bowl of cerial with yogurt or milk

It might sound obvious that food and beverage businesses should adopt a consumer-led strategy. After all, your products wouldn’t exist if no one ultimately wanted to consume them. But how often do you stop and think about the complexities behind consumption itself? At The Hartman Group, we believe that a sound understanding of not just people, but eating occasions, is what ultimately determines the success and growth of any food business.

To better understand the value of an occasion-based data sampling approach, let’s consider why marketers have often preferred to focus on sampling people. Researching people is intuitive: we can understand them holistically, and we can build relationships with them based on this understanding. Eating occasions, on the other hand, are largely invisible and seemingly chaotic — making them tricky to capture and understand (we’ll be breaking down this fascinatingly complex process in our November 3rd episode of The Insatiable Appetite podcast).

Any given person eats differently from occasion to occasion. When people buy and consume food, they do so while navigating a range of different contexts, experiencing different needs and making different choices at any given point in time. Studying eating occasions can help make sense of these invisible and competing factors, offering invaluable knowledge that can inform marketing, strategic planning and ultimately help build a competitive advantage.

People-based vs. Occasion-based sampling People-based vs. Occasion-based sampling

As we’ve said, occasion-based samples can be tricky to obtain correctly. Because occasion-based samples are so complex, expertise is essential to both getting good samples and making sense of them. To capture the breadth of diversity in eating, for example, a typical sample can easily run above n=5,000 respondents (and often even double or triple that). The resulting data from occasion-based survey data includes thousands of variables to wrangle:

  • The range of items that someone might consume or purchase is vast
  • There are important distinctions to capture in terms of format, pack type, and more
  • Occasion contexts can include hundreds of permutations of social partners
  • Motivations are typically a mix of many complex need states and priorities

This makes data reduction and simplification necessary. Segmentation analysis can often be helpful for reigning in the chaos but residual messiness is real. The underlying problem, perhaps, is that people often behave in ways inconsistent with their general proclivities and make choices in tension with their needs. As such, a general rule of thumb is that the better the sample, the more likely it is to surface unexpected findings and insights. So while occasion-based sampling may be more difficult than other approaches, its novelty yields counterintuitive or disruptive findings that lead to strategic breakthroughs. Findings are new because the analytical lens has switched from people to occasions.

Context: Inside cereal occasions

When we ask people how they typically use cereal, almost 90% may report “at breakfast.” When we ask the same people what time of day they consumed cereal during their 10 prior consumptions, they might estimate an average of 80% were at breakfast. 

When move more towards a proper occasion-based approach, however, we might ask a similar sample about all the times they had something to eat yesterday, and which of these included cereal. The resulting data might show that 60% of the reported cereal occasions occurred at breakfast. When we take an even more rigorous approach and assign a comparable sample at random to report what they ate on a single occasion, only 40% of the resulting mix of cereal occasions might take place at breakfast.

When conventional wisdom about cereal has been based on years of asking samples of people to generalize, then the closer you come to a rigorous sample of cereal occasions and the more likely you are to defy said conventional wisdom.

Translating occasion insights into actionable growth

Ultimately, occasion-based samples offer a competing — but more realistic — lens on the way people eat or shop. People are not only unique, but they are also imperfect: what they say and think often contradicts what they actually do. It is essential that users of occasion-based data know what questions to ask of the data, while also understanding food culture thoroughly enough to distill the big picture and select the most important points of tension to guide your marketing strategy.

The Hartman Group’s analysts have been studying eating occasions for decades, honing in on this complex sampling approach and translating the messiness into actionable insights for growth. Our proprietary Compass Eating Occasions Database has been developed using best-in-class occasion-based sampling, building on learnings and findings from years of research. Consumers are randomly assigned to one or two occasions from their past 24 hours of eating/drinking, with prompts to help them recall details accurately. With over 190,000 adult eating occasions and 44,000 child eating occasions as of January 2023, this vast and precise occasions data has been leveraged countless times to illuminate otherwise hidden findings for our clients.

To discuss how an occasion-based approach can benefit your strategy, reach out to Shelley Balanko: