Phil Lempert has made a living from identifying and trying to stay ahead of consumer food trends, with roots forged on his grandfather’s New Jersey dairy farm, and carrying on through his father’s work as a food manufacturer, distributor and broker. Lempert, now a resident of California, has parlayed that background into a career as the self-proclaimed Supermarket Guru. For more than 25 years, Lempert has identified and explained impending trends to consumers and some of the most prestigious companies worldwide.
During the National Pork Industry Forum in March, Lempert instructed the National Pork Board about the task at hand of catching and capitalizing on consumer trends in the pork world. “Consumers and trends change, and we [the pork industry] need to change with that,” he says.
Lempert uses the analogy that a trend is like an elephant. “They’re big, and they’re lumbering, and what we typically do is we get an email, we get a phone call or we’re at meetings like this, and we try to identify trends,” he says. “In the food world, we identify that elephant, and we have our tools — I call them our bows and arrows — the internet marketing, the advertising, and we spot that trend, and we start chasing. You shoot an arrow at it, and it hits the elephant in the butt, and it just keeps running, and you’ve done absolutely nothing.”
Instead “we need to spot that trend, get ahead of it, dig a big hole and that’s how we catch it,” he says. “Running after a trend, you’re never going to catch it; it’s too late.”
Catching a trend is only the beginning, Lempert says. “Once we capture that trend, we need to keep an eye out for the next one. As soon as we think we’ve got it figured out, they [consumers] move in a different direction.”
Trends vary by the consumer demography at hand, and technology and social media have “changed everything, especially with millennials and Generation Z,” he says.
Lempert says the trends embraced by the millennials are that 28% want minimal processing, 25% want “local” and 25% want a short list of ingredients. Millennials are defined as those born in the early 1980s to the early 2000s. Generation Z is loosely defined as those born in the mid-1990s to early 2000s.
Lempert has trouble with labels such as “local” because it’s hard to define, or it has evolved over time. “Clarify local,” he says. “First it was Bob’s farm down the road; then it was in a different community; then it was a state; then it was a region. The official definition that we should all keep in mind for local is that it was grown on Planet Earth. … Local has been so powerful at retail that it has gotten carried away, that it has become elusive and difficult for the consumer to understand.”
One label that has not been misconstrued is protein. “People want protein, protein, protein,” Lempert says, and that plays well for pork producers, and he feels pork producers and the pork industry in general have done a good job, but need to get even better at promoting pork to the buying public.
“We’re in a much more transparent environment than we ever have been, and these consumers are going to find out exactly what they want to know,” Lempert says. “So you [pork producers] need to be sure that you’re out there properly communicating to all of the consumers.”
Identifying or creating a pork trend can help sell the product domestically and internationally, but as he mentioned before, “Trends can be tricky. It comes down to understanding what’s realistic. Trends that stick are things that certainly bring something new to the party, but are realistic with the food system we have today. That’s No. 1.”
Secondly, there has to be consumer interest and real value for the consumer, something that really holds on. “Sriracha is a fad; you saw the same with oat bran and more recently with kale; we’re starting to see that fade,” he says, “unlike gluten-free, which is a trend and more people are going to it because they frankly feel better. There’s an immediate benefit. Even though there’s less than 1% of the population that has celiac disease, gluten-free has become mainstream. It’s really a more scientific modification of the Atkins diet, that’s really all it is. That’s the reason people have been able to gravitate to it and embrace in their everyday lives.”
Don’t fear, though. Lempert does not see the bacon trend as fading anytime soon. “It is trendy and everywhere right now. I think we’re just seeing it at the beginning level. Reason is, bacon as a trend does not require anything different from consumers, from industry, from supermarkets, from restaurants; it is just the addition of bacon to different foods.”
He feels this will only continue as he sees bacon’s next iteration coming in different cuts, styles and flavors.
Even though consumers want protein, and the pork industry knows that pork is protein-rich, the consumer may need to be educated to that fact. “I think the animal protein industry believes consumers know that meats are protein-rich,” he says. “I don’t think that’s the case. I think you have to beat consumers over the head and say to them, ‘We’re high in protein, and it’s a good protein, and it’s a naturally occurring protein.’ It’s not a powder you have to add to something.”
He feels that pork producers may be too “close to the action” to be able to properly tell the pork-protein story. “I think we keep telling ourselves, ‘Well, everyone knows that.’ But no, not everyone knows that. I applaud what they [the pork industry] are doing with antibiotics, but they need to do the same with protein.”
Lempert sees other facets of the food chain that need to be educated about the meat industry to be able to, in turn, educate the consumer. “We’re seeing more new people come into our industry that don’t know” the meat industry, he says. “Buyers, merchandisers, and they use very sophisticated software to purchase and merchandize products, but that doesn’t mean they have the knowledge that the meat buyer might have had 20 or 30 years ago. That’s why it’s important that the message gets out both to the industry and to consumers.”
Pork needs a ‘wow’
For a product to catch the eyes, ears and tongues of consumers, there has to be a “wow” to lure in consumers. Lempert says pork producers had a “wow” with the Other White Meat campaign. “Bacon is a ‘wow,’ but I don’t think the opportunity has been grabbed enough to bring it to that level. A lot of the board is constantly looking for that ‘wow,’ but again it’s hard to find, and you really have to get back to the basics.”
Pork is the second most popular protein in the country, but “I don’t think it’s top-of-mind for the consumer, even though the sales are there,” Lempert says. “Chicken has done a good job of promoting themselves as an alternative to beef. Pork has a lot more versatility to it, and a lot more uses. Finding those ‘wows’ are critical to bringing consumer excitement.”
Once the pork industry gets consumers excited for the product, keeping them excited may take some more education. “If not cooked properly, you don’t have the same taste experience. That’s why educating the consuming public is so integral to getting more pork on plates,” he says. “That’s a combination of in-store demos, online videos. It’s working with the culinary experts that are out there to really empower the consumer as to how to prepare pork properly.”
Lempert offers the example of customers buying seafood at Kroger who get a free cooking pouch. “You take any fish, put it in this pouch, broil it in your broiler, and it comes out perfect; I’ve tried it about 10 times.”
Seafood suffers from the same safe cooking-hesitancy issues that pork does. “Consumers are afraid to make it because they are afraid ‘I’m going to overcook it or undercook it, and either I’m going to get sick, or I’m going to have to throw it out.’ So they came up with this [cooking pouch] as one solution. And I think that’s the kind of thing we need. It could even be an app that has a built-in timer. … I’ve got a 1-inch thick, 8-ounce pork chop; you plug that in, and it sets a timer, and it dings when you need to turn it over.”
This age of technology offers consumers opportunities to simplify home cooking, especially for millennials and Generation Z who have been born with this technology; “that’s what they love.”
Lempert says as millennials age, they are getting more into preparing their own meals, and they like experimentation. “They don’t want the Betty Crocker recipe. They just want a picture, if that can be coupled with a button that says here’s how you cook your pork properly. You take it, you plug in your specs on it, you take it to the oven and then it rings when you have to do this, it rings when you have to do that. It will make it easier.”
Regardless of your definition of “local,” more and more consumers just want to know where their food is coming from, and possibly even seeing who produced it.
“For 20 to 30 years we have seen chefs become the celebrities of the food world,” Lempert says. “Those days are over, they’re gone. Today’s celebrity is all about the farmer. Enter the world of the celebrity farmers who are out there really communicating their passion about their farm, their passion about their global environment, and their passion about food.”