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Translating the Power of Culture Into Transformative Solutions: Q&A With Hartman Group CEO Laurie Demeritt


Hartman Group CEO Laurie DemerittHartman Group CEO Laurie Demeritt has seen a lot in her nearly twenty years at the company. As the guiding force behind The Hartman Group’s vision to further its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global food and beverage marketplace, she has her finger on the pulse of client companies’ needs and desires. We sat down with Laurie to discuss insight, innovation, inspiration, serendipity and the role of The Hartman Group in today’s marketplace.

Background: What’s your story? How did you arrive at where you are today as CEO of The Hartman Group? Why the passion for working almost exclusively with the food and beverage industry? 

I was pursuing a degree that had a focus on environmental marketing and was hoping to find a real-world way to apply it. I fortuitously attended a lecture given by our company’s founder, Harvey Hartman, and found the work he was doing at that time to be fascinating. He and some PhDs were trying to understand the discrepancy between what consumers said they wanted to do (purchase green products, pay more for them) and what they actually did (shopped on price, didn’t look for environmental benefits at the shelf, etc.) and address the discrepancy with marketing and communications tactics. I started at THG as an intern and absolutely loved the topics that we studied and the passion of the staff. Talking about food all day never gets old — it is a constant in our lives, but there are so many permutations and new things to try. It truly is evolving at such a rapid pace.  

It’s certainly an interesting time to be involved with the food and beverage marketplace: digital disruption, retailing shake-up, blurring of channels. How do you see it? 

It is an interesting time, although I have to admit that I’ve been saying that every year for the past 20 years! Starting with the growth of the consumer interest in healthy foods to the USDA certification of organic to the advent of the natural channel, it is always morphing and evolving in fascinating ways. Certainly, one of the most significant factors today is the pathway to food and beverage procurement. While many point to the “demise” of the conventional retail channel in terms of consumers abandoning them, we look at what is happening in a somewhat different light. Consumers today are embracing the myriad of ways to procure food. Not necessarily because they are unhappy with existing channels but because many of the new channels offer dimensions of value or discovery or convenience or experience that are fun and exciting. Consumers today, especially younger consumers, are less risk-averse in terms of trying out new places to shop, new types of cuisine, new cooking techniques, etc.

Hindsight is 20/20, yet spotting the up-and-coming, ahead-of-the-curve foods, beverages, ingredients and even brands is something The Hartman Group excels at. Why is THG so adept at trends analysis?

We excel at trends analysis because we take a multidimensional approach. Because our analysts study culture at large in conjunction with changes at the consumer level, we are able to integrate a variety of trend touchpoints to better understand when an early signal has the ability to be adopted by the leading-edge consumer and then disseminated out to a more mainstream population. For example, at the product level, we are able to understand the cultural implication of sensory barriers as a deterrent to widespread acceptance. At a consumer level, we know that a product that solves for a high-stakes trade-off or offers a simple yet modern approach to meeting existing desires will help enable that product to be successful. We also understand that the U.S. population today is becoming very fragmented when it comes to their needs and desires regarding food. Therefore, a very successful “trend” may only need to reach a niche yet mainstream consumer audience as long as the frequency of product use is high.

You’ve often said that marketers need to position their brands to be in step with the kinds of consumers they are trying to reach. Are there any particular levers relating to consumer marketing that go underlooked by marketers (whether manufacturer, retailer or restaurant)?

The art of storytelling seems to frequently be overlooked or ignored. Many of the players in the food industry today seem to focus primarily on product attributes, callouts and claims. While we know these features can be compelling to consumers, increasingly they want to understand the narrative behind the item. How did the product come to be? How and where were the ingredients sourced? How was the product cared for along the way? Who is behind the product? What are the values of the company making the product? We have proven via robust analytics that these types of narratives drive organic growth, but they are underleveraged, especially by large CPG companies. 

We talk a lot here at The Hartman Group about “culture.” What is THG definition of culture? Why do you see culture as central to changing the way companies think about consumers and the food and beverage marketplace?

We define food culture as the entire dynamic apparatus of people, places and products driving tectonic shifts in the definition of “good food.” Understanding culture is imperative to creating successful products and services in the food marketplace. If a product or service is created in a vacuum without a recognition of what is taking place in the larger culture, it will likely fail.    

Speaking of culture as a central theme, somewhat related would be the concept of “change.” This is something The Hartman Group certainly has earned a reputation for tracking. Can you reflect on this a bit?

We don’t want to merely talk about change — change in food culture itself, change in the food and beverage industry, change in consumer behavior — we want to provide companies with thoughtful, strategic ways they can react to it, adapt to it and thrive in that change and build upon it. So looking back to when the company was founded about 25 years ago, it was a time when people were just starting to talk about things like green marketing, this fuzzy idea or concept that a lot of consumers talked about but not a lot of consumers were doing anything about. But green marketing started morphing into categories, categories like organic and natural, local and environmentally friendly. What we did at that time was use the tools of social science to uncover what was going on. I think people in the industry at that time thought that these were all sorts of niche trends and that they would go away.

However, we believed these movements were signs of a larger cultural change. And truly what it was about was a redefinition of food quality by consumers. This redefinition of quality was driven not by industry insiders in CPG but by a host of new players in the food culture scene — restaurateurs, chefs, writers, NGOs, some activists and plain old consumers themselves — and, since that time, consumers continue to aspire and to adapt to new behaviors. These behaviors include how they make food decisions within the household, which food categories they are purchasing and which channels they are shopping.

We continue to use social science to understand what’s going on in the marketplace, but now we integrate that with demography, retail sales data and other analytics. This allows us to provide the comprehensive and robust insight into what is driving change in food and beverage culture today.

Learn more about The Hartman Group: Who We Are

 

Categories

Consumer Demographics Consumer Package Goods Health & Wellness Organic/Natural Retail/Shopper Insights Technology/Social Media Sustainability Trends Point Of View Foodservice/Restaurant


FOOD SHOPPING IN AMERICA 2017

As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.

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