The impact of ‘digital tastemakers’ on F&B products

Social media, social media influencers and bloggers wield immense power over consumer behaviour. From fashion to beauty to consumer technology to entertainment and music, the impact is formidable.

But what about the food and beverage category? Can ‘digital tastemakers’ (aka influencers) actually shape attitudes and purchasing decisions around new F&B products? The short answer is, absolutely. Market research firm Packaged Facts reports that food brands cannot ignore digital tastemakers in the innovation process.

According to the September-October 2023 edition of the Packaged Facts National Online Consumer Survey and subsequent report, Food Market Outlook 2024: Opportunities & Challenges With Pricing, Convenience, Sustainability & More, the impact of social media and so called digital tastemakers is highest among younger consumers, which is unsurprising. Overall, consumers report many factors affecting their decision to try new foods and beverages. Recommendations from family and friends and sales or promotions are the most impactful factors influencing consumers to try new foods. Additionally, many consumers may be enticed to try a new food if it is a new version of something they already like or if the item is seasonal or limited time offering (consider the enormous popularity of pumpkin spice lattes and teas in the fall and peppermint mochas and teas during the holidays, while the winter months brings turmeric and cardamom coffees and teas to foodservice menus).

Social media posts rank in the top five factors enticing the Gen Z generation to try a new food. In fact, per Packaged Facts’ survey, 30% of adult Gen Z respondents reported that social media posts – whether from food brands, chefs, restaurants, influencers, or friends – strongly impact decisions to try new foods. Food bloggers/influencers in general weren’t far behind with 24% of adult Gen Z respondents saying they strongly impact new food decisions.

Also not surprising is that the influence of these factors drops off dramatically beyond millennials. Younger consumers, of course, spend more time online (especially on social media) and are, therefore, more likely to watch videos and cooking programmes via these channels, especially TikTok and Instagram. Thus, they tend to consume more content of this type that influences their food purchases. (See How TikTok is driving the at-home coffee and tea revolution by Sían Edwards on our website for further examples.)

We have only to look back at the Dalgona coffee craze during Covid lockdowns as an example — it started on TikTok by a South Korea-based influencer and moved to Instagram with users competing to show their most aesthetically pleasing whipped coffee results.(See Is Dalgona coffee just a quarantine craze? on our website for more information.) Furthermore, Starbucks introduced its Pumpkin Spice Chai Latte in autumn 2023 in response to consumer demands for the beverage after seeing it created on social media posts in the prior year.

I recently spoke with baristas about the sudden popularity of “lavender” coffee and tea beverages, and they said that while there are both lavender lattes and lavender matchas that appeal to a variety of consumers, the latter is doing incredibly well because of its ‘Instagramability’ (and the same rings true for TikTok). The purple on top of the green is much more visually appealing than the lavender latte, which is still brown. Either way, consumers are curious about both beverages and are heading to coffee shops to try them, leading many to believe that lavender could be spring’s answer to autumn’s pumpkin spice.

Another example is the sudden popularity and growth of bubble tea, which is not actually a new creation (it originated in Taiwan in the 1980s). In the West, for many years bubble tea was a fad that would come and go every several years — before social media. Enter the Instagram and TikTok era, and Gen Zers like the sweet drinks that can be customised and are ‘postable’ because of their visual appeal. (See the Bubbles on the Rise feature by Kathryn Brand in our March 2023 issue for more information.) Hence, bubble tea is no longer a fad but a fast-growing category in both foodservice and retail channels.

However, Gen Z and millennials are not the only consumers online. Therefore, Packaged Facts notes that there is potential to use social media to better understand or to reach Gen X and Baby Boomer consumers as well. Of course, not all food influencers resonate equally across age groups. An influencer’s ability to affect changes in consumer interest, and drive awareness and purchase intent does tend to be stronger when demographics align. For instance, older consumers report that they are more enticed to try new foods based on recommendations from health professionals and chefs than from social media overall. However, even chefs and health advocates appear on social media, discussing food, power ingredients, and new cooking techniques and recipes. This creates an opportunity to address food concerns among Gen X who are less attracted to more general influencers or home cook food bloggers.

More and more food brands are mining social media for trends, ideas and new flavour combinations, and are tapping into digital influencer strategies. And as Packaged Facts notes, those that don’t are missing a crucial piece of the modern product development and marketing puzzle.

Per Packaged Facts, “navigating social media trends and partnerships is complex but innovators who crack that code gain a powerful edge to more efficiently maximize awareness and adoption of new product releases. That differentiator could be the key to separating the passing food fads from the true disrupters and market movers of tomorrow.”

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