2021 Food Marketing Trends

With 2021 just around the corner, all of us at Ingredient have been eagerly anticipating what’s to come. What foods will we crave? Will we still be doing our grocery shopping online? How will brands build loyalty as the pandemic continues? What baked good will be the next sourdough?

Of course, it’s impossible to think about next year’s trends without reflecting on 2020. This has been a watershed year of pandemic- and political-related anxieties — of not knowing what tomorrow may bring. We can’t say that we’re sorry to see the end of 2020. But even amidst all the uncertainty, one thing has become increasingly clear: the world is changing, and the food industry along with it.

As difficult as the past year was, there are lots of ways food and the culture that surrounds it has changed for the better. For example, food has become less precious and more thoughtful, but it’s still as joyful as ever. We’re using food, whether it’s home-cooked, store-bought, or made by a line cook in a takeout joint, as a source of physical and emotional nourishment — and we’re finally paying our respects to the different cultures that brought those meals to the table. And it seems like, just now, we’re wholeheartedly embracing the idea that anyone can cook.

We hope these changes are here to stay — and we can’t wait to see how they evolve in the coming year and what exciting new changes they bring along for the ride.

In compiling these trends, we not only considered the evolution of our collective relationship with food; we also turned to our designers, cooks, writers, content planners, and digital strategists for a broad perspective on how food and digital marketing will intersect in 2021.

Comforting, Soothing Classics

During the early months of 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was beginning to take its toll, we all began shopping and eating differently. Driven by a craving for comfort and nostalgia, we put Cocoa Puffs in our (virtual) shopping carts instead of Kashi, and slid the cheesiest, heartiest lasagnas into our ovens. We turned to food that made us feel good.

In psychology, there’s this idea called the “Spoiler Paradox,” which basically states that knowing the ending of a story doesn’t ruin the experience; it actually makes you enjoy the story more. Why? In part because it allows you to process the plot with ease, but also because humans love predictability. And let’s face it: nearly a year after Covid-19 first appeared as a blip on our radar, the world feels more unpredictable than ever — which is why we don’t see that desire for comfort food and classic recipes going away anytime soon. That said, it will evolve and wriggle its way into other areas, like design and food styling, as we enter 2021.

  • Keeping the classics classic: No need to add a teaspoon of matcha to your banana bread batter or shave truffles onto your mac and cheese — people want the tried-and-true versions, just like mom used to make.
  • Approachable, simple recipes: There’s been a shift from trendy, inspirational, and unattainable recipes to simple, approachable recipes that even the novice cook can make. In the Covid-era, no one is above making a tuna melt, pasta with red sauce, boxed brownies, etc., and we’re all cooking a lot more of those basic recipes.
  • Passing down intergenerational cooking knowledge: Younger generations want grandma’s famous recipe; older generations are using quarantine to declutter. It’s a win-win for all. But even more so, families are looking for different ways to connect through food now that we can’t always be around the dinner table together.
  • Recipes as frameworks: In line with the likes of New York Times Cooking, Milk Street, and others, we’re developing shorter, more loosely written recipes — the idea being you can swap ingredients in or out, and you don’t have to fuss with the prep. These non-recipe recipes can be shared easily on social media, making cooking even more widely accessible.
  • Clean, classic design with organic movement: Lines will be cleaner, colors will be flatter, and shapes will be more natural — and animation on imagery will be clever and subtle, not jarring or in-your-face.
  • Soothing colorways: Much like our stomachs are craving all sorts of comfort, our eyes are craving calming colors, like rich earth tones and warm pastels. Our designers anticipate mixed shades of beige and gray — perhaps with some golds and browns as a garnish.
  • Natural textures and surfaces: For food styling, expect to see those comforting dishes posed in realistic settings against backdrops of light-toned wood, muted slate, and other natural, imperfect surfaces.

Product Discovery & Adventure Through Food

These days, the farthest we’re traveling is to the grocery store, and once we’re there, we aren’t taking the time to peruse the grocery aisles. And for those who are doing their grocery shopping exclusively online, e-commerce tools streamline the process of adding previously purchased items to your cart and have limited product suggestion capabilities. In short: it’s harder to discover new foods.

In 2021, brands and grocers will have the unique challenge of finding innovative ways to get the word out about new products (especially if the increase in online shopping is as permanent as we think it is). But beyond that, we see ways in which encouraging product discovery through fresh, compelling content can also give customers a small way to add some high notes to the sometimes overwhelming sense of monotony.

  • Bringing the in-store experience online: While this trend could manifest in a variety of ways, we see key opportunities in a few areas: live videos, social shopping, and profiles.
  • Fresh, creative in-store experiences: On the flip side, grocery stores will want to pull some of those online shoppers back into the brick-and-mortar spaces with unique shopping experiences. Whole Foods, for example, is already turning their hot bars into holiday shops — and our client Lunds & Byerlys opened an indoor food truck at their Eagan, MN location that acts as a rotating pop-up for local restaurants.
  • More grab-and-go options: Grocers like Gelson’s Markets, our Southern California-based client, have been adding and will continue to add more options to their grab-and-go and take-and-make lineups to provide relief for our cooking fatigue. Lunds & Byerlys has done the same, and they’ve even added deli items as an online pickup option.

Make It Personal

Personalized marketing won’t be a new trend in 2021 — but it’ll certainly hit its stride. As the pandemic wears on and customers become increasingly careful about where they spend their paychecks, they’ll gravitate toward brands that deliver recommendations that serve their individual needs, wants, and values.

Of course, personalization relies heavily on attribute-based data, but it can also play a role in how brands communicate with their audiences and conduct customer service. At the end of the day, it’s all about building loyalty, and customers are more likely to return to brands that display both empathy and relatability.

