Online Exclusives

We Really Are What We Eat

By Joanna Cosgrove, Online Editor | October 4, 2012

Food Elitists and Food Realists: SAI identifies the complex relationship between food and social class in America.

Television is brimming with a myriad of cooking shows and celebrity chefs extolling the virtues of food as a lifestyle choice, and according to SAI Marketing of Horsham, PA, they are contributing factors to the current food culture war being waged in supermarkets, restaurants and home kitchens across the United States. In its “A Country Divided by Palate and Passion: How America Eats” market whitepaper, SAI took a deeper look into what it termed “the fragmentation of the mass market” and distilled the movement into two fascinatingly distinct socio-economic groups: Food Elitists and Food Realists. 

Generally speaking, SAI found most consumers could be segmented into the two groups when class-based distinctions of income, education and lifestyle were taken into account, and food emerged as a key class marker of highly-educated, upper-middle class consumers. Why? The recent economic recession kyboshed the pursuit of hard luxury goods, $100K+ consumer households turned to food choices as a means of aspiring to a peer group, explained SAI’s Bill Melnick, director of strategic planning. “To the aspirational foodie, it’s the connoisseur class,” he said. “This group brings its own unique context driven by economic, educational and cultural factors and identifies with the concept of food as a luxury. This is a core part of their value set and is fundamental to their sense of self.”
High-status classes tend to spend more time entertaining in their homes, enjoying cooking classes and eating more exotic and artisanal foods from around the world. In contrast, more mainstream consumers tend to gravitate toward traditional hearty meals that are starch- and fat-heavy, and generous in portion size. 
In an effort to segment the consumer groups, SAI considered a number of characteristics that might place consumers on either side of the divide:
  • Price sensitivity
  • The role that food plays in defining sense of self
  • Interest in the journey that food has taken to get to their table
  • The importance of healthy eating
  • Time consciousness
  • Time allotted to food themed media content
  • Where they shop for food
As a result, the following defining qualities of Food Elitists and Realists emerged:
The Food Elite:
  • They are college educated, high earners representing about 16% of all households.
  • Food represents a primary luxury purchase.
  • Their food style is comprised of natural/organic ingredients and they crave authenticity in their food’s place of origin, simplicity and heritage.
  • They are voracious consumers of food media and prefer to shop where retailers understand the “foodie” lifestyle.
The Food Realist:
  • They represent 84% of households.
  • Their consider food to be less a luxury and more a pragmatic necessity rooted in family and tradition.
  • They are more likely to eat traditional and conventional foods often based on long held communal rituals.
SAI found that the Baby Boomers who drove the luxury boom in the 1990s and 2000s are now at a life stage where the want less clutter, and turn instead to food to fulfill experiential luxury. Similarly, Millennials tend to lead lifestyles that are defined more by what they’ve done and experienced than by what they own. Food, family and wellness are of much greater importance to both subgroups. “Food fits right into this value set and has redirected their spending in that direction,” SAI wrote. “The same standards that they applied to hard luxury goods are applied to food as well.
“This belief along with taste considerations is driving the fervor among upper middle class consumers for locally sourced food, for the use of natural rather than artificial ingredients, and an obsession about the quality and origins of the ingredients,” the firm said.
Food Realists are guided by a “more is better” mindset that equates value with packaging and portion size. Cost and convenience are of the utmost importance. While certain market brands “signify familiarity and quality” and indicate “a risk free purchase” to this segment, they aren’t necessarily loyal to merchants in the quest for the best prices. Their concept of entertaining revolves more around snacking occasions, and indulgences are limited to special occasions.
As for how marketers can use the aforementioned observations to influence both sides of the consumer coin, SAI offered a few recommendations. First, get to know consumers and their purchase motivations. Understanding those unique sensibilities can be an advantage when it comes to positioning products. Paying homage to a product’s authenticity is also a great idea, considering both Elitists and Realists are drawn to foods that convey cues associated with historicity/locality and traditionalism.
For more tips and a fuller explanation of the differences between Food Elitists and Food Realists, click this link to obtain a free copy of SAI’s whitepaper (registration is required).

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