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Fun, Discovery and Pleasure: Essential Ingredients in Food Culture Today

Couple eating sushiQuite often the serious nature of business can squeeze all the fun out of products and experiences in food culture. Sure, candy brands like Skittles seem a natural fit to communicate fun (watch out or you'll get Skittles pox), but how fun translates into food and beverage culture beyond marketing candy is a little tricky these days. Over the years, consumers have told us that in relation to shopping, eating and drinking occasions and even health and wellness lifestyles, fun in the food and beverage arena can mean positive attributes like indulgence, pleasure, discovery and surprise and delight.

Advertisers have historically employed humor as a device to draw attention to a product, rewarding the audience its viewership with pleasure and amusement. The entertainment value of humorous ads, like the recent ads featuring dogs driving Subaru cars or a duck doing yoga while yakking up Aflac insurance, are meant to convey more than fun; they are effective ways to build awareness and communicate specific attributes about the brand and products.

Drawn from our expertise in food and beverage culture, here are some key consumer perspectives on shopping satisfaction, snacking and health and wellness and why injecting a bit of fun and pleasure can help successfully drive consumer engagement.

Shopping Satisfaction

Trader Joe's package with Brazil signDespite claims of being time-starved, consumers simply do not seem to want a one-stop shop. Instead, they embrace more frequent smaller-to medium-sized trips to a wide variety of stores that “specialize” in something (a product, promotion or experience). With a wide variety of channels available, they cross-shop to leverage the strengths of each one. And with shoppers increasingly able to find similar goods across most channels, competition among channels has never been fiercer.

Across all channels, top drivers of satisfaction center on trust, ease and enjoyment of shopping and having the right assortment. Our Food Shopping in America 2017 report finds that natural/specialty stores have the highest satisfaction and customer loyalty and are most often associated with a fun experience. While remaining firmly grounded in a health and wellness proposition, many natural/specialty retailers have positioned their brand voice to exude a more playful tone. No retailer has done this more successfully than Trader Joe’s. The message of fun is conveyed in their “Fearless Flyer,” which weaves playful narratives and recipe ideas into product promotions. Playful themes continue in the shopping experience through helpful yet Hawaiian shirt-clad employees. Irony is also found in the handwritten signage crafted by locally hired artists, which adds to a sense of “local” in the space. Shoppers are even able to find humor in hand-painted murals with local themes in the restrooms.

Dollar stores and other value outlets offer another angle on fun and shopping with the thrill of the "treasure hunt" experience. Consumers tell us they look forward to unexpected bargains that appear in local dollar stores, which contribute to a sense of fun as well as surprise and delight.


Snacking is culturally associated with a unique ability to pointedly satisfy physical and emotional needs for enjoyment, comfort, craving and play. Play speaks to the consumer desire for all of one’s senses to be delighted and to be actively involved in both the act of creation and consumption.

In many ways, snacking has fewer cultural restraints, making certain aspects of pleasure and play more permissible or simply easier to incorporate via snacking occasions. In the words of one consumer: “There are specific things I get for a road trip. Like full-on treat snacks — snacks that I wouldn’t normally have, like Cheez-Its, ICE drinks, chips, pepperoni sticks and pretzels.” Consumers use enjoyable foods and beverages, particularly ones dissociated from health and nutrition, to experience physical delight on the palate, to mentally and emotionally relax and to signal achievement to themselves and others. When snacking, moments of indulgence and reward range from big to small and are typically seen as essential to balance and emotional wellness.

According to our Future of Snacking 2016 report, many parents testify that if something doesn’t taste good, their child simply won’t eat it. Wary of the challenge of providing nourishing, healthy snacks without sacrificing taste for hungry kids on the go, parents are seeking portable and cost-effective options that balance both taste and nutrition. Parents also believe it’s important for “kids to be kids,” with moments of pure enjoyment and “fun snacking” through treats.

The Joy of Health and Wellness

What often distinguishes consumer health and wellness segments from one another is how consumers, depending on where they are in their wellness journeys, interpret what is classified as a “treat,” a distinction commonly based on how their food values and eating habits have shaped their expectations and personal taste palates. Progressive health and wellness consumers may reflect forward-leaning “foodie” orientations with an interest in global foods — which suggest a healthier nutritional profile as well as distinctive flavors.

Fun and enjoyment represent indulgent, playful and creative aspects of health and wellness. Fun and enjoyment include practices that permit flexibility, simplicity and pleasure. They represent a departure from the overly rational and ascetic approach to health and wellness lifestyles, embracing them in a more personal way, and are less about work and restraint and more about sophisticated indulgence.

As shoppers, the most progressive health and wellness consumers are no longer thinking about condition management (lowering cholesterol or blood pressure) or dieting (low fat, low carb) but are focused on fresh, real, less processed foods and beverages, positive nutrition and fun. From a purchase and use perspective, this means moving away from products that are fat-free, diet products and 100-calorie portion packs in favor of kale, dark chocolate and quality fats, such as found in nuts, avocados and butter. Ben & Jerry’s has captured moderately involved health and wellness consumers who are attracted by the quality ingredients, interesting flavor profiles and the playfully named varieties. Although the cartoonish packaging can often diminish the health and wellness message, Ben & Jerry’s has earned “street cred” for its serious commitment to sustainability, in particular social and environmental causes.

Five Ways Fun and Pleasure Drive Successful Consumer Engagement and Satisfaction

  1. Encourage a sense of discovery. An essential element to link with a sense of fun. Our cultural values embrace diversity, and new experiences have heightened the desire for food exploration.
  2. Communicate a “fun” value proposition. Emphasize how the playful and whimsical aspects of your product or service support broader quality-of-life goals using a tone that is ironic, whimsical, playful, energetic or passionate.
  3. Create a theater of experience. Retailers can create a theater of engagement by using employees and in-store communications as vehicles that present products as pleasurable and as part of overall well-being. Enabling food “discoveries,” food exploration and communicating a passion for food ingredients are hallmark influences behind our evolving food culture today: shoppers today seek food experiences that can be translated into their lives and households. Retailers that encourage behaviors like cooking (as opposed to eating and pure consumption) will likely earn greater shopper intimacy and quite possibly a larger share of food spending.
  4. Position snacks to speak to multiple drivers. The line between adult- and kid-oriented food continues to blur as parents expect snacks to do more for both their kids and themselves. Consider pursuing the all-family snack space that reflects kid appeal and parents’ own snacking needs. Just as adult snacks should be positioned to speak to multiple drivers, so should kid snacks. Parents will expect the ideal snack to simultaneously provide nutrition, keep their kids from “crashing,” and serve as a fun treat.
  5. Add an element of surprise. Surprise and delight are key elements of communicating fun in the food and beverage space. An example of infusing this element into product marketing and experience would be an online weekly subscription box service that adds “planned spontaneity” and elements of surprise (e.g., boxes themed around specific lifestyle interests like world travel, video games, favorite TV shows and movies, yoga or body building or themed around interests in food and beverage such as wine, bacon or global flavors). Services that allow customization present consumers the added element of surprise when “unboxing” — a now entrenched social media phenomenon that captures fun moments. 


Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Culture Health & Wellness Retail/Shopper Insights Technology/Social Media Foodservice/Restaurant


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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