Friday 21 October 2016

Taking a trolley good look at our shopping habits

A list of Ireland's top grocery brands paints a fascinating picture of a sugar-addicted nation that is doing its best to become much healthier

John McGee

Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30

Increasingly consumers are seeking out food products that are fresh, organic, healthy and have - to use one of the most over-used words in food marketing - provenance (Stock photo)
Increasingly consumers are seeking out food products that are fresh, organic, healthy and have - to use one of the most over-used words in food marketing - provenance (Stock photo)

You can tell a lot about a nation from the brands and products it chucks in its shopping basket every week. If recent research into grocery sales is anything to go by, Irish people love their Coca-Cola, Dairy Milk chocolate and that staple snack-food, Tayto crisps.

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And if Coca-Cola and chocolate doesn't rock your taste-buds, don't fret: we also love 7Up and Club Orange. Something to eat? Why not have a Goodfella's pizza with a packet of Jacob's biscuits for afters. And if you're not in the Tayto camp, there's always a tub of Pringles to take the edge off your hunger pangs. If, after all that, you are feeling a bit tired, then pop open a bottle of Lucozade or a can of Red Bull and they are sure to put a spring in your step.

While these food and drink brands might read like a list of banned items from a series of Operation Transformation, they are in fact among the country's top-selling grocery brands according to the Top 100 Brands Report which was recently published by Checkout magazine in association with Nielsen.

Indeed, all of these leading brands make it into the top 20 with Coke holding onto the top ranking for the 12th year in a row, putting it ahead of Cadbury's Dairy Milk, Brennan's Bread, Avonmore and Tayto.

In fact, 12 of the top 20 grocery brands would probably feature prominently on Karl Henry's naughty list.

The Top 100 Brands Report is based on branded value sales across the Irish grocery sector and, as part of the research, Nielsen measures the sales performance of over 6,500 different products covering 200 product classes. As such, it is a fairly accurate barometer of what goes into the nation's shopping baskets and trolleys every week.

There's so many different ways one can interpret this report and what it says about brands, consumer choice, the nation's dietary habits and, of course, marketing.

On the one hand, our apparent proclivity for food and drink brands that - when not consumed in moderation - add inches to the national waistline speaks volumes about Irish consumers and their brand preferences.

It also begs the question whether the proposed Pigovian sugar tax that is likely to feature in Michael Noonan's forthcoming budget is misguided, too narrow in its reach or destined to fail abysmally from the get-go?

But the production and sale of relatively cheap, convenient and heavily processed food and drink products has been one of the defining features of Big Food over the past 40 years and it has generated substantial growth for many food manufacturers down through the years - up until recently that is.

On another level, these strong household brands - irrespective of the ingredients that go into their making - are testament to the power of effective marketing and advertising. Indeed, global brands like Coca-Cola, Red Bull and Cadbury's operate possibly the slickest and most sophisticated marketing machines in the industry.

But the world is changing and it is consumers, not brands, who are in the driving seat. Increasingly consumers are seeking out food products that are fresh, organic, healthy and have - to use one of the most over-used words in food marketing - provenance.

Separate research into people's shopping habits, which was also carried out by Nielsen, indicates that the availability of fresh products is a key influence when it came to where Irish consumers choose to shop. Numerous Bord Bia studies have also highlighted the trend towards healthier eating. It should also be pointed out that in the Top 100 Brands Report, pre-packed fresh fruit, as a grocery category, continues to climb the rankings.

Food marketers have taken note. Indeed, sales growth at many of the large multinational food groups in recent years has been at best sluggish and in some cases in decline as the newer producers tap into the healthy and wholesome zeitgeist and, quite literally, nibble away at the lunches of their bigger competitors.

The writing has been on the wall for a long time. While most of the big food groups are still profitable, the inability of many of them to grow their businesses, in line with market and investor expectations, has prompted an industry-wide re-think about how growth can be reignited and, more importantly, how they can tap into the newer and healthier consumer preferences.

In some cases, companies are trying to grow by way of acquisition by buying smaller manufacturers and producers of organic and healthy food products. Others are turning to product innovation and the reformulation of existing lines by eliminating ingredients like artificial colourings, sugars, salts and trans fats. Coca-Cola, for example, estimates that as much as 50pc of its sales of soft drinks will be of the sugarless variety by 2020.

In the meantime, all food and drink manufacturers need to do a lot more, while it's fair to say that the producers of Operation Transformation can sleep well in the knowledge that there's probably a few more series to go as their work here is far from done.

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