The FDA recently announced a proposal to ban trans fats. There’s certainly a lot one could say on how the FDA makes such decisions and its impact on the food we consume. However, when the proposed change was announced, I found myself wondering just how much trans fats are left in our food supply. While I know the answer is likely “a lot,” it seems many products on the supermarket shelves are already touting “no trans fats,” and many restaurants menus proclaim the same to be true of their items. I know for a fact I’m still able to indulge in my favorite fast food French fries – now trans fat free!
So if trans fats were already on their way out, I wonder why the FDA is so late to the game. That requires its own separate discussion certainly. But it also made me think about the factors that drive product innovation, how they’ve evolved, and the implications for manufacturers and marketers.
From the mouths of consumers
While the downward trend in trans fats is likely linked to previous FDA rulings requiring them be included on nutritional labels, consumers have played just as important of a role. We know money talks, but now it’s even easier for consumers to do the same. While trans fats seem like old news to me, consumers are using social media outlets each and every day to publicize their feelings on changes that are needed (and/or desired) to the products they purchase. Whether their opinions are well-informed or not, we know they have tremendous power on consumers and manufacturers alike. So while the topic of trans fats isn’t popping up much in my Twitter feed, discussions around GMOs, food dyes, and parabens certainly are (just to name a few). And like trans fats, we are already seeing these ingredients slowly exit our packaged goods as well.
So what does this mean for manufacturers?
It’s recognizing the voice of the consumer and staying close to them in different ways – continually listening for the ways in which they want products to evolve. If consumers are drivers and even predictors of future product changes, it means that ongoing social listening, of both traditional and non-traditional social media venues, will play an important component in product development and renovation plans. Social listening opens the door to insights on what consumers want from products and perhaps more importantly, what they might already be getting from competitors, including small brands we’ve never heard of. It also means bringing the consumer into the innovation process earlier and in new and engaging ways – whether it be interacting with them on brand Facebook pages or shopping and eating “with” consumers via mobile ethnographies (as just one example).
Second, it serves to remind manufacturers and marketers of the importance of staying relevant to consumers. When relevance is at the forefront of innovation and product development, success often follows. It’s about accepting and building on changes to packaged goods to meet the needs of today’s consumers – and sometimes meeting a need is more about what’s not in the products people buy rather than what is being added. And that’s some tasty food for thought.