Age-appropriate food innovation in the supermarket aisle

family shoppingThinking back to my childhood, it seemed that mainstream food only catered to two different age groups: babies, and everyone else. How times have changed.

In a recent walk around the supermarket, I started making a mental list of all of the food products that specified recommended age groups. There were more than I expected, and I am sure that my list is not exhaustive.

In baby foods, there were products for children at 4, 6, 8, 12 months, and some for 1-3 year olds. Whilst there are many snacks foods for “kids”, there seemed to be few that mentioned particular age brackets beyond 3 years.

I did, however, find toothbrushes for both 2-4 year olds and for 5-7 year olds, and dry night pajama pants for 8-15 year olds.

At this point, it is appropriate to mention the recent successful efforts of 8-year-old Canberra resident Dalia Lee. Daliah wrote to Kellogg’s complaining that the imagery on back of the Nutria-Grain box only featured boys. In response to her efforts, Kellogg’s have committed to updating the imagery to include children of both genders. Will this lead to Nutri-Grain also becoming “Ironwoman” food?

There are few supermarket foods labelled as being for teenagers. It’s a different story in the local chemist who offer multiple brands of teen vitamins and supplements. I suspect that market research has found that teenagers dislike being typecast as “teens”. Fortunately for food brands, they are very receptive to appropriately targeted marketing even if it doesn’t specifically name them.

Scouring the aisles, I was only able to find one product in the young adult category: Young Adult Anti-Ageing Eye Serum. I did wonder if many young adults really do think about wrinkled old skin, but at least there is this product for those that do.

By default, most food products are for adults, but there were no “adult” food products to be found in the supermarket. Except for in the pet aisle. One major chain stocks over 275 “adult” pet food products – along with ones for puppies and for 7+-year-old dogs.

Whilst foods that are labelled as being for Millennials (those aged 24 to 39) have not appeared in mainstream grocery, the marketing positioning of some foods to this segment is clear. Millennials are drawn to healthy and adventurous food experiences, and use food as part of their personal identity. These brands are easy to spot and some are proving to be extremely popular.

As we look to older age groups, it is again vitamin manufacturers lead the way in age-based marketing.

Various brands have specific formulations for those aged 50+ including male and female variants. I would love to learn whether regular vitamin takers follow manufacturers’ advice and change over as soon as they turned 50, but I suspect that some will only make the change when they actually feel over 50.

Finally we turn to the really underdeveloped food market: Seniors.

If food for older dogs can be such a well-recognised and successful sub-category; why can’t it be the same for people? Apparently the old formula of 1 dog year = 7 human years is too simplistic, so I consulted a range of reputable publications. In human terms, a 7-year old dog (who pet brands classify as senior) would be between 44 and 50. However, I think that most of us would only start classifying a human over 65 as a Senior (which equates to around 12 dog years).

The idea that your food preferences and nutrition requirements may change in your sixties seems to make sense, though I am not privy to any specific research on the topic.

What is true, however, is that this age group is the heartland of Baby Boomers. As a generation, Baby Boomers are quite conservative and they have a deep affection for brands from their childhood.

As a food segment, research has found that they generally don’t like unusual spicy fare or over-the-top flavor combinations.

The traditional Baby Boomer “meat and 3 veg” meal is now often associated with a less healthy approach to nutrition. There are, however, many Baby Boomers who really can’t work out what is actually wrong with what they thought was a “balanced meal”.

Some of these Baby Boomers are also reluctantly realizing that they need to make more healthy food choices.

Maybe this is the next big food innovation: reinventing Baby Boomer’s childhood favourite and familiar foods to be both healthy and hearty.

Baby Boomers are rightly suspicious and skeptical of all marketing, and they don’t have the innate brand savvy of younger generations. But they can be won over.

The key to successful Baby Boomer food marketing is to remember that they are very concerned with “good value”. They cannot understand why anyone would pay $18 for smashed avocado on toast when you could “make it at home for much less!”

Dr. Angeline Achariya is the CEO of Monash Food Innovation Centre. 

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