Lee, co-founder and co-CEO of Alpha Food Labs and founder of The Future Market, spoke Jan. 14 at the Potato Expo in Las Vegas. ( Tom Karst )

LAS VEGAS — Futurist Mike Lee told attendees at the 2020 Potato Expo that potato marketers must cater to a diverse group of “food tribes” in thinking about serving consumers in the next decade and beyond.

Lee, co-founder and co-CEO of Alpha Food Labs and founder of The Future Market, spoke Jan. 14 on “The Future of Food: Envisioning the Next Decade in Food and Potatoes.”

Signals of change

Lee said several “signals” will play a meaningful role in consumer demand for potatoes and other foods.
“I think a big theme of what I’m going to talk to today is that to be better as an industry within potatoes, it behooves you to not only understand what’s happening in your category, but what’s happening outside of your category,” he said.

He said the four macro trends are:

  • The end of one size fits all — the new tribes of food consumers and what that means;
  • Understanding the values of the 21st-century eater;
  • Great expectations — the rising levels of expectations for quality and freshness;
  • The flavor Renaissance — reinventing ways to look at flavor.

Rise of food tribes

Lee said consumers have increasingly identified themselves of members of various tribes, whether organic, gluten-free, Paleo or a dozen other designations.

“The original red can of Coke was designed for every single person in this room,” he said. “That worked for a really long time.”

Now, markets for specific foods and beverages are much more layered.

For example, he said young people spend more on food than clothing. Lee said clothes have long been used by youth to reveal personalities, or perhaps what they aspire to be — an instrument of self-expression.

“So a lot of things are out of your control, but food is in your control,” Lee said. “And that’s sort of one thing that we can hang on to and kind of express who they are, and so food really becomes an identity. This is completely the opposite of the Coca-Cola model of mass consolidation, meaning every single one in this room has a completely different identity and the food is an extension of identity.”

As the appeal of mass brands decline and smaller brands are created around the values of each “food tribe,” marketers are changing their approach.

“In 1950, if you were a vegan in Peoria, Illinois, you were probably the only person you knew that was a vegan,” he said. “But today, you can get online and literally find tens of thousands of other vegans who have the same dietary values you have.”

Such tribes can cluster together and demand attention from food companies, he said.

It can be easier to “shop by values” online than in stores.

“So the research that Potatoes USA has done says 44% of Americans are following specific dietary guidelines like low sodium, low carb, organic, clean eating, gluten-free and vegetarian,” Lee said. “And I would argue the tribes are kind of clustered around all of those things.” 

Those types of dietary considerations, along with such specialized diets like paleo or keto, now have the ability to demand the attention of food marketers through social media.
With about 70% of people eating potatoes, the industry is operating from a position of strength.

“In fact, the biggest barrier to more frequent potato use, according to Potatoes USA research, is the thought by consumers that they ‘already eat enough’ potatoes,” he said.

Lee said opportunity may exist in exploiting little known varieties.

“What I think is the end of one-size-fits-all kind of creates opportunities for is finding growth in some of the more kind of obscure or lesser-known potatoes where there’s much bigger growth opportunities,” Lee said. “People are looking for stuff that feels small, feels new, feels intimate,” Lee said.


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