Getting past short-term data blips.

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EVP & Group Director, Anthropology

I was speaking at a session organized by the Food Marketing Institute yesterday when someone asked me an important question.

How do you know that your observations about the shifting meanings around fresh food will stay post pandemic when we’re surrounding by so much data on short-term behavior?

The answer lies in the simple fact that we don’t study consumer behavior. We study the meanings consumers assign to a topic, trend or idea in culture.

Meanings are created through the words we use when we’re trying to understand, make sense of, or simply talk about a topic. We identify and quantify these meanings so we can home in on the most dominant meanings shaping the future of a topic or trend. The amazing thing about meanings is that they aren’t created overnight. New meanings develop around a topic typically when new knowledge develops and circulates in consumer culture about that topic. So it takes time for new meanings to develop and grow in relevancy, until they eventually occupy a space that is dominant in the culture of a topic – thereby playing a role in shaping its existing and future reality.

We study these meanings and we measure their changes over time, examining a four-year-window at any given point in time. This allows us to focus on identifying meanings and shifts in meanings that are here to stay.

Let me give you an example.

In the context of fresh food, the meanings around food waste have grown and accelerated through the pandemic. Food waste isn’t a new problem. It has always been in the back of the consumer’s mind. But the pandemic has brought the issue back to the forefront especially in the context of fresh food. Now, the consumer believes that if, let’s say a retailer offers the freshest food…then they must automatically also have one of the best waste minimization or management programs.

The fresher the food, the more one must care about minimizing waste.

This relationship isn’t new. But it has certainly grown and strengthened through the last 12 months. We can see and measure that shift. We can see that the issue has become relevant to millions of additional consumers in a way that it hasn’t been in the past.

Since we see this shift through the lens of meaning rather than behavior, there’s no way for us to be distracted by short term blips. Meanings take time to change – usually years. Nothing changes overnight in culture as much as the media may make it sound like it does. Studying topics through the lens of meaning gives us the purest picture possible of the state of the union, and where it might be naturally and organically headed in the mind of the consumer.

This is what we’re very good at. This is why we wake up in the morning with purpose and a sense of indelible excitement.

What do you want to research today?