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Food of the future: The next 50 years for FMCG

Image credit: by Maurizio Pesce, via Flickr

Innovation is about the long view. 

To develop the stories and values of FMCG brands, we have to think about current trends and where they’ll take us in five, ten, or even fifty years’ time. This long-term trajectory helps a brand establish itself as future-proof and cutting-edge, and provides a vision that informs the work its design agents do.

What are the key trends we’ll see over the next five decades of FMCG?

Impossible burgers and dairy-free milk

When we worry about climate change, we used to start with fossil fuels: cars, coal-fired power, and the inexhaustible demand for natural gas. These are valid concerns, but since a 2006 UN report described cattle-rearing as generating more greenhouse gases than transportation, the environmental impact of our diets has become of greater and greater concern. It’s not just a question of rearing, either – meat has to be raised, slaughtered and refrigerator-shipped at further costs to both our wallets and our planet.

Protein-based plants are less environmentally destructive to grow and less expensive to store and transport than meat. According to Alphabet chairman and Google founder Eric Schmidt, the world is now ready to produce efficient, affordable synthetic food, with the help of big data that will identify the best combinations of plant matter to substitute for familiar tastes and meet key nutritional needs.

Lab-grown meat is another option. Memphis Meats’ ‘clean’ meatballs originate with 100% genuine cow cells, but instead of raising and slaughtering calves, the San Francisco startup grows its meat in a bioreactor with glucose, vitamins and minerals. Effectively, it’s beef without farming – and so it has none of the environmental knock-on effects, requiring a fraction of the land and water and generating a tenth of the greenhouse gas.

Although it’s currently the most expensive ground beef going (at $18,000 per pound), venture capital investments and competition from similar startups are set to do what they do best – improve efficiency and drive prices down. The Impossible Burger is similarly lab-grown, and it’s already in restaurants.

Although it’s unlikely that we’ll abandon meat on a culture-wide scale – hence the search for something that fools our food insecurity without wrecking the planet – cultural change can play a part. The decline in milk consumption and the rise of dairy-free lifestyles, driven by health concerns and a cultural shift towards believing milk is for babies, has led at least one large dairy brand to abandon the udder altogether in favour of plant milks. More could follow.

The never-ending war on sugar

Our rejection of added sugars and corn syrups in favour of natural fruits and vegetables also looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. The World Health Organisation has called for governments to subsidise fruit and vegetable prices and tax unhealthy foods, with a particular emphasis on sugary drinks. Popular media are pushing an awareness and reduction of sugar, even cutting out ‘healthy’ foods like fruit juices and flavoured milk which happen to be on the sweet side.

Despite warnings that ‘food horror’ over one kind of empty calories is missing the point, major players in FMCG are still committed to dramatic reductions in sugar content. Some – like PepsiCo – are diversifying away from their sweet beverage heartland and into foods, where consumers are more adventurous and new tastes more likely to succeed.

At the bottom line, sugar is ubiquitous – it’s almost impossible to avoid while maintaining a conventional lifestyle. When change comes it will be on the manufacturing side, either through regulation or through brands’ desire to dominate an emergent sector. The sugar-free food sector generated an estimated $27.4 billion in 2016,and where revenue exists, innovation is sure to follow. Sugar-free ice cream, confectionery, beverages and ingredients are among the huge range of goods already under development.

3D printing – the stalking horse for FMCG design?

3D printing is a looming game-changer. It’s going to make a difference, but hasn’t quite reached a breakthrough point where its potential impact on manufacture, distribution and design has been realised. 3D printing which harnesses and responds to analytics will result in more efficient on-demand manufacture and shipping, eliminating overstock and over-manufacturing, and thus changing the drive for promotions and offers.

Goods such as razor blades could be among the first, which may see them eliminated from retail outlets as consumers download specs and 3D-print at home. 3D food printing may become popular as another alternative to meat, dairy, gluten and sugar: if circumstances force us to shift the basis of our diets to lab-grown proteins, algae and insects, consumers may start 3D printing those into familiar and palatable forms.

The key factor here is user education – users are not quite aware of what 3D can do, and it has yet to become an affordable consumer technology. Once prices fall into the four figure range, and the key oddity of texture is resolved, 3D printed food will emerge as a new category that’ll require new strategies for brands to succeed. The emphasis will likely be on ingredients and their efficacy, emphasising consumer choice – the current strategies for marketing to home cooks are likely to set the trends in this sector.

All three of these trends have one thing in common: they need consumers to get on board to flourish and gain market viability. The war on sugar has captured the popular imagination; 3D printing and meat-free meat will need a similarly compelling narrative and value set, created through great brand design, if they’re going to fly.

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