  • First-person email newsletters: First of all, the food blog is dead; long live the food newsletter — especially ones with an honest, vulnerable voice. Covid-19 is breaking down all the walls, and chefs and culinary influencers are writing from a very real, very messy place, acknowledging mishaps in the kitchen, politics- and pandemic-induced stress, and the struggle of feeding their kids three meals a day, seven days a week.

Bigger brands are also leaning into this intimate voice to become more relatable in the eyes of their customers — without coming off like the Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme.

  • No such thing as too much data: In the coming year, brands will rely more heavily on quantitative and qualitative data — whether it’s based on attributes, purchase history, or individual feedback — to deliver relevant messaging to customers through email, social, and paid media.
  • Exceptional customer service: Going above and beyond with customer service is the norm nowadays, and there are many tools that make it easier for brands to do so. Think: on-site chat features, beefed-up rewards programs, and social media customer service.

For example, our client Box Tops for Education has made customer service a key aspect of their social strategy, creating how-to videos for their new app and responding directly to questions and comments from users on Facebook and Instagram.

Behavioral Shifts Around Food & Eating

For many Americans, food was merely a necessity before the pandemic. For others, cooking was a hobby or even a profession. Now, food is a way for everyone to pass the time — a way to make life at home feel joyful and special. (At least until the cooking fatigue sets in, and all your heart wants is an entire box of Nut Thins).

If there’s been one constant in the past year (and, well, since the beginning of time), it’s that we all gotta eat. But the nuances in our food-related behaviors? Those have shifted quite a bit in the past year, and they’ll only continue to shift as we tip-toe our way into 2021.

  • Spices galore: People are beefing up their spice racks as a means to add variety to the most basic meals and experiment with new flavor profiles. In fact, the spice industry has been struggling to keep up with demand.
  • Unfussy daily baking: Now that we aren’t hosting big dinner parties or trying to impress our mother-in-laws, the need for showstopping desserts is fading. Instead, we’re baking quick breads, chocolate chip cookies, and anything and everything in bar form — they’re easy to bake, freeze, and share (and they’re even easier to munch on during the WFH day).
  • Snacks on snacks: People need new ways to feed themselves as the pandemic continues. Enter: snacks. We’re spending more time perusing the snack aisles for fun munchables and putting cheese, crackers, and baby carrots on a plate and calling it dinner.
  • Reducing food waste: The early days of the pandemic saw a sharp increase in food waste due to supply chain issues and hoarding at the consumer level. But as we head into the new year, more people are trying to mitigate food waste and make their grocery budgets stretch farther. Content around smarter grocery shopping and upcycling leftovers will play an important role here — as will recipes that use up entire ingredients, like containers of feta or boxes of spinach.
  • “The Cleanse” is no more: We’re seeing less content around cleansing and detox diets on social media; it’s just not a priority in today’s Covidian climate of political, economical, and health-related anxiety. We’re less concerned with eliminating or limiting our intake of certain foods, and more interested in eating nourishing food — whether we choose to define it as a yummy, veggie-packed grain bowl or a slice of rich chocolate cake.
  • Cutting back on meat: Plant-based “meat” and reduced meat consumption is still trendy as we head into 2021. The omnivores among us are subbing in plant-based products here and there for the sake of the planet. And after inconsistent meat supply over the past year, people tried out these filling, high-protein alternatives as a backup, loved them, and then went back for more — even after meat availability stabilized.
  • Cooking as a hobby: While the 2020 sourdough sensation may have fizzled away, cooking and baking projects are still as popular as ever. Think:
    • Learning how to make royal icing, bread (sourdough or not), pie crust, boeuf bourguignon, and other culinary classics.
    • Cooking foods we’d ordinarily leave to the restaurants, like pho, Neapolitan pizza, and fried chicken — and DIY-ing foods we’d normally eat from a package, like Girl Scout Caramel deLites, Cheez-Its, and Oreos.
    • Upping the at-home beverage game with coffee and tea bars, cocktails and mocktails, and other fancy-ish drinks for kids and adults.

Representation in All Things Culinary

In a year marked by massive social and political upheaval, it’s become clear that the food industry is not immune to the racial, cultural, and economic injustices that permeate our society. As a result, many brands and individuals that play a role in and profit off of the food industry have begun to realize they have to actively participate in making the culinary world more equitable for underrepresented groups.

This includes acknowledging and making space for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) voices — as well as their businesses, ingredients, and recipes. We’re also acknowledging food for what it really is: a powerful symbol of culture, identity, and values. And of all the changes noted in this article, this one must become a permanent fixture in the industry.

  • Uplifting BIPOC culinary voices: Whether it’s purchasing cookbooks like In Bibi’s Kitchen or Parwana, or directing your dollar toward mom-and-pop spots that serve food from non-European cultures, finding ways to highlight and support BIPOC folks in the culinary world will continue to be critical in all the years to come.
  • Pantry staples with clear origins: This wave of representation in the culinary world also includes a collective desire to understand the provenance of our food. Shoppers have become particularly attracted to small, direct-to-consumer companies that are peddling unique products and services because they feel more authentic. A great example of this trend? Diaspora Co., a single-origin spice company dedicated to decolonizing the current commodity spice trading system.
  • Giving credit where credit is long overdue, for example food content creators (e.g. journalists, bloggers, chefs, brands, etc.) are:
    • Paying homage to the rich culinary history and cultural origins of recipes through nuanced storytelling and respect for traditional ingredients.
    • Using the proper name of a dish in its language of origin.
    • Making a greater effort to credit the original writer when publishing a recipe.
    • Stepping down from claiming ownership of a recipe, an idea, or sometimes even expertise in specific cuisines and techniques.

Interested in learning more about 2021 food marketing trends or connecting with us over a cup of virtual coffee? Give us a shout at hello@ingredient.mn.

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