Selling Happiness: The Role of Pleasure in Food and Beverage Consumption
Do your products deliver on fun, pleasure, or happiness? Maybe they should, since the role of pleasure in food culture is increasingly important to a wide range of food and beverage occasions. Often associated with the temporary high that goes with consuming products containing sugar or alcohol (and also the fun of diverse social occasions), we think the topic is important for marketers to contemplate since pleasurable experiences in foods and beverages are a cornerstone of why (and how) we consume in the first place, since, let’s face it – we are hardwired to want pleasure when it comes to all that munching and drinking. John McQuaid, author of Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat, notes “The pleasure in sugar, in food… in, well, everything, is a cornerstone of a basic behavioral cycle.”
So, basically, we (and food culture) have literally evolved this way: In its most elemental form, food and beverage consumption has always been about survival and biological necessities. There were certain drives and discomforts we had to fulfill or alleviate (hunger and thirst being primary ones). And what better way to reinforce the positive accomplishment of fulfilling those drives or alleviating such discomforts than by associating them with a feeling of pleasure and enjoyment?
Similar principles drive pleasure in food and drink consumption and experiences today. Pleasure is what animates eating and drinking and makes these experiences truly gratifying. Pleasure is what brings consumers back to a product or restaurant time and time again. It’s when a food, beverage, or meal becomes more than just a need and is now a want.
Fun and pleasure have a long history in relation to the realm of snacking, stemming from the fact that in a not too distant past, snacks became a shared pastime and functioned as fun diversions and fill-ins to meals. Increasingly, snacking is culturally associated with a unique ability to pointedly satisfy physical and emotional needs for enjoyment, comfort, craving, and play. Play speaks to the consumer desire for all of one’s senses to be delighted and to be actively involved in both creation and consumption. In many ways, snacking has fewer cultural restraints, making certain aspects of pleasure and play more permissible or simply easier to incorporate via snacking occasions. Consumers use enjoyable foods and beverages, particularly ones dissociated from health and nutrition, to experience physical delight on the palate, to mentally and emotionally relax, and to signal achievement to themselves and others. When snacking, moments of indulgence and reward range from big to small and are typically seen as essential to balance and emotional wellness.
Figure 1: Food Culture Today Demands a More Refined Pleasure:
Beyond snacking occasions, food culture today demands a more refined pleasure. One key sign of a shift toward refined pleasures is signaled by our cultural movement away from the utilitarian and traditional experiences of packaged and processed foods and beverages toward the experiential consumer culture exemplified by demand for fresh and premium foods and beverages (Figure 1). To help unwind the shift toward fresh and premium pleasurable food experiences, consider the idea that consumer culture was formerly very utilitarian in its context. There were very clear societal roles based on gender and class. We appreciated thriftiness, efficiency, predictability. The idea that something could be produced on a mass scale and remain super uniform was appealing, and as such, packaged and processed foods were not just available but in high demand. Manufacturers developed and distributed products, and culture gobbled them up. Collectively, we found that pleasurable.
Today, consumer culture has shifted. We want experiences and distinctions within our foods and beverages. We have traded out the idea of uniformity for authenticity, and while we may idealize the notion of niche providers, we understand the need for mass production. Under this rubric, fresh and premium experiences are what we find pleasurable today. Premium and fresh pleasures combine our cultural orientation and biological needs into long-term satisfaction over a short-term fix. Food and beverage brands can move beyond the temporary “high” that pleasure is often associated with. In order to get there, several things are suggested (Figure 2):
• Having a clean panel is a necessary start — focus on real, whole ingredients: Those with distinctive meanings include local or unique varietals.
• Updating flavor profiles would be another: Move beyond anticipated flavor profiles and “Americanized” ethnic cuisine and embrace various herbs, botanicals, or spices. Consider branching out toward emerging global cuisines.
• Lastly, work with consumers to help them express their unique approach to food as well — playing into desires for customized food and personalized diets, and sharing those experiences with others.
Figure 2: Food and Beverage Brands Can Move Beyond the Temporary “High” That Pleasure Is Often Associated With
There will always be a need for products to taste good, for fun to be had, and, of course, to deliver elemental pleasure. A focus on the experience of food opens the doors to savor higher-quality ingredients and real foods as well as authentic and globally inspired flavors. Such experiences are a chance to journey with consumers while they learn, enjoy, and share their personalized approaches to foods and beverages. Overall, brands should work toward making pleasure a more “worthwhile” experience — one that eliminates the guilt we have so long associated with indulgence.
In relation to encouraging a sense of fun and pleasure when marketing foods and beverages, setting the stage for discovery and variety is essential whether at food retail or in packaged foods and beverages. With a growing number of food types, provenances, preparation methods, and food purveyors, encouraging a sense of discovery is essential to linking up with a sense of fun. Moreover, our cultural values that embrace diversity and new experiences have heightened the desire for food exploration. Food and beverage producers and retailers can communicate a "fun" value proposition by emphasizing how the playful and whimsical aspects of your products or services support broader quality of life goals using a tone that is ironic, whimsical, playful, energetic, or passionate.
Retailers can create a theater of engagement by using employees and in-store communications as vehicles that present products as pleasurable and as part of overall well-being (consider: Trader Joe’s). Enabling food “discoveries,” encouraging food exploration, and communicating a passion for food ingredients are hallmark influences behind our evolving food culture today. Shoppers today seek food experiences that can be translated into their lives and households. Retailers that encourage behaviors like cooking (as opposed to eating and pure consumption) will likely earn greater shopper intimacy and quite possibly a larger share of food spending.