Challenger brands signposting the future for bigger food producers?

Consumers today learn about new health concerns and new benefits mostly from social media. For those under the age of 45 it is their primary source of food & health information and is replacing mainstream media as an information source.

Another way to learn about new health benefits is from challenger brands. These brands - usually small entrepreneurial start-ups - are often centred around a new benefit or a new ingredient. The presence of the brand on the grocery store shelf acts like a billboard, communicating the new benefit and starting the slow process of normalising its presence in the grocery store. And it doesn’t matter if the first wave of small challenger brands disappear - there are usually new ones to replace them.

That's what's happening right now with the new benefit of "free-from seed oils". There's a growing discussion - on social media and in podcasts featuring health professionals and nutrition scientists - that points to an excess of oils such as canola, sunflower and soy in modern western diets and fingers them as a source of inflammation. Although they contain omega-6 essential fatty acids per capita consumption of these oils today is 20 times what it was a hundred years ago. And at this level researchers increasingly believe that these fatty acids cease to be beneficial and instead become a significant cause of inflammation in modern humans.

Whether you agree with the science or not is irrelevant. What matters is that consumers are paying it attention. According to the NNB 5-country survey (Brazil, Spain, Australia, US, UK) around 9% of people said they were trying to reduce their intake of seed oils in 2023 - up from 2% in 2021.

Challenger brands are appealing to health-active consumers using the new the free-from seed oils message. The brand shown below, mayonnaise and sauce maker Fudi, uses avocado oil in place of sunflower oil. Its benefit message will catch the eye of the shoppers who haven't seen the seed oils discussion on social media and prompt them to find why they should avoid them. And thus the snowball of consumer awareness grows.

It's important to keep an eye on what messages smaller new brands are communicating and don't dismiss them. The food industry already made that mistake when "gluten-free" first appeared. It may just be that a few years from now that emergent message will be setting the direction of your new product development.

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