Maybe it's just us, but it seems that the notion of fast-food chain restaurants locked in a marketing feud over "fresh" is a bit weird. A February 2013 Slate.com article, "The Fresh Wars," asks the question "what is fresh?" and delivers a lengthy look into rivalries between fast-food chains like Taco Bell, Chipotle, Subway, Arby's, McDonald's, and Domino's in pursuit of the answer. The article is more of an exposé on how and why "fresh" became the focal point of modern-day marketing campaigns for fast-food restaurants. If restaurants have to convince people through advertising slogans that they sell fresh fare, what would they be selling other than this? Aren't they in the business of fresh food? But the fast-food industry and food marketers aren't the only ones talking about fresh these days; consumers are also talking a lot about fresh. And they are the ones who have the final say on what is, or isn't, "fresh.
It is important to understand that fresh is not so much an objective distinction (as in the difference between fresh fruit and canned fruit) as it is a multi-faceted framing device that allows consumers to differentiate between the real and the imitation, the raw and the processed, the tasty and the bland, the ripe and the stale, the good and the bad, the fancy and the plain, and so forth. Consumers are attracted to fresh products for a variety of reasons (taste, quality, healthfulness, status, ideology, etc.), all attributable to the fact that the product in question is not "one of those products," the processed or packaged versions of the "real thing."
Consumers seek a combination of symbolic (e.g., clean, whole, real) and objective (e.g., no pesticides, no artificial colors) attributes in the different categories of foods and beverages they purchase. They are also continually redefining quality. Within this redefinition, fresh has both symbolic associations (safe, local, healthy, organic, natural) and objective associations (less processed, no chemicals, nothing artificial). Importantly, "fresh" extends beyond cues associated with it (such as organic or natural) and represents a constellation of attributes that are not necessarily meant to be used in marketing messages.
Fresh is a manifesto in and of itself within consumer food culture: it encompasses a broad class of food cues and distinctions and will only continue to grow in importance over time. But remember, fresh is not an objective distinction but a framing device allowing consumers to differentiate:
That fast-food chain restaurants have to convince consumers that their product is "fresh" is an inherent problem that marketing jingles alone cannot solve. Consumers' perceptions of fresh extend far beyond chain restaurants' production lines and drive-up windows. When a restaurant can match consumers' expectations for fresh products (e.g., tastier, healthier, higher quality, locally grown, natural, real), then consumers will give that restaurant the license to sell "fresh."
As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.