Food firms must cater for consumers on autopilot

By Laurence Gibbons

- Last updated on GMT

Consumers will not choose a food product if they have to think about whether to buy it or not
Consumers will not choose a food product if they have to think about whether to buy it or not

Related tags Psychology Mind

Food and drink manufacturers need to make their products appear to be an effortless choice for consumers operating on autopilot and stop over rationalising their habits, advises leading behavioural scientist Dr Nick Southgate.

Southgate told that despite consumers claiming to make rational and well thought out decisions when shopping, they actual settle for whatever product requires the least amount of thought.

“When food and drink manufacturers approach new product development they think people are looking to make a rational decision ​… We over rationalise their behaviour,” ​Southgate claimed. “The average consumer’s dream is to make it around the supermarket on autopilot without thinking.

​If people have to think about a product like a suduku​ [puzzle] they will not choose it. If they can’t tell its benefits apart from another product or aren’t sure if they need it, they won’t pick either.”

Food firms must tap into the unconscious mind of the shopper to make their products appear easy to choose and consume, Southgate added.

‘Need to make sense’

“Food products need to make sense to people. If a product – such as a cake – is displayed so you can eat it with your right hand, people will think that looks like a delicious cake and buy it. If it looks harder to eat people will ignore it.”

Firms that have a reduced sugar or package size offering risked confusing the consumer over the actual benefits of these products and should instead use the simple ‘cheapest, best, better’ strategy own-label brands have, Southgate claimed.

“People look at low sugar and wonder what the point is or think it will taste awful,”​ he added. “Brands need be really clear. If we went through life and everything was offered as good, better or best it would be really lovely.”

An example of a brand that had successfully made its product easier to use and benefited as a result was Heinz, Southgate said.

“When we ask people why they choose Heinz, they say it is a no-brainer. These effortless unconscious choices are what food and drink firms need to work towards. When Heinz launched its squeezy bottles people thought it was far easier to use ​[than the glass version], but it also meant parents could give bottles to children.”

The effect of this, according to Southgate, is that children are now able to choose their own portion control and as a result use more and increase the amount of ketchup a family will buy.

When and how to eat

Food business should also target their products at particular times of the day and consider package size so consumers are clear of when and how often they should be eating them, said Southgate.

“People knew what Horlicks was but not when to drink it,”​ he claimed. “Then the firm released the advert ‘coffee for the morning, tea in the day, at night only Horlicks will do’ and it prevented sales decreasing for the first time in years.”

People are now willing to pay more for a coffee for home consumption and for luxury crisps because they are advertised as an at home treat experience that is still cheaper than going to a coffee shop, added Southgate.

Although brands are popular with consumers, they were still unlikely to choose a favourite brand if it was next to a cheaper option, he added.

Meanwhile, Southgate will be among the speakers at The Food & Drink Innovation Network’s one-day innovation masterclass on June 11, in London, looking at the latest science behind what makes people buy.

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