Vegan. Gluten-free. Paleo. Juicing. Mediterranean. Whether you "believe" in them or not, there's no arguing that many diets have grown immensely popular in ways that aren't so different from widely worn shoe brands or your favorite wearables.
We have a long history of food faddism in the U.S. and Europe. In the 1920s and 1930s, an all-grape diet was popular among wealthy women in the U.S. and France. Supposedly, several months (months!) of eating only grapes resulted in both weight loss and anti-aging benefits. Decades later, Robert Atkins popularized the Atkins Diet, which calls for limiting carbohydrates (sugars) so your body uses stored body fat for energy instead of metabolizing sugar for energy.
Though they may not follow the same rules of yore, many people still participate in "lifestyle diets" -- ones that reflect personal preferences (like not eating meat because of animal cruelty), or scientific principles (like avoiding certain allergens), or both. Some people call them "fad diets," arguing that their benefits have been largely inflated thanks to catchy-but-untrustworthy marketing campaigns.
What have companies espousing current popular diets done to market their lifestyle to consumers? How much of an affect has marketing had on their popularization? In this post, I'll examine three diet phenomena that have gained traction in the last few years: the gluten-free diet, juicing, and veganism.
Quick refresher: "Gluten-free" refers to a diet free of gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It's found primarily in bread, flour, beer, and many processed and packaged foods.
A few years ago, gluten-free products were mostly unheard of. Today, there's a dedicated gluten-free section in most major grocery stores. Big brands have recognized the market potential and created their own gluten-free products, like General Mills' gluten-free Chex Mix and Kellogg's gluten-free Rice Krispies. There's even a gluten-free Girl Scout cookie, which received very high approval ratings during its pilot year in 2013-2014 and is now sold countrywide.
And the market for gluten-free products is only growing. Mintel International, a market research company, estimates the market for gluten-free foods grew 63% from 2012 to 2014, and it projects the industry will close more than $15 billion in annual sales in 2016.
But where are all these sales coming from? There are only three million Americans who have celiac, an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack the small intestine when gluten is ingested. “There are truly people out there who need gluten-free foods for health reasons, but they are not the majority of consumers who are driving this market,” said Virginia Morris, vice president for consumer strategy and insights at Daymon Worldwide.
Instead, there's a growing consumer base of people who claim gluten causes a slew of health problems and have adopted a gluten-free lifestyle as a result. "Gluten has increasingly become an area of dietary focus and concern for consumers," says Haley Meyer, a spokeswoman for grocery giant Supervalu Inc.
And while brands are marketing to the celiac community to some extent, their focus is on consumers who avoid gluten for other health reasons, like weight loss. According to AdAge, the Food Marketing Institute published a 2013 shopper survey saying, "Only 2% of shoppers who buy gluten-free foods do so because they have celiac disease, while 59% said they buy such products because they think they're more healthful."
General Mills Marketing Manager Rebecca Thompson said that by relying on data about levels of the population's celiac and gluten sensitivity to predict the staying power of consumer demand resulted in an underestimation of how many people were eating gluten-free products. “When you think about the dynamics in a household, where there are likely to be three other people eating at the same time as one person with celiac or gluten sensitivity, it’s much easier to prepare one meal for everyone," she told the New York Times.
In 2008, General Mills paired gluten-free editions of its well-known Chex cereals with a major marketing effort. Within two years, they introduced an online store, glutenfreely.com, which offered gluten-free products from General Mills and other food companies. Why the inclusion of other food companies? “Typically, at that time, consumers needing gluten-free products were having to go to six or seven different stores to get everything they needed, and we thought that would be an easier solution for them,” Ms. Thompson said. The online store has since been closed as more and more grocery stores offer gluten-free shelves and aisles in their stores.
Today, 39% of food companies manufacture gluten-free products, up from only 15% in 2009, according to Mintel. At the same time, restaurants are adding gluten-free sections to their menus and retailers are redoing their floor plans.
Whether or not gluten-free products are indeed healthier is up for debate; but in the meantime, the gluten-free industry is making billions.
Quick refresher: Juicing means replacing or supplementing meals and snacks with juices made from raw ingredients -- primarily vegetables and fruits, sometimes in addition to nuts, seeds, and spices. Juices are made in a juicer instead of a blender, which extracts the juice from fruits and vegetables and leaves behind a fiber-rich pulp.
