Avoiding the issue? How to futureproof your free from company.

African ElephantThere’s an elephant in the room. And it’s not just me after too many Ugg muffin samples.

It’s the main factor behind the exponential growth of the ‘free from’ market that has been mentioned in every introduction to the ‘free from’ session on the programme for the inaugural Food Matters Live conference: the ‘lifestyle’ free from market.

Called variously ‘explorers’, ‘the health conscious’ or perhaps ‘dipper-inners’; most brands acknowledge that whilst a steady increase in diagnosed allergies and intolerances delivers a degree of growth, it’s the self-diagnosed and ‘worried well’ who are turning the market into a potential goldmine.

And here is the dilemma- marketing teams are trapped between the dollar signs gleaming above a massive untapped opportunity, and the fact that (for many products) to directly target and promote to this audience would involve some ethically questionable tactics and claims. A few skirt the boundaries – with sponsorship of sports, for example; celebrity endorsements, vague references to ‘health conscious families‘ or retweets of articles written by Vogue nutritionistas; but few dare make direct health claims for their yummy chocolatey goodies, beyond their suitability for coeliacs. What kind of odd product can’t appeal directly to their biggest target market?!

The elephant is this – whereas every other track at the conference seemed to be about responding to the newest research and more informed consumers with the latest product and ingredient innovations; the growth of free from seemed to be the opposite: a market predicated on consumer misunderstanding.

The misunderstanding that gluten and grain is somehow ‘bad’, that the ‘wrong type of cow’ is poisoning people, that coconuts have magic powers and we just didn’t notice. I’m trivialising of course, but these ‘fringe’ areas of free from science are at best under-researched and companies are willing to exploit the absence of information (or oh-so-many anecdotes) with their products, catering to a wishful public who just don’t want to admit that the answer to their diet troubles is probably the simple, boring, age-old one. Eat more veg, eat less cake. (I don’t exclude myself from this group- I’m still painstakingly on the hunt for the perfect treats that doesn’t result in an extra % on my body fat measurement! I literally want to be able to have my cake and eat it…)

The diagnosed among us (and take note marketing guys, it’s not just coeliacs!), despite some precious moments on the whole keep schtum about this because we like the product choice that it brings, but I argue that it’s not sustainable. It’s a symptom of marketing teams measured on short term growth and hitting campaign metrics. I think the free from bubble will eventually burst.

The brands that survive will be those who take a better approach- leading with the quality of their product regardless of free from status, focusing on naturally free from options, and working together with the diagnosed community to build trust and acquire customers for life. Customers who will hunt them down, or make a detour to buy them. They’ll probably not focus heavily on getting stocked in the outdated out of town superstores, but use innovative channels to reach their customers personally.

It may not be sexy big-bucks stuff, but it’s the stuff that really makes a difference to people’s lives.

<stands down from soapbox>

4 responses to “Avoiding the issue? How to futureproof your free from company.

  1. My kind of blog. I’ve been hearing a lot about the ‘free from’ bubble’s upcoming burstability and have become a bit cross-eyed with the will-it or won’t-it arguments, so I won’t comment on that yet as I’m no longer sure where I see it going.…

    I did want to comment on the ‘wrong type of milk’ / evil gluten / great coconut line, though, because I heard that very thing on Wednesday in a talk by Steve Bessant of The Coconut Collaborative. I have yet to transcribe my notes, so I don’t wish to misquote him and say anything more yet, but my point is if the bubble does shows sign of straining, what I fear happening is that more companies may start to adopt these ‘other foods are dodgy’ tactics in order to keep the lifestylers from deserting them – and thus adding further confusion to an already baffled public now struggling with it’s nutritional literacy. I’ve been uncomfortable for some time with the messages some free from companies put out – and occasionally the platform they are given to comment on matters they are unqualified to comment on. It’s not only about dissing other foods. Just days ago a pudding company tweeted that the GFD helped prevent cancer (no reference to CD – later withdrawn) and I’ve seen cake-makers comment on matters medical in articles.

    That said, I guess the non-freefrom industry plays the same game too ….

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