salad fixingsAs the food industry continues to accelerate the de-processing of many brands, many think they have a pretty solid handle on contemporary notions of purity. The industry has more or less settled on the baseline standard of Whole Foods Market (perhaps somewhat accidentally) as what they should be aiming for. While this means a purity standard that eliminates artificials and synthetically produced additives, the dominant marketing lingo to target consumers interested in this standard today is “simple” or “simply”…simply because these descriptors aren’t likely to get you sued, as “100% natural” has accomplished multiple times.

Is “simplicity” actually what consumers want? Is it even what they’re buying?

What is the difference between “simple” and “natural?” Aren’t they the same?

We are still a bit perplexed as to how often these two concepts are conflated in meetings and innovation ideation sessions. They actually have very different historical points of inception and lead to very different shopping behavior.

The “natural” symbol emerged decades ago as a guidepost to foods made without artificial and synthetic additives. This is the standard that the food industry is rapidly adopting for its core product lines, because the availability of “natural” flavorings, coloring agents and additives as well as the technical know-how around how to deploy them has grown significantly.

Most “natural” products, which we term “premium” from the perspective of the average American consumer, have plenty of additives. These products, like their conventional cousins, are often dependent on industrial additives, in fact, to sustain optimal flavor and/or texture through the supply chain.

When consumers think of “simple,” they are referring to a much higher purity standard than “natural” that quite frankly is only about ten years old in major urban markets. It is a standard aspirationally tied to the artisan and local foods movement (the elephant in the room of CPG corporate strategy). In this niche of the food world, industrial additives have largely been absent by default. They are “inauthentic” and technically unnecessary in small-batch, short-timeline supply chains.

So, what we’re seeing today is that, to avoid legal scuffles, the industry is using marketing lingo (“simple”) that is actually way ahead of the consumer (who is primarily seeking natural or organic as the highest standard of purity)…how far ahead…you might be surprised.

To explore this empirically, we defined “simple” the way consumers always have in interviews with us: foods made with ingredients found in my kitchen. What a great marketing phrase. But is this actually what you’re selling with your product line tagged “simply?” How many consumers care or follow through consistently in purchasing this standard of purity?

What we’ve found is that purchasing “simple” or “minimally processed” is actually an avant garde behavior in terms of it being consciously done by consumers. Just under 2% of shoppers actually get it and do it consistently, based on categories we sampled where “simple” UPCs are in national distribution.

Kitchen ingredients

Source: Hartman Organic & Natural Study 2016. QK3. For each of these types of products, which brands have you purchased during the past 3 months which you would describe as MADE ONLY WITH KITCHEN INGREDIENTS? Asked for each of six product categories where kitchen-made purchase was claimed. Verbatim brands coded by Hartman analysts for alignment with kitchen ingredients. Base: all shoppers (N=2,274)

The real challenge for purity to evolve to this new standard in modern food culture is not the spread of the ideal. That has occurred thanks largely to the food industry itself, which has accidentally overpromoted it.  The real barrier is the spread of reasonably priced UPCs that meet the standard implicitly (i.e., with or without a “simply” tag, based on the consumer’s own inferences.

Earlier this year we conducted a growth-correlation analysis of emerging attributes within a random sample of UPCs in roughly 42 value-added food and beverage categories. Minimally processed (or simple) was one of these attributes. Here’s what we found:

  • Minimally processed food: in our sample, we could not find enough food UPCs to produce a finding in xAOC channels. This standard is still largely the purview of the natural/specialty channels, farmers markets and specialty online purveyors.
  • Minimally processed beverages: in beverages, UPCs that meet this emerging purity standard were three times as likely to experience growing unit volumes over the two-year review period AND passed our regression tests to qualify as a causal growth driver in beverages.[1] In other words, consumers ARE gravitating to this emerging and very strict purity standard in RTD beverages, in part because of the spread of sparkling waters, spritzers, teas, etc.

Whether you call it minimally processed or simple, this trend is an emerging purchase driver, primarily anchored in beverages. And it is currently being oversold as an attribute on revamped legacy-branded products trying to pursue a natural formulation standard.

We’ve never quite seen the industry oversell a purity standard to this extent, but, in food, it may partially explain the lackluster performance of many of these simple line extensions, as we’ve examined in other venues (Hartbeat Exec: Strategizing Simple in the Food and Beverage Marketplace).


[1] AC Nielsen, xAOC 2012-2014, 52 week ending July 5, 2014. Hartman analysis of random UPC sample within 42 operating categories.