As healthy lifestyles become increasingly popular in the U.S., more and more consumers are becoming attracted to natural, organic products. Juicing is a trend that sprouted from this movement as a way for Americans to easily add more vegetables and fruit to their diet -- and nowadays, juicing is a $5 billion industry that's projected to grow by 4-8% year-over-year.
Many large corporations have hopped on the juicing trend in the last decade, scooping up lines of premium juices and making them their own. Take Starbucks, for example, which bought Evolution Fresh for $30 million in 2011 in an effort to enter the health and wellness industry. Coca-Cola bought Odwalla in 2001 for $181 million, and Pepsi bought Naked Juice for an estimated $450 million in 2006. Hain, an organic giant that is also Whole Foods' biggest supplier, bought BluePrint for $3.5 billion in 2013.
BluePrint started out as a small, organic juicing company in 2007, and their minimalistic logo and the easily recognizable blue lid on their packages are well-known in the nutrition-savvy community.
While their multi-day juice cleanses are particularly popular, BluePrint has focused a lot of its marketing efforts on promoting juicing as an everyday beverage, likely to promote repeat and more frequent purchasing. They certainly frame a lot of their marketing around their popular cleanses, but they've also ramped up their efforts to show customers and prospects that their juices can be added to their existing diet, especially on social media.
Why pair a juice with lip gloss and a watch? Because the kind of person who buy BluePrint's juices is also the kind of person who wears lip gloss and pretty watches. In other words, it fits in well with their buyer persona.
BluePrint's marketing strategy is centered entirely on their buyer persona -- from the looks of it, a woman in her late twenties. She is probably a health-conscious college graduate who's social online, shops at Whole Foods, and exercises regularly.
To reach their key demographic, BluePrint uses social media. Their accounts depict juicing as a part of everyday life, offer advice, and answer customer questions. For example, their Pinterest page is chock full of juicing tips, lifestyle tips, recipes, and season-specific material.
We'll have to wait and see whether the juicing phenomenon is a passing phase or here to stay, but nevertheless, we can expect to see many businesses, large and small, making efforts to associate their brand with the larger health and wellness trend.
Quick refresher: Vegans abstain from eating and using animal products, especially meat and dairy.
Unlike other diets are based on stats and scientific studies, veganism is based on the philosophy that it's wrong to commoditize animals. So while vegetarians abstain from eating meat, most vegans consider it wrong to consume products like eggs and honey, which involve commoditizing the hens and bees that produce them.
Veganism first gained attention in the mainstream media in 1956, when 17-year-old Australian swimmer Murray Rose won three Olympic gold medals on a vegan diet of sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, unpolished rice, dates, cashew nuts, and carrot juice. Since then, celebrities from John Lennon to Al Gore have dabbled with vegan diets, a vegan cookbook hit the Times best-seller list, and meat and dairy consumption has been declining.
What does the market for vegan products look like now? According to a Harris Interactive study commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, 2.5% of the U.S. population is vegan, or about 7.5 million people. Interestingly, the same study showed that 33% of Americans are eating vegan or vegetarian meals more often, even if they don't identify as vegan or vegetarian. Nil Zacharias wrote in The Huffington Post, "the marketing doesn't just exist, it's exploding."
As you can imagine, the philosophical aspect of veganism has an impact on how vegan products are marketed to the public. For many vegans, health isn't the primary concern; it's the social and political messages surrounding animal welfare that they look for. At its core, the vegan diet is value-based -- which is a recipe for loyalty- and community-building.
And where better to build a community of like-minded individuals than on social media? Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest are great places for marketers of vegan products to publish content. It's a great channel for educating large audiences and spreading inspiring -- and even provocative -- content about animal rights issues. Even better, it's relatively inexpensive compared to traditional forms of media and marketing, which is important for the small businesses producing and marketing many of the vegan products.
Like these other examples, veganism might be a fleeting trend. It'll be interesting to see what happens to the popularity of vegan products over the next few years.
At the end of the day, while specific fads may come and go, diet fads themselves (and companies that'll try to capitalize on them) will be around for quite some time.