Hartman Group report examines how trends in the American cultural landscape have affected the role brands play in consumers’ food lives and provides forward-looking guidance on innovation, attributes, pricing and operating in today’s online environment.

Eating and shopping concept

Consumers expect a lot from today’s food and beverage brands, regardless of whether they are national, name brands or a retailer’s own private brand. This means that brands have to work harder than ever to gain attention, trial, repeat purchase and lasting loyalty.

According to The Hartman Group’s latest report, Brand Ambition: Food and Beverage Private Brands & Beyond, only three in ten shoppers say that “brand I love” is an important product selection factor. Hartman’s analysis finds that U.S. consumers show a widespread, culturally driven reduced reliance on brands as a factor in product selection and now favor an attribute-driven process.

While the specific product attributes that consumers evaluate vary from person to person, over two-thirds of consumers look for at least one attribute related to product quality, healthfulness, nutrition or purity when choosing which food and beverage product to buy.

So, what does it mean to be a “brand” in 2021?

The Shopper’s Perspective of the Role of Brand

Brands have traditionally been a powerful system of influence in consumer food culture. Within this cultural system, the U.S. food industry has used brands to tell consumers what attributes (taste, quality, consistency) they could expect from their products.

Post-WWII expansion and growth in the U.S. economy, population and the reach of mass media set the stage for a new era in the American food and beverage marketplace. Spurred by the unprecedented opportunity to win consumers' attention and spending, manufacturers invested heavily in brands. In turn, the U.S. food landscape became the birthplace and showcase for iconic food and beverage brands in a way that was distinctively American.

A brand is a collection of both symbolic and tangible attributes linked to a recognizable name and iconography. As such, brands emerge from a shared understanding of cultural values, priorities and understandings that can change drastically over time.

In order to be successful, any brand must be relevant, differentiated and memorable. While these criteria have not changed, consumers’ willingness to accept claims made by brands and the corporations that produce them has deteriorated.

The role of brands in U.S. food culture is changing. The cultural forces most relevant to that change are:

  • Consumer attitudes towards health and wellness. Shifting ideas of health and wellness outline emerging needs for food and beverage products. 
  • Consumer access to information. Rise of the information age changes branding and promotion. Eroding trust in institutions (including corporations) undermines the ability of food and beverage companies to make unquestioned claims about their products, health and nutrition, and consumers’ needs and wants.

THG Brand Ambition 2021 cover

Given the cultural shift away from brand dependency, both private brands and name brands are subject to many of the same pressures and constraints. The future of brands—the role that private and name brands can play—is up in the air now, with consumers relying less on brands to guide their choices and brands searching for ways to build loyalty among increasingly discerning and fragmented consumer groups.

The Hartman Group’s Brand Ambition: Food & Beverage Private Brands & Beyond report delivers an in-depth exploration of what opportunities spaces there are for brands to build more informed kinds of loyalty in today’s consumer-driven marketplace.

More details about the report and ordering information can be found here.