Opinion

Forget 'Big Food': Why the smaller players can be the biggest disruptors

6 min read

09 September 2019

Strong consumer insight is key to any brand’s success. In the food sector, it's the smaller enterprises that can resonate better with audiences over the 'Big Food' sector – if they know what to do.

Without good consumer insight, you’ll very easily waste a lot of money trying to sell something to someone who doesn’t really want it. By the same token, staff insight and engagement is a key to unlocking the ability to implement at speed – and take advantage of opportunities.

Consumer behaviour today

Younger consumers, in particular, are demanding more action and transparency from big brands.

Consumers generally, over the last 5-6 years have increasingly demonstrated a lack of trust in what they perceive to be “Big Food”.

This has primarily been driven by a number of food scandals over recent years combined with a perception that large food and drink corporations do not either meet their needs adequately or take their concerns seriously.

What younger consumers think

In particular, the younger consumer demographic has felt that much more can be done by ‘Big Food’ to address their actual and perceived concerns about wholesomeness and the specific health claims of individual products.

They also want more action on the sustainability of product ranges, including their over-reliance on plastic packaging and a perceived lack of innovation to source alternatives.

What kind of brands truly resonate with consumers?

Consumers have, at the same time, sought out and identified with businesses that appear to be aligned with their values.

These have typically been smaller brands and are often start-ups. What’s more, all of this has not gone unnoticed by Big Food. They are acutely aware of the less than flattering consumer perception issues they sometimes have to contend with.

Bigger food businesses aware that they are not as agile when it comes to recognising shifting consumer trends and in particular, bringing innovative solutions to market.

A number of large UK food and drink corporations have set up their own accelerator programmes and in-house venture funds designed to find the next innovative consumer-driven idea which they can benefit from once scale has been achieved.

In essence, Big Food is eager to appear small – as being ‘big’ is viewed with mistrust.

While small food businesses are (as always) keen to appear big – so they will be taken seriously by the trade, being small suits the current consumer narrative and is often an advantage.

This is good news for food and drink start-ups as the uncertainty that Big Food is experiencing is a fertile ground for the smaller, more agile disrupters.

Turning uncertainty into a competitive advantage

This has always been the entrepreneurial trump card and when done in a smart way, tips the odds in favour of the small guy.

By definition, uncertainty occupies a lot of the start-up world. Uncertainty can take many forms, such as ‘will enough people like (and buy) your product?’ ‘Will retailers actually give you the support to develop the new category you have discovered?’ ‘Will the business environment allow you to grow as you planned (e.g. Brexit) or will new regulations tilt the playing field against you?’ Or even, ‘do I have the ability to overcome my own fears and self-doubt?’

Uncertainty is all around us, but this is where we as entrepreneurs are at our best.

If we anchor our major decisions in strong consumer insight (and useful data to underpin this), we will be difficult to beat – despite Big Food holding almost all the resource cards.

One of the strengths that enables an entrepreneur to get out of the blocks is their basic stubbornness. In short, we will not be swayed by the barrage of rejections we encounter along the way.

Setting up the right structures for success

female CEO

Smaller food businesses can lead the way if they set up the right internal processes.

At a certain critical point in the start-up journey, the entrepreneur needs to listen less to their ego (which got them this far) and rely more on their EQ. They need to move from “doing everything” to actually doing less and enabling their newly-assembled team to do more of the doing.

Have a look in the (entrepreneurial) mirror

Entrepreneurs often hire in their own self-image, which can be fine so long as they facilitate and lead these self-starters in the right direction – i.e. to deliver the business vision. This can be a challenging shift of emphasis for an entrepreneur.

At Little Dish we defined this as having, “a supportive environment where we can all be demanding of each other”. Ultimately this means engaging at a high level – in an authentic way and often.

Spend time on the important stuff; make decisions according to the right criteria and implement with speed. This dynamic creates an infectious environment where the pace is high, mistakes are made, but learned from and it is a fun place to work! Possible, but less likely to be found at Big Food.