January 8, 2021
The latest installment in our trend report series explores one of humankind’s most basic desires: food.
To take a closer look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our diets, we spoke to Tomoko Yamashita, president of think tank HIMEKO Company and expert in all things food.
Following an overview of our discussion with Ms. Yamashita on changes in consumer awareness and behavior as well as what we can expect for the future of the food industry, this report concludes with an examination by our in-house team on the direction food and related companies should be taking in 2021 and beyond.
“COVID-19 has made consumers more conscious about what they eat, which has in turn made food play an even more central role in human fulfillment.”
Tomoko Yamashita – Food trends for 2021
Changing attitudes: Growing awareness of food’s multifaceted nature and polarizing dietary habits
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the food environment. The way I see it, this change has provided more opportunities for us to reflect upon the way we approach food and our eating habits.
Even people who used to find eating a hassle or wanted to cut down on time and money spent on food wherever possible are starting to realize that food is incredibly multifaceted, and not just something you eat because it is necessary for survival.
How the pandemic highlighted the many faces of food
The changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have shed a light on the intrinsically multifaceted nature of food, which is intertwined with everything from safety and peace of mind to human relationships, entertainment, culture, environment, and the economy. All of these aspects also tie in to the demand for food, which of course existed even before the pandemic. But with more time spent at home and other lifestyle changes giving consumers more time to reflect on their dietary habits, the public has become much more conscious of what they eat.
Emergence of a complex polarization
I believe we’re seeing a polarization in dietary habits. What’s more, as the below table shows, this polarization is quite complex, encompassing changes occurring on both an individual and a societal level due to factors relating to the economy or values and beliefs. This trend looks set to continue moving forward.
Examples of dietary polarization
Blurring boundaries in the food market, mindfulness
The food market has traditionally been divided into to three broad categories: dining out, ready meals, and home cooking. But the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the boundaries between these categories become blurred, with consumers now able to enjoy the dining out experience from the comfort of their own homes. Some of the offerings now available to order for delivery are dishes from Michelin-starred eateries or full course meals from French restaurants complete with dishes and cutlery. There are even establishments that offer to set up food trucks outside customers’ homes and send a chef to prepare a meal, while others send consumers food kits that they can prepare along with guidance from a chef.
Japan has long been home to a rich variety of culinary experiences, and the recent situation has sparked the creation of even more services that provide consumers with cuisine that best matches their current mood, financial position, physical location, and time constraints. While these services do not replace the joy of actually going to a restaurant to enjoy a meal (in other words, the importance of location), I do believe that the line between eating out, ready meals, and eating in is going to become ever more blurred moving forward.
Mindfulness: Pickling as a form of emotional healing
During times of economic recession, such as the current downturn caused by the pandemic, people always turn to fermenting and pickling. When faced with times of uncertainty, humans seek solace and the affection that comes with nurturing or caring for something. Indeed, it was in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that shio koji, a salted mold culture widely used as a seasoning or ingredient in Japanese cuisine, saw a spike in popularity. This demonstrates the deeply interconnected nature of food and the soul—what we eat both supports and nourishes our mental wellbeing.
The COVID-19 crisis has left many worried about the future, while loneliness is on the rise due to growth in telecommuting. Against this backdrop, I believe we’ll be seeing the role of food in supporting mental wellbeing become a key societal theme.
Recent circumstances have seen a growing online movement to support restaurant owners and food producers struggling amid the pandemic. Going forward, using food as a means of engaging with oneself and bonding with others will become ever more important, and, as such, I think demand for mindful eating will rise.
Japanese consumers love “excuse foods”
A lack of a distinction between meals and snacks is one the examples of dietary polarization I mentioned earlier, and an excellent example of this phenomenon is savory cake. Fans who enjoy these cakes, which are made with plenty of vegetables and high-protein ingredients, often say they see them more as a meal than as a dessert.
Demand for what I call “excuse foods”—foods that give you an excuse to justify eating them—is a very Japanese phenomenon. Examples include chocolates that contain probiotics or have a high cacao content as well as turmeric supplements taken before drinking alcohol to ward off potential hangovers. With more time spent at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of consumers are becoming concerned about so-called corona butori (corona weight gain) and their lack of exercise. More people are looking to boost their immune systems, too. As such, these “excuse foods” will likely continue to enjoy a competitive advantage moving forward.
The crossover between food and fashion: Diet as a form of self-expression
The pandemic has given us more time to both self-reflect and think about our eating habits, and I believe this has boosted the potential of food to enrich our lives. The fashion and beauty industry has traditionally played a large role in helping consumers achieve a sense of fulfilment, enabling them to lead an enjoyable life, attain a high level of mental wellbeing, and gain self-confidence. But moving forward, I think we’re going to be seeing more people turn to food for this sense of all-round contentment.
