Back-of-pack backlash

In 2024, everyone will be looking a little more closely at the food items they put in their baskets. Two big and quite different forces are giving shoppers (at both ends of the wealth spectrum) reason to actively think about their food.

Firstly, the cost of living keeps forcing shoppers to think about whether their first choice product is still worth it. Cost-conscious shoppers, already considering trading down to cheaper alternatives, are also having to be on the lookout for the mysteriously shrinking weights of their favourite brands. Shoppers already shopping less on autopilot will find themselves quite literally weighing up the alternatives.

Secondly, increasing consciousness of the central role of food in overall health, inclining some to look afresh at their eating habits. This means many of us are constantly on the lookout for food types and ingredients we’re looking to avoid or minimise. And the latest major topic of consideration, ultra-processed food, is ready to break from being talked about in the media to actually affecting behaviours – of both consumers and brands.

In 2023, the debate about ultra-processed foods broke out from academic and health circles into the mainstream. With consumer-friendly champions of the topic, like Chris van Tulleken and Henry Dimbleby, more of the public has the topic at the edge of its consciousness as it makes food choices. This year, that itch is going to get scratched more.

Many nutrition campaigns can founder on the difficulty of being top of mind and communicating effectively at the point of purchase. This is where the opponents of ultra-processed foods have an advantage. There’s a simple rule of thumb for UPFs: a long list of ingredients. Just as the traffic light system provides a simplified way of judging the merits of product at a glance, the ingredient list (no matter how small a font they write it in) is a powerful weapon in this battle.

The effects of this consumer unease will be hard to detect and attribute directly, but they will be there.

And food brands are bound to see both threats and opportunities in the increased scrutiny of the traditionally boring back-side of their packaging.

The (third) party’s over, finally

2024 is the last year of the third party cookie, which means advertisers and media owners are working furiously to find new ways to target customers and customise marketing, whether with or without their active consent. Here are three key areas bound to receive a boost. 

Social commerce

Social commerce is growing in sophistication and reach. This is the year when it will begin to feel ubiquitous. Almost three quarters of 18-34 year olds have bought products through social media in the past year.

From a behavioural point of view, buying (almost) within the very post that inspires you combines ease, immediacy and instant gratification into a hugely powerful proposition. Especially when the app is as good at intuiting and mirroring your interests as TikTok. And then throw in the power of Klarna to further reduce the pain of payment. The more brands, influencers and consumers buy into the idea, the more rapidly the trend will gather momentum. The only restraining force on this trend is user trust in the platform. Social media companies’ poor record on data handling holds a lot of consumers from transacting financially through them, and cautionary tales of counterfeit goods demonstrate that sometimes a deal can just be too good. But social commerce feeds on relevance. Mass marketing’s idea of the average consumer won’t cut it here. Under-represented consumers like midlife women will need to see themselves and the products that are right for them. Will brands be agile enough to customise their marketing to the audience? 

Retail media

The end of third party cookies will place increasing value on holding first-party data. That will mean even more opportunity for retail media networks. Brands want to know they’re in front of the right customers, and data-rich retailers can provide that confidence. More and more retailers are leveraging that power to open up new revenue streams with brands, including expanding the brands they actually sell, and even beyond their owned properties. But it’s still a maturing process – brands don’t tend to like being squeezed into the RMN’s formats at the expense of their own creativity. Newer retailers just entering the fray will be able to learn from the earlier moves – expect to see networks finding ways to become more attractive to brand partners. 

Zero-party data

Which just means actively, voluntarily provided data. Expect to find more brands trying to engage their customers and actually learn about what they want rather than just infer it from their behaviour on the brand’s website or elsewhere. Consumers actually quite like brands trying to understand what they want and use it to customise the brand’s offer to them. It’s not as convenient for either party as secretly scraping data, and it might not be as accurate (people don’t know what they want, and often what they do is a better indicator than what they say), but it’s less creepy, more honest, and perhaps even likeable. Once you’ve learned something about a customer, it ought to affect how you talk to them, making what you show them more personally relevant and reflective.  

Buying less new, or at least more old

In the last fifteen years, the fashion industry has doubled its production, and clothes are being worn for 40% less time. Fast fashion brands have pretty much created disposable clothing. This is, in every sense, unsustainable. And – finally – the growth of fast fashion looks to be slowing down. Younger audiences, whose need for low cost, convenient, trendy clothes has always driven the market, are increasingly turning to pre-worn items.

It’s not all consciousness of the environmental impact. The cost of living crisis is creating incentives to look for alternatives to usual shopping habits, and the emergence of convenient ‘recommerce’ services like Vinted and Depop, (alongside ubiquitous, general sites like eBay and Facebook Marketplace) are making searching, buying, selling and shipping pre-worn clothes pretty much as easy as new fashion.

So in 2024, cost, convenience and conscience have created the conditions for the mainstreaming of pre-worn clothing. But shifts in culture require influential figures to show the way. As with our customisation trend, the increasing dominance of social media in guiding consumer decisions will play a key role in the momentum of this trend. Plus influencers like Harry Lambert (who styles Harry Styles) and Amy Bannerman (newly named as eBay’s in-house pre-loved style director), and sites like Reliked and Second Row bringing some celebrities’ pre-loved clothing to the market.

Oh if we must… GenAI

Logistics managers might be managing inventories and supply chains with it, and marketers

It might be helping to write blogs like this one*, but generative AI isn’t going to change the world in 2024. Marketers may be busily using it to optimise their customisation data sets, and. But consumers generally aren’t yet going to see any real value or benefit from AI, or invest any great trust in it just yet. Rather, we’re currently riding a wave of gimmicky, we-could-do-this-but-nobody-actually-needs-it integrations (like car entertainment systems, and binoculars).   

But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important trend to talk about, or that it’s going to have no impact at all. 

The innovations that catch on tend to be those that make it substantially easier to do things we would have done anyway. 

One key area of consumer life really fits the bill: searching for things on the internet. I don’t just mean in search engines, but in social media, and on any of the myriad sites and services designed to help you navigate lots of information and options.  

Like travel. For years people have happily given up hours of their evenings to save money meticulously searching out the optimum combinations of dates, flight times, hire cars and so on. And the travel industry has spent decades trying to create optimally user-friendly ways to manage all travellers’ parameters. This is unnecessarily hard work involving trawling through structured data, which means it’s easy to imagine just outsourcing it to an AI chatbot. Then again, the searching is part of the anticipation, which is, according to behavioural science, better than the holiday itself. 

But there are lots more areas of the internet where AI can collapse a few steps of the process of searching and comparing. And search engines look ripe for disruption in that sense. Serving a list of (adverts before you even get to the list of) links that vaguely answer your query is starting to feel very old fashioned. In the fuzzy logic of the internet, it’s often preferable to have an opinion that’s slightly wrong than no opinion at all, and isn’t that genAI all the way?

So in that sense, the Rabbit R1 might be the tip of something interesting. It’s an AI powered device that learns how to run commands on the apps you use most on your smartphone. Nobody needs AI-powered binoculars, but device that’s like an Excel Macro for ordering Deliveroo? That could catch on. 

Innovations that catch on tend to be those that make it substantially easier to do what we would have done anyway. 

*We’ll let you decide whether AI could have written this (yet).

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