Effective Branding Strategies to Increase Demand for Upcycled Food Products

The amount of food that is wasted and discarded in the United States each year amounts to roughly a quarter of all food produced. Two-thirds of that amount comes from the household sector, alone, more than what households discard in plastic, paper, and glass. The remainder of that wastage occurs in transport, at grocery stores and restaurants.

A staggering 10% of the food served in restaurants ends up in landfills, the equivalent of a half pound of food wasted for each meal. The associated annual energy expended in agriculture and transportation to generate the food waste amounts to the the equivalent of the energy expended by 37 million passenger vehicles. The consequences of this misaligned consumer behavior translates into billions of gallons of water and other resources wasted.

There are also distributional issues involved in the food waste discussion. Most of the current food waste in developed countries occurs at home after the supermarket due to the purchases made by the middle and upper end of the income distribution spectrum. With the appropriate logistics solutions, 25 million Americans could be fed if just 15 percent of the current food waste was diverted from the landfill.

These gross inefficiencies in our food system and the misaligned consumer behavior motivated me to create a consumer good, North Star Snacks, whose main ingredients were coffee grounds, spent grain (which can comprise up to 85% of the total byproducts of the beer brewing process), and overly ripe vegetables from local supermarkets during the first five months of my capstone project. Cultivating the product’s supply chains and perfecting the granola bites’ flavors, working with packaging developers, breweries, coffee shops, and other suppliers, were instrumental in allowing me to understand effective branding strategies to showcase the benefits of a product with ingredients that were unusual to the average consumer.

I received positive feedback about my product’s flavor even compared to established competitors. But would prospective consumers be open to purchasing my granola bites when they noticed that they were made primarily from food waste? Would consumers view products made from food waste as viable alternatives for snacking? Is it possible to make a product from waste that is appetizing and appealing to consumers? How does a brand elicit optimism and excitement around a food made from weird ingredients?

Source: ReFED Resources 

Consumers seem to accept products made from food waste

I needed to address these potential roadblocks to my selling North Star Snacks. How should I be branding them to appeal to and educate potential consumers? How should the framing of the branding of these products inform my chosen price points? Should I be discounting them because consumers might be repelled from purchasing something that is the byproduct of wasted food? Or could I sell them at a premium because they would reinforce a sense of social responsibility among potential consumers?

The Drexel Food Lab, for example, completed a study in 2017 to test consumer acceptance of products made from food waste, which they called “value-added surplus products.”

The researchers then went a step farther and showed participants nine photos of value-added surplus products with a modifier on each photo to understand how the modifiers influenced consumers’ willingness to pay. The nine modifiers were:

  1. Upcycled
  2. Recycled
  3. Upscaled
  4. Rescaled
  5. Reprocessed
  6. Reclaimed
  7. Up-processed
  8. Resorted
  9. Rescued

Upcycled and reprocessed were the two modifiers that increased consumers’ willingness to pay for these value-added surplus products. Interestingly, consumers viewed products labeled as upcycled more likely to provide more value related to functional health benefits than both organic and conventional products. They believed, however, that products labeled as reprocessed offered greater value, only compared to conventional products.

To see how these questions might affect my ability to promote the North Star Snacks’ brand, I sent a survey to friends and strangers alike to gain a greater understanding of how likely it would be for consumers to buy a good with the word waste in the product’s name. The results of my survey indicated that a mere 16% of the respondents would be amenable to choosing a product with waste in its name, whereas 44% preferred the modifier “reimagined” for a food product made from food waste. Effective branding of my product required me to resort to the proper choice of appropriate euphemisms, North Star Snacks, to remain relevant in the granola products space.

The fact that consumers are wary of the term “waste” makes  sense given the connotations the word waste evokes such as putrid smells, slime, rotting debris, etc. Marketing research, as well as the information gleaned from my own consumer research, indicates that consumers are not ready to make the cognitive leap to consuming products, that are delicious in their own right, when they are made out of waste. We are still a long way from the day when consumers are disabused of the psychological fear that food made out of ingredients deemed as waste is not the same as eating rubbish.

Upcycled food brands highlight flavor as the key value

Daniela Uribe, the founder of Lazy Bear Tea, coffee fruit tea, emphasizes that taste must be the leading criterion for any upcycled brand as explained in a Civil Eats article. While Lazy Bear Tea’s unique ingredient, the coffee fruit, is highlighted as part of their narrative, their website speaks to the functional benefits, such as “delightful infusions” and the “natural energy” that the consumer will experience  from consuming their product.

Similar to Lazy Bear Teas, Barnana, a brand of upcycled banana snacks, developed an appetizing snack that is not just, “another banana chip” as discussed in a Food Business article. They continue to diversify their product line to be the leader in the banana product space so that they not only divert imperfect bananas from going to the landfill but also offer an out-of-this-world, healthy food product that continues to excite consumers.

Key takeaways to grow buy-in for upcycled products

The negative environmental consequences of food waste along with the societal implications of people going hungry because of logistics issues are depressing, to say the least. Upcycled food production, although not a panacea to solve the inhumane side effects of wasteful consumption patterns and processes, is a step towards a less wasteful and more equitable food system. To work towards more responsible consumption and production is to make make upcycled food products attractive to consumers. My research into these salient marketing and branding issues, coupled with my own experience in the production of North Star Snacks leads me to the following takeaways to consider as we move forward along this trajectory:

  • Make the upcycled origin story a robust supporting pillar for the brand narrative:The upcycled origin story for any brand is a differentiator but it should not be the only element that the upcycled food product highlights when developing its personality and value. A brand needs to be multi-dimensional so that a consumer can interact with its benefits on many levels and trust the product’s nutrition and taste.
  • Avoid words such as waste, trash, rubbish that elicit negativity in the minds of consumers: A consumer needs to feel empowered and understand how their purchase can make a difference. This commitment to ‘making a difference’ by their consumption patterns may be deterred, somewhat, by brand references to trash and waste, which hold negative connotations.
  • Highlight the benefits of the upcycled product for not only society but also the individual: Even the most sustainable of consumers, the LOHAS psychographic, still look to food to satisfy their individual need for hunger. Brands shouldn’t get carried away with the societal benefits of an upcycled product and neglect showing their individual, functional benefits.  

The future for the upcycled food category is promising since consumers surveyed are beginning to be open to eating food with unusual ingredients, especially if they are aware and embrace the socially sustainable nature of those products. The above research and featured entrepreneurial ventures indicate that an upcycled product’s origin story can bolster a brand’s narrative but only if the product’s taste and functional health benefits accompany the upcycled story. An upcycled food brand must use its packaging, values, and content messaging as an educational opportunity and sales pitch to mitigate the wasteful practices that have defined our food systems. This upcycled food movement can shift our production and consumption in a positive direction but only if communications strategies incentivize the consumer to break open the packaging and taste their weird, yet oh-so-tasty product.  

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