Food has the power to change people. With that in mind, I hope that those engaged in the food industry will offer products with a well-crafted narrative.
How Generation Z and Millennials express themselves through their food choices
In countries like the United States and South Korea, the environmentally-conscious youth demographic is turning to plant-based, vegetarian, and vegan options out of concerns for animal welfare. And while there are some who choose to forgo animal products in all areas of their life, there is a growing number of semi-vegetarians who take a more flexible approach while reducing their consumption of meat where possible. I believe it is these flexitarians who are driving the market.
For flexitarians, to whom diet is a form of self-expression rather than a religious obligation, opting for plant-based foods is essentially the same as buying t-shirts made from recycled plastic bottles. This lifestyle can be adjusted freely to suit the needs of the individual and doesn’t require adherents to be bound by religious rules or hold back from their favorite foods, so I think it has real potential to catch on even more in Japan. And while this is just my own personal impression, if you include flexitarians, I estimate around one in five Japanese people are already following some sort of plant-based lifestyle.
Well-crafted messages key to bringing consumers on board with your brand
Companies active in the Japanese food market have traditionally tended to focus on promoting individual products, and have often neglected to push their corporate philosophy or brand message. With consumers becoming more conscious of their dietary choices in the wake of the pandemic, companies in the food industry will need to be constantly communicating their vision, artisanship, and passion for quality.
Communicating with consumers is essentially like playing a never-ending game of catch. And as demonstrated by the recent trends of online tipping and crowdfunding, Generation Z and Millennials in particular are highly motivated to get involved in contributing to the growth of their favorite brands. A key trend we’re likely going to be seeing across all industries is a desire to purchase from brands that resonate with one’s beliefs. The food providers of the future, regardless of size and business type, will be tasked with presenting their offerings in the context of an overarching narrative that strikes a chord with consumers.
Comments from the Dentsu PR Trend Report Editorial Team
Meeting diverse consumer needs through proactive messaging on the stories behind food and the special experiences they offer
Our interview with Ms. Yamashita suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic has seen not only a rise in demand for health food, but also growth in food’s role as a form of self-expression, personal enrichment, and self-fulfillment.
Crafting messages that resonate as consumers look for quality
“Healthy” is often used as a buzzword by food manufacturers looking to sell their goods. But when building a brand, it would likely be beneficial for companies to craft a message that strikes an emotional chord with consumers rather than simply pushing health benefits. A need for stories that resonate—about the passion of companies and producers, the safety of ingredients used, and artisanship at production sites and studios—is likely to grow. This isn’t because consumer mindsets have changed due to the COVID-19 crisis. Rather, by giving consumers more time to spend on food, the pandemic has accelerated an existing shift toward a greater level of food consciousness. A key point will be the extent to which products follow the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals—how environmentally friendly the product is, and whether clean procurement channels have been utilized.
Engaging with the youth demographic: Food as a form of self-expression
Taking a stance on food by opting to follow a vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, or plant-based diet is a form of self-expression that plays a similar role to that of fashion. Now may be a good time to reconsider how to communicate with adherents of these lifestyles. Does your product resonate with them? Does it inspire them to get behind it? Does your brand fit with their beliefs? In any case, it seems likely that messages that appeal to the emotions rather than push the specific benefits of a product will be key to success in future. And this could also be a way of engaging with consumers who did not display a particularly high level of interest in food previously.
Dealing with the increasingly fluid categories of the food market
The line between different food categories may be becoming more blurred, but that doesn’t necessarily diminish the value provided by the dining out experience. Shabu-shabu for solo diners is a form of hot pot that is very much trending at the moment, but changing the target audience and style could open up new possibilities for the same dish. However, easy access to delicious ingredients does decrease the appeal of eating out at a restaurant, and this could be an area of opportunity for ready meals and home dining offerings. The ability to order extravagant meals via premium delivery services means that the idea that dining out is for special occasions and eating in is for everyday meals may no longer hold true. In light of this, a key point to keep an eye on in the new normal will be the value that can be provided by dining out, ready meals, and eating in on special occasions such as Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day.
Trend Report Team
Information Design Division
Information Design Division
Information Design Division
With assistance from:
- Trend Report: New lifestyle watchwords for 2021
- Trend Report: Three key work culture challenges for 2021
- Trend Report: Generation Z says sayonara to labels
- COVID-19: Tips for success in online communications
- COVID-19: Three Communications Responses (Part I)
- COVID-19: Three Communications Responses (Part II)
- Six tips for doing PR in Japan