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10 years of change in 10 months

For food entrepreneurs who pursue new market opportunities, there is no guarantee of success in a space where competition is fierce. Those most likely to succeed understand that beyond getting their product on the shelves, they have to get customers to notice and care about what they make and do.

“We knew that one of the most important elements of what we did was going to be building a brand that people recognized and would grow to trust over time,” says Manitoba food entrepreneur James Battershill. 

For help, he turned to Nourish Food Marketing (NFM), Canada’s only full-service marketing agency working exclusively with food and beverage clients. The company launched in 2009 and with offices in Toronto and Montreal works in a partnership with Kahntact, marketers in the agriculture, food and life science sectors. Jo-Ann McArthur, president of Nourish Food Marketing, sums it up in a few words: “The pandemic caused the equivalent of 10 years of change in 10 months.”

NFM’s team of 30 food experts help clients with food marketing. Clients represent the entire cross section of the food industry, including farmers, new business owners, manufacturers, retailers and those in foodservice.

That breadth has enabled the company to gain insights into trends across agriculture and food, and from this work, NFM also produces a yearly report on important trends to inform ag and food business owners’ decision-making.

Trends 2021 study

2020 was a year like no other, and Canadians’ lives changed, including how they shop for and consume food. 

Some of these changes may be permanent shifts, according to the 2021 Nourish Network Trend Report, which lays out an intriguing mix of newly emerged patterns and existing trends radically altered by the pandemic.

Most notably, more consumers are paying more attention to where food comes from, and Canadians are asking questions about food systems they didn’t even know existed before. 

“Empty shelves, which consumers had never seen in their lifetimes, shook at lot of people,” McArthur says. “People didn’t understand how food got from the farm ultimately on to the grocery shelf, or on to their plate if they were in a restaurant. And they have definitely been learning more about this.”

Jo-Ann McArthur. photo: Nourish Food Marketing

NFM’s trends report is the fifth of a series of annual reports and details a dozen key trends and forces driving change across the entire food continuum. 

“What we once knew and past behaviours are no longer reliable indicators,” McArthur says. 

The report highlights Canadians’ rediscovery of cooking at home and the revival of the ritual of the family meal. Both may be long-term positive legacies of long periods of lockdown.

An August 2020 study by the Food Marketing Institute in the U.S. found 85 per cent plan to eat family meals more often or the same amount once things return to the “new normal,” the report notes. 

But even as the pandemic has pushed people to cook, consume, buy and think about food differently, where we want to source it, and consumer expectations of their food have been altered during the pandemic, too. 

Consumers are demanding transparency in the food industry now, wanting to know how the items in their grocery cart were made or grown, and they’re increasingly paying attention to how those involved in growing, harvesting and processing it — including how non-resident farmworkers are treated — and if animal and environmental welfare matters to their brands. 

“Radical transparency was a consumer trend in our 2018 Nourish Trend Report,” the report says. “But, at the time, the other side of the fence (that’s you, ag producers) wasn’t ready for it.”

“This further shows the opportunity and need for clearer transparency around Canadian agriculture,” says Len Kahn, president of Kahntact. “Consumers trust farmers, but not farming, and that is something that needs to change.”

Notably, six in 10 Canadians say they trust food produced in Canada more than food grown or made elsewhere, a trend on the rise since 2017. 

During the pandemic, the report describes “a rise in food nationalism” among consumers as a way of preserving food security and autonomy at this time.

We love to buy close to home, and home became even closer during the pandemic, and there is an increased degree of respect for local food producers, the report notes. 

“Consumers have definitely been learning more and have wanted to support local more, because whether they know the person or not, it’s about supporting communities, and about food security and trust. We saw direct-to-consumer relationships really flourish during this time.”

The report cites a Dalhousie study showing five per cent of Canadians actually purchased directly from farmers during this period. 

Other notable trends highlighted in the report include the intensifying income disparity, or emergence of what it dubs “two Canadas” as the gap widened between those who were able to keep working and have built up wealth during the pandemic, and those who have lost jobs and businesses and are now struggling to make ends meet. 

“The middle of the market is shrinking as Canada splits in half,” the report says and asks: “Do you need to reposition your offering to match your consumers’ particular value-based (or values-based) purchase decisions?”

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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