“The food and drink industry has already experienced huge changes from the impacts of the conflict in Ukraine to the cost of living crisis,” writes Jonny Forsyth, director of Mintel Food & Drink.

“In 2022 inflation in Europe reached levels not seen for 30 years, meaning the costs of even basic food and drink have soared. The price of milk alone … soared by 45% in the UK between December and 2021 November 2022.

“But the thing is, 2023 will be even worse than 2022. That is when the recession will really start to hit at home, unemployment will start rise and more people will find their incomes become squeezed by rising interest rates,” Forsyth continues. “Brands need to be ready.”

Forsyth makes the following recommendations:

Brands need to learn from previous recessions and prove their value

“The lesson from previous recessions is that value does not mean price, but rather is the perceived worth in monetary units of the set of economic, functional and psychological benefits received by the customer in exchange for the price paid for the product or service provided.

“The onus will be on brands to prove their value to the consumer to protect their market share from private label, and especially discounters. Analysis of data from Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD) shows the scale of the challenge facing brand managers. Over the past year, in Europe, discounter private label food and drink launches cost just €1.27 per 100 litres/grams. This compares to €2.75 for brands. Many consumers will trade down out of choice or need.

“So brands must prove to consumers they are worth their price premium. This means helping consumers to save money and being attuned to people’s everyday challenges. In Italy, pasta and bakery producer Barilla has promoted ‘passive cooking’ as a way for its customers to save money on their energy bills. The technique means boiling pasta for two minutes, then turning off the hob and waiting until it is ready. To help with timings, Barilla provides a guide on its website.

“Counter-intuitively, recessions are also a time for brands to invest in advertising and innovation, something I outline in my research on how food and drink brands adapted to the Great Recession of 2007-08.”

Brands need to highlight health benefits, as consumers value healthy food and drink

“The pandemic may now be in the rear-view mirror for Europeans, but its legacy has been to remind people of what is really important in life: their health. To quote the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: ‘We’ve been coasting along for more than half a century in unprecedented affluence, unprecedented freedom, unprecedented optimism. And all of a sudden we are facing the fragility and vulnerability of the human situation’.

Mintel Global Consumer data from August 2022 asked consumers across the world how they defined ‘value’ in food and drink. Respondents rated the most important factor determining good value as ‘added nutritional benefits’, which was chosen by a global average of 57% of adults. This was followed by ‘made with natural ingredients’, and in third place, whether a product ‘is at a lower price than others’. There were regional differences: UK consumers were much more likely than the global average to view ‘low price’ as important. But consumers in most markets are primarily valuing added nutritional benefits, including the UK.

“So strong nutritional messaging will be crucial to outperform competitors. As Mintel’s 2023 Global Food and Drink Trend ‘Minimalist Messaging’ notes, this means streamlining communication to the essential selling points that are most relevant to consumers and the brand. Simple messaging is important, as for example, over a third of consumers in Germany consider products that make a lot of health claims to be less trustworthy’.

Brands will need to drive the sustainability agenda

“And finally, consumer concerns for their finances will mean they are less likely to engage with, and pay more for, environmentally-friendly food and drink brands in 2023. Even when consumer finances have been healthier (ie back in 2019), the majority of Europeans have remained largely disengaged when it comes to saving the planet.

“Nor will Gen Z save the day by driving change through activism. As my research shows, this ‘slacktivist’ cohort has been mischaracterized by the media and is less likely to engage in everyday sustainable behaviours than older consumers.

“All this means that brands need to drive consumer change rather than waiting for people to catch up. The 2022 Mintel Consulting Sustainability Barometer shows brands how to do this.

“The extreme weather events witnessed in 2022, such as the recorded temperature of 47 degrees Celsius in Portugal during July, threaten to be the new normal. This will force consumers to face up to their responsibilities, especially if brands can own the role of climate change agents.

“Mintel Senior Trend Consultant, Richard Cope, thinks we will start to see a more knowledgeable and hardened consumer as sustainability comes closer to home. He notes that ‘…in many markets we’re seeing an increased sense of personal vulnerability and personal impact — both of which can act as drivers for action’.”