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Hospitality Food & Drink Business Leadership

‘Our job has gotten so much harder’: food & drink marketers on new tastes and niches


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

April 26, 2023 | 9 min read

The Drum sits down with seven leading food and drink marketers to chart growing complexity, ‘nichification’, and how to build a brand in this crowded space.

A street vendor in NYC

How are food and drink marketers dealing with the modern complexities of their industry? / Emilie Farris via Unsplash

Among deepening complexity from every angle in the marketing industry, it would be tempting to romanticize food and drink as an area where things could still be relatively simple. Make a delicious product; help people find it; sit back and relax.

Not so. In a recent panel with marketing leaders in food, drink, and hospitality one thing was clear: complexity is ramping up, and the work is becoming more difficult.

“Sustainability needs and media consumption are changing incredibly fast. How people are consuming food and drink is changing too,” says digital agency Coegi’s vice president of marketing and innovation, Ryan Green. “For marketers, our job has gotten so much harder since the pandemic. There are so many more factors; so much we have to weigh and juggle; even just deciding what’s on a menu has 14 angles to it. It’s amazing how many factors you have to take into account to thread the needle.”

“There are so many layers; so many options,” says Wasserman’s vice-president of events & hospitality Jackie Keller. “We have wellness, then we have consideration of diverse partners and vendors then we have the need to ‘keep it local’. And there are so many legs extending from those options. Especially if we’re trying to do something a little bit newer, where do you even start?”

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Macro changes and micro understanding

Almost every imaginable cultural, economic, and social factor is entwined with what we eat and drink, and how. Enormous shifts in each of these categories have left even food and drink experts a little lost in the sauce.

Reverberations of the uber-event of pandemic and lockdowns are still being felt by brands in this space – but not by all in the same way. As Journey Further’s executive creative director Ben Ducker points out, there’s a “massive divide” in how (on the one hand) food and drink brands and (on the other) hospitality providers have positioned in the last three years. The former, he says, have been “celebratory, energetic and bold… those brands built in that period”. Hospitality, by contrast, “went down to brass tacks” by focusing on pragmatics like safety procedures and cancelation policies.

Other post-pandemic changes are more universal. The global economic downturn has seen purse strings tighten. As Vince Murray, head of partnerships at GreenJinn puts it, “2022 was tough for retail brands who met increased costs that they couldn’t pass onto consumers. Marketing spend was particularly pinched for those brands, and they were unable to grow and drive awareness. Consumers are trading into supermarket labels away from brands”.

This tricky economic situation might ease but shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon. “Customers post-pandemic have decided that they’re going to spend their money where they’re going to see the most value,” says TrunkBBI’s client services director Hannah Evison, “and we’re going to be loyal to brands that are loyal to us”. One natural upshot of that for marketers is “more work to understand what audiences need as a bare minimum – and what to do to keep them”, leading to more “customer-centric output”.

That’s a natural enough step, but it gets us quickly into complexity. As Keller says, keen customer focus necessitates “pretty intense customer journey mapping just to make sure we’re maximizing every touchpoint”. In terms of consumer tech and marketing tools alike, Keller says, we’ve “evolved out of the pandemic and into a new world of technology”.

Smart application of tech, our panel says, can be used in a targeted way to tackle business challenges associated with those macro changes. Staff shortages, for example, have rocked some sectors including restaurants and bars. As Christina Daskajiannis, of Tipi Group’s voice experience agency Rabbit & Pork says, chains including McDonald’s and KFC have added ChatGPT-assisted voice tech to their drive-throughs; others are using AI to take bookings and answer the phone. “Brands are really thinking about how they can leverage digital technology, but making it a more human customer experience,” she says. the brand is not missing any bookings”.

Brand v performance; broad v niche

For our panel, this consumer focus doesn’t mean that performance is winning out over brand. In fact, Green argues, “brand and performance are really becoming the same thing” – or at least, they’re becoming “blended, at least from a media buying perspective”. Still, there’s a tension says Green: between the push for targeting and ‘nichification’ and broader-brush brand activities.

For Ducker, it’s time for hospitality providers in particular to “step back into brand”. “It's almost dangerous to go hyper-targeted. There are benefits to that if you’ve got small media spend or a niche product. But so much of brand building is the overlap; the overflow; the overspill where you don’t intend that person to come and buy your product, but you know that they know about you, and they’re going to talk about it. You’re building that brand subconsciously all the time… It's not all about tomorrow’s bottom line; it’s about building brand perception over a three-, four- or five-year period. Not everybody can be a customer.”

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It doesn’t help that a niche can join the mainstream very quickly. In, say, plant-based foods, or product categories like hard seltzer, says Evison, “what looked like a trend is now the absolute norm. If you don’t do it, you’re behind.” On this tack, brands should pay close attention to emerging trends in youth culture – “these customers are the customers of our future” – including shifting attitudes toward alcohol and drinking culture. “Sober nights out for the younger generation are a normal thing,” says Evison. “They will actively choose brands that actively discourage binge-drinking culture”.

Equally, argues Claudia Stephenson, Invnt Group’s managing director (EMEA), brands should think twice about adopting these trends with too much relish, too soon. Referencing a much-discussed dip in sales for imitation meat brand Beyond Meat, she says that “brands need to be cautious as to how quickly they expand, what markets they go into, and where and how to show up”.

In essence, this takes us back to fundamentals. The market is crowded; niches are becoming mainstream; macro factors are making marketers’ jobs trickier – the upshot? “In a world full of so much choice, brands are struggling to catch onto something,” says Ducker. “You’re left with brands saying, ‘what’s our USP?’ The creative has to do a lot of heavy lifting. You haven’t got a USP; you haven’t got a unique message. That’s fine – most brands don’t in today’s market. You’ve got to find cut-through and become known for something unique”.

Hospitality Food & Drink Business Leadership

Content created with:

Journey Further

Journey Further is a performance brand agency based in Leeds, Manchester, London and New York.

Designed to deliver Clarity at Speed for the world’s leading...

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TrunkBBI is an award-winning integrated agency made up of 70 specialist thinkers, creators, analysts, influencers and technologists. Inspired by insights, we’re...

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GreenJinn is a triple-digit growth UK platform for connecting great consumable brands with relevant consumers. Through our platform we work with some of the most...

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TIPi Group

TIPi Group is an award winning network of specialist digital agencies. Our agencies are built on performance and profitability and share an ambition to use the power...

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Coegi is an independent digital agency providing services across digital strategy, media buying, paid social, search and influencer campaigns. We bring together...

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Wasserman is a global sports, entertainment, and lifestyle marketing agency with expertise in creating connections between brands, properties, talent, and consu...

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INVNT®. The global live brand storytelling agency™.

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