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Doing a Little Soul Searching: Keeping It Real

grocery aisleMergers and acquisitions, new product launches, food product recalls, food safety concerns, GMO versus non-GMO, nutritional labeling revisions, private label shouldering out national brands, organic versus natural, the quest for fresh, local and artisanal, retail format reformulations, demand for more transparency about what’s in products and how they’re made…and on and on and on it goes.

Today’s food and beverage marketplace is pretty chaotic, no? How do you manage the chaos, live in the chaos, embrace the chaos or thrive in the chaos? Is chaos really the issue or is it perhaps something else? What are we looking for?

We believe there is a deep cultural longing to find a more “soulful” way of living. Let’s step back a bit to explain what we mean by this.

Over the years, there have been (and continue to be) business and marketing books written about breaking the rules, disruption and the like. So there aren’t many universal truths per se, but we here at The Hartman Group have come upon one fundamental belief that we have long clung to and is the focal point of our practice to this day, and it is this: Change in the marketplace is consumer driven.

From our earliest days, The Hartman Group has had an enduring passion for understanding human behavior as consumer behavior. In his 2001 book, Marketing in the Soul Age: Building Lifestyle Worlds, Harvey Hartman made the case for understanding this fundamental constant regardless of how chaotic and fast-moving the market may appear. This should be obvious to most people, but given today’s complex environment, the implications might not be.

Given the chaotic nature of today’s marketplace, we thought it timely to revisit this most profound underpinning as a way to help you better understand that, in order to be proactive in business, one must understand that consumers lead, and the only way to understand where your customers are going is to understand the forces that drive their movement.

The forces driving consumer behaviors are complex, but they come into clearer view when you stop looking at the individual consumer as an isolated unit and start looking at him or her as participating in larger lifestyle or cultural worlds.

Consumers do not operate in a vacuum. They operate within the larger social context we call culture, and culture shapes lifestyle. The forces shaping lifestyle and the product worlds that serve it are the forces shaping our culture as a whole.

Everybody wanders in and out of the new lifestyle worlds being developed in response to the longing for soul; some are just more conscious than others of their reasons for doing so. We believe this “soul-oriented” market is actually quite large. We developed our Hartman World Model as a tool to more effectively support companies in their development of market strategies that target a wide variety of consumers who will be attracted into what we describe as lifestyle worlds.

World model
The effectiveness of our world model approach is testimony that soul is inherent in its application. Cultures are living organisms, and we think the best way to understand a culture, however big or small, is to think of it as kind of group soul.

If we think of soul as the animating force that gives an individual life and identity, it’s not that hard to see soul as a kind of social energy field that can animate a group in a way similar to the way it animates an individual. Think: the American spirit. It’s much more than a phrase; it’s something that moves and changes and shapes our life as a people, as a culture.

The difference now is that the American soul is not one easily identifiable thing. It is a tissue of interdependent subcultures in and out of which people migrate. If you understand the soul logic that shapes this variety of subcultures, you can understand the logic of lifestyle consumption patterns. Hence, the reason for our Hartman World Model.

The Age of Soul

Over the course of the past two decades, we’ve witnessed a profound shift in consumer behaviors toward deeper interest and participation in food culture driven by the desire for quality life experiences and healthier foods, concerns for the environment and the search for higher-quality, fresh food and beverage products.

These cultural movements, which in their various ways focus on the recovery of soul, are where the energies that will shape the next cultural era lie. Those businesses that understand and serve these movements will be in the best position to thrive in the coming decades.

A soul-oriented culture is subjective, experienced-oriented. Those operating within the soul paradigm ask: Is it for real? Value in the soul paradigm is linked to intensity of experience — it’s visceral and emotional.

The imitation, the fake, the phony, is easily spotted. The fake authentic always has a shadow of the trendy about it. The true test of an authentic-authentic product attribute is its simplicity, transparency, its sense of presence and its ability to outlive its trendiness. And that test is always a test about its quality. Trends come and go, but quality — real quality — stands the test of time.

The authentic-authentic must remain relevant. People don’t want to be zombies, but more often than not their shopping experience is one that forces them to join the ranks of the undead.

A soulful marketing strategy focuses to enliven rather than to deaden the experience, to engage the consumer as an individual rather than to condition him as one of the undead, to make her feel more intensely herself rather than to treat her like some abstract demographic or data point.

And that’s the goal, to create an authentic world, not a zombie world. It’s about people coming to your brand to feel more themselves because the brand’s values are true to themselves. In other words, they’re real. They’re authentic. They are simple and transparent. They radiate presence. The brand has found its soul.

And soul is everything. It is the “why” behind the purchase — it is the face of your company and its brands. Soul is not about the price of products; it is the connection to values.

Today, what does matter to every company, regardless of size, is what consumers say about it, and consumers “say” as much by their actions with their wallets and their feet as they do through words.

We know from our research that many consumers believe a world with brands is better than a world without. From our vantage point, that is a pretty strong endorsement for brands and points to something that goes beyond selling stuff.

Which brings us back to what we have been hearing from consumers for years saying that they are looking to connect with companies and brands that have “soulful” elements. Soul is what makes us human. Soul is what brings brands to life in the minds of consumers. Key elements of soulful branding include an invitation into an experiential world and the notion that the most compelling experiences revolve around human interaction and must be authentic — consumers want the real thing.


Consumer Demographics Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Culture Retail/Shopper Insights Point Of View


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.


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