The flow of consumer trend winds: don't dismiss a trend as a trend

Trends are an inescapable facet of any consumer industry. While fashion is typically cyclical and is always influenced by the season, it’s far more difficult to understand how certain ingredients and products come to take the spotlight on the global food and drink stage.

With the speed of changing consumer tastes accelerating, FMCG companies are scrambling to understand how to work out which new trends will be short-lived, which will be around for the long haul – and most importantly – how they can capitalise on them? Before looking at this we need to take a step back and consider how trends and experiences have historically evolved and travelled across regions.

For centuries, explorers travelled the world through different trade routes and returned with crops and spices from exotic lands, without really knowing what to do with them. The humble potato has only been part of western cuisine for 500 years, and even then, it took some experimentation for people to realise that they shouldn’t be smoked or eaten raw. Rice has been part of a European diet since the 10th century and is so popular that today it’s grown on every continent aside from Antarctica. With the migration of people to new lands, new cuisines have been introduced to new cultures, in some cases deviating from their roots to create a hybrid dish, more acceptable to the culture it finds itself in. You only need to look at Chicken Tikka Masala to see how curry was adapted to cater to British tastes.

Although the world is considerably more well-travelled today, the thirst for authentic experiences and new ingredients is as strong as ever. Thanks to the proliferation of social media and a more connected population, today’s ‘explorers’ are inundated with new food and drink ‘trend routes’ in their quest to bring hyper-regional, authentic experiences and ingredients home.

It’s important that we quickly distinguish the difference between ‘fads’ and ‘trends’. Fads, more often than not, don’t fit into a pattern, are made popular through social media and will disappear just as quickly as they emerge. Trends will often become popular quickly, but once they become mainstream, such as being sold in a supermarket or popular cafe chains, you can guarantee that they’ll be here to stay. For example, quinoa – originally from Peru – is a food trend that is now widely consumed.

The key to understanding how these trends become mainstream outside of their country of origin, however, can be seen when looking at different common trend ‘routes’ or ‘winds’, where we can quickly identify patterns and learn to understand the why. There are numerous ‘trend winds’ across the globe and more are developing all the time, but for the purpose of this article, we’ve identified three of the most substantial:

Far-East to the US and Western Europe:

Matcha-made in heaven

Matcha is an excellent example of how trends from the East can become hugely prominent in Western cultures. Whether consumed in the form of tea, lattes or as an additional ingredient to boost smoothies, matcha has completely embedded itself in mainstream Western society and can be found in everything from ice cream to Starbucks frappuccinos.There’s a parallel here between the popularity of these products, and how ‘healthy’ they’re deemed to be. Products from these regions, like matcha and kombucha, are widely praised for their natural, restorative qualities, and are often marketed as being ‘energising’ and ‘healing’, with references back to ancient medicinal practices or cultural traditions from its country of origin. Considering that matcha is a form of green tea – a product that Western cultures have been consuming for years – it’s clear that there is an allure of foreign products being a cure-all solution to Western aches and pains.Another example of this is the growing interest in Korean beauty products, driven by the ubiquitous BTS and a fascination with Korean soaps. From the outside, it might feel like a fad, but with Korean beauty products and trends typically 10-12 years ahead of the rest of the world, it’s just us cottoning on. In Korean culture, it’s deeply ingrained that you should look after your skin. And while this is also important in the West, we just aren’t as thorough. Your typical beauty regime in Korea takes up to four times longer – with the trend in the West being three steps before applying make-up, while in Korea it’s 12.

And the trend doesn’t just end with product application, it starts at product development too. K-Beauty products, and what goes into them, are researched in huge detail with new ingredients and additives being encountered all the time. Unique ingredients include things like snail mucin for moisturising, pearl for brightening, green tea for oil control, and propolis from bees for soothing.

Western back to the Far-East

Despite being one of the largest producers of Robusta coffee beans, a bitter, more acidic bean, Asia has become a large consumer of the Arabica bean, a bean used in most Western-style coffee.

This rise in popularity of coffeehouse-style coffee across Asia is being boosted by the younger generations. 60% of the global youth population is in the Far East, indicating that demand for this coffee could grow as the purchasing power of this demographic grows. One of the key drivers of this is the cold brew coffee trend, a softer, less acidic product than other coffee products.

While this trend isn’t taking over completely from traditional Asian coffees, the proliferation of Western-style coffee shows the changing trends across the region.

South America to Western Culture

Acai Bowls are a prime example of South American foods becoming prominent among Western Culture. The Acai berry is commonly found in the Amazon rainforest and is mixed with coconut milk, granola, nuts, and a plethora of fruit to make a colourful, incredibly good for you breakfast treat.

The most interesting element of this trend proliferation is that it swept through Hawaii first, moving from the island state to the mainland and California before traversing across America to the East Coast. No doubt, this highly Instagrammable food, has benefitted from the free publicity of the photo-sharing app, catching the eye of breakfast fans across America.

It’s a trend… so what?

Rightly or wrongly, consumers usually associate different regions of the world with different attributes. Consumers will buy into new food trends or lifestyle choices where there’s an immediate benefit addressing a key macro theme, such as health and wellbeing in the West or showcasing social status in the Far East. So whilst interesting, understanding the geography of ‘trend winds’ alone is perhaps too simplistic. We should view them in the context of the universal human drivers that drive behaviour in different societies first.

What is clear is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for FMCGs to keep abreast of new trends and to understand which will stand the test of time. Insight from social media is key, utilising the medium in which consumers are spreading and adopting these trends to better understand them. What’s more, combining social data with AI technology can identify emerging trends earlier and accurately predict which will most likely to come to the fore in the future.

Hugo Amos is chief strategy officer at Black Swan Data.

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