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Pale ale and stale kale: What food giants can learn from startups

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The food industry is in flux. Trends are shifting and small companies are competing with food giants. The industry transformation is so great that retired Kraft Executive, John Ruff, wonders if “the companies I spent my time with will still be around” in a few years.

Why are niche products successful and what can large companies learn from them? Twitter

Today’s smaller businesses are master rethinkers and reinventors. But often, they are not creating something wholly new, they are just capitalizing on traditional foods or cooking methods, and selling them in a clever way.

Understanding and marketing to your customers is the key to remaining relevant in the increasingly saturated food market. Here are 3 ways to excel at customer-connection in the midst of a changing marketplace.


1. Prioritize Your Customers’ Needs

Building customer loyalty means solving their problems. At the end of the day, customers don’t care about your profit margin — you only have their attention so long as you’re meeting their needs and creating added value they cannot find elsewhere.

Small businesses are excellent at this given their focused target audience. However, there is massive opportunity for larger companies to leverage their extensive resources and discover what exactly customers want and then create the best product experience possible. Thus, be sure to consider ideas that might not initially seem profitable due to packaging or ingredients.

A classic example is true fruits, a little startup from Germany. They chose glass bottles over plastic containers for their smoothies despite the additional cost. This might not seem like a significant decision, but it targets smoothie customers beyond their hydration. With the help of glass bottles, the product has become more than a drink — true fruits’ fancy-glass is now a lifestyle accessory. Though more expensive, the packaging-choice has actually paid for more than itself in profits and catapulted the true fruits brand to a new level.

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© true fruits

In short, don’t be afraid to break the rules! Big companies should make use of their metrics, but shouldn’t let numbers economize their ideas and customer-focused concepts. Also, remember to think outside the box. Staying relevant means being unique and different from your competitors. Whether you use a jovoto crowdstorm or invite customers and visionaries into your company, be sure to incorporate additional perspectives in order to create unexpected products that your customers feel are made for them. 

 2. Be Honest!

Today’s food businesses need to be appealing, honest and transparent. It sounds trivial, but remember that the food industry is different from the tech sector. For many people, food is something sacred and they want to understand what they’re eating, who produced it, how and where.  It is especially important for big companies to deepen their relationships with customers, build trust and respond to their priorities. Twitter

Think of your favorite restaurant. Is it a chain or a small cafe with an amazing atmosphere and a charismatic owner. Probably the latter!  By no means are chains are bad, but often they are not as intimate and unique as local ones. It’s the same with products. Customers are looking for something personal. In a fast-paced world, companies can stand out by “being more human.” Food means comfort and many want something that feels like it is made with love.

Trust your employees and customers to offer their insights on this point. Responding to what they suggest may seem too obvious, but it really is the best approach!

When your customers know that you take responsibility for your products and your company, they are more likely to identify with your brand. As a decision maker you should be present on social media and represent your work and products. Why? Because people trust humans not companies. Believe in your products and take accountability for them as an individual. If there is criticism, take it seriously and respond. Involve your customers in your changes. Ask them for support in creating  solutions. What chocolate would you like to eat? What are you craving? If you hear their answers directly, you can create something magnificent.

3. Create an identity

In today’s world, people want to buy more than products — they want to invest in their personal brand and lifestyle.

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© The Happy Pear

The Happy Pear, an incredibly successful independent health-food business from Ireland, has  leveraged a strong corporate identity to build an empire. By showcasing how they live, what they’re selling and their personal investment in their business, customers are able to feel a connection with the founders and in turn embrace their products. People are willing to pay a premium for niche products if obtaining them impacts who they are and want to become.

Creating a brand that extends beyond your physical product can make it rain. Give your customers a reason to buy your from your company, take responsibility for your products and create something you care about. If you do this, people, not just your shareholders, will notice.


If this article inspired you, we hope you will join us at the Future of Food conference in Berlin on October 28, 2016 to explore exciting food and beverages industry innovations and developments! Buy Tickets here.

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Header image © Brassica

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