, from production to post-consumption. Consumers are increasingly conscious of issues around food waste and packaging, which shapes their behaviour, as their desire to become ‘global citizens’ and give back to society strengthens. Working in conjunction with SUKI tea, our students have learned a lot about the importance of incorporating sustainable practices into every aspect of a business and how it can be used as a tool for competitive advantage. Ten years ago, it began as a market stall, but has since gone from strength to strength, last year investing £250,000 to increase its export operation. Maintaining its commitment to sustainability as they expanded, SUKI became the first UK tea company to hold triple certified status meaning their products are Fairtrade, Organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified.

5. You are what you tweet! Social media is now playing an important role in shaping our food culture. A quick glance at Twitter or Instagram shows people are now consuming their food, not just through their mouths, but through their screens. Popular websites, blogs, YouTube channels and podcasts have created communities of thousands of foodies, giving them a forum to exchange recipes, reviews and restaurant recommendations. Even longestablished companies like Morelli’s ice cream, which has been trading on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast since 1911, are turning to social media to generate brand awareness. Their almost 3,000 followers were among the first to know when the company recently won 3 Great Taste Awards (2015), for their caramelised hazelnut, rhubarb and custard and espresso coffee flavours of ice-cream which our Consumer Management and Food Innovation students helped to select after a lot of tasting testing in our sensory suite at FACTS! Dr Lynsey Hollywood Lecturer in Consumer Management and Food Innovation

4. Sustainability With rising global populations, the impact

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