Redefining the concept of quality

by Editorial Staff
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While companies would like to know the answer to the question of what consumers are willing to pay more for, quality is not just about price. It would be a mistake for marketers to think higher quality products are something only affluent consumers may afford, that it is only about indulgent occasions or pertains to certain types of upscale, luxury products or brands.

America has an evolving, unique food culture that begs to be understood and defined. There are many changes now happening with surprising speed in the food world. Consumers once viewed food, for example, in terms of ingredients and nutrients. Today, we see a growing number of consumers looking at food through the lens of culture with a rapidly evolving perspective on eating, which stresses higher level food experiences.

One does not have to look too deep into the trends impacting the marketplace, whether it is the decline in carbonated soft drinks consumption for beverages perceived to be of a higher quality, increased organic food consumption, baby boomer lifestyles, the shift toward fresh foods, local or artisanal to see that the common theme throughout is how consumers are changing the way quality is perceived and defined.

Intimately connected to these shifts is an attendant redefinition of how consumers perceive quality with regard to eating, health and food experiences. From a broad, macro-cultural perspective, what has happened is as consumer understandings of food culture have evolved and become increasingly sophisticated, their markers of food quality have themselves broadened away from specific product attributes of health and wellness (such as organic and natural). They now include cues more relevant to an indigenous food culture. Organic and natural, for example, arose from health food stores and food co-ops, while local and fresh come from a growing interest in regional agriculture.

Quality for today’s consumers means high level experiences. Just as quality should not be defined solely based on price, it also is not about the absence of a negative such as "zero trans fat" or communicating healthy benefits with words alone as in the case of "low calorie."

Some segments of the consumer population are transitioning away from processed packaged goods and moving toward products that fall beneath the umbrella of fresh. This means consumers are looking for minimally processed packaged goods or products with fewer ingredients — ingredients they recognize.

And, quality is no longer reserved for special occasions. We know many consumers change the kinds of foods they eat on special occasions. Many of the changes entail choosing higher quality, premium foods with distinctive flavors that may be locally produced by an artisan, and consumers are clearly willing to spend more to obtain these foods. Importantly, virtually all consumers are now eating many of the same foods every day that they formerly reserved for special occasions.

Wine is an excellent example of how consumers are enjoying products once reserved only for a special night out on the town at a fine restaurant virtually any night of the week.

If high quality is about one thing, then, that thing is authenticity, the real, genuine people, places and traditions behind products, ingredients and experiences. Consumers detect real distinctions in quality products compared with industrialized, mass-produced commercial counterparts. Twelve-month cave-aged cheddar cheese communicates higher quality than ordinary cheddar from a large food company.

Lifestyles will continue to evolve as consumers pursue new levels of interests and preferences that transcend products and brands. Today’s consumers use a different set of metrics such as quality and fresh to guide their purchase decisions. It is time for food manufacturers, marketers and food retailers to adopt a different set of metrics more aligned to how consumers live, shop and use products within the contexts of the new cultural lifestyle realities of the American consumer.

Laurie Demeritt is president and chief operating officer of The Hartman Group, Inc., a consulting and consumer insights firm specializing in the analysis and interpretation of consumer lifestyles, and how these lifestyles affect the purchase and use of today’s products and services in tomorrow’s marketplace. Laurie may be reached at

Consumer spotlight

The drivers of food choices on special occasions are now becoming drivers of everyday food choices on routine eating occasions.

• 94% of consumers use at least some of the brands and products once reserved for special eating occasions for everyday occasions.

• 30% of households are intentionally selecting higher quality brands or products.

 Source: The Hartman Group, Inc.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, April 15, 2008, starting on Page 44. Click here to search that archive.

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