• Human Theory

Profits Over Planet - The Darker Side of Food Marketing

Food waste is a problem that shows no signs of abating, with 1/3 of all the world's food being wasted (1.3 billion tonnes per year) according to the UN.

But how much is food marketing and 'foodie' culture to blame for this?

Using AI to create Qual at Quant scale, and combining it with expert human translation, we analysed mass conversational data with nuance and emotion.

We looked at a total of 153k conversations around food, 'foodie' recipes and food waste. Sources included the Instagram accounts of famous chefs, comments and posts around relevant hashtags, as well as reviews of food subscription services and food waste apps.

By looking at the adjectives, verbs, and nouns used, we got under the skin of how people decide what to cook, and how 1/3 of this ends up wasted.

Food waste is a huge global problem, with two main negative consequences...

Are food retailers doing enough to tackle food waste?

After some initial success, progress on reducing waste has now stalled for three key reasons:

But is the marketing of 'foodie culture' driving the problem?

Foodie culture, and the usage of recipes as a marketing tool, conditions us to believe that only specific ingredients can create the best dishes. This trend is particularly evident on Instagram and other social media platforms.

Our analysis of the conversation around 'foodie' chefs emphasised the issue. The most common adjectives were superlatives, whilst the most common nouns were exotic on-trend ingredients such as "kimchi", "truffle" and "burrata".

The marketing of foodie culture is at odds with the key principle for reducing food waste : flexibility

Anti-food waste accounts focus on the journey and the experience of food, in a hope that people who are more creative and flexible in rustling something up are less likely to bin ingredients they can't fit into their next meal.

However, they are part of a tiny conversation compared to the mega industry of foodie and food culture. More problematically, they are trying to change subconscious decision-making without subconscious resonance.

For supermarkets, there is a tension that has yet to be resolved, between increasing profits and tackling waste.

The Sainsbury's 'Try Something New Today' campaign won an IPA Effectiveness Gold in 2008, and was feted for adding £2.5 billion in revenue by persuading shoppers add £1.14 worth of new ingredients each time they shopped.

The campaign changed behaviour by understanding the idea of sleep shopping - the fact that consumers' decisions in the aisle are mainly subconscious, or System 1 thinking.

But how much of that extra food was wasted?

If food retailers genuinely want to stop food waste, they must find a way of increasing profitability without encouraging consumers to buy more food than they need.

To do this, they must understand the real drivers of food waste behaviour, and the headwinds stopping a change in that behaviour.

Otherwise, in the tension between profit and waste, profit will keep winning out.

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