Trend vs. Fashion: which is the best to follow when launching food and beverages?

March 31, 2021

Reading time18 minutes

Consultant with over 35 years of experience in the food industry in different countries in the Americas, Sandra Mian explains the difference between the two movements and their consequences for the industry in their new product projects


Challenged to fascinate consumers who are more connected, discerning and having new habits, the food and beverage industries unfold over the years to understand market movements and to be able to launch products that reach expected levels of assertiveness. The mapping of trends that are on the rise is part of the process of analyzing and defining companies’ innovation projects.

But, in several cases, what is understood as a trend, in reality is a fashion resulting from a trend, warns Brazilian consultant Sandra Mian, a food engineer with solid knowledge in anthropology and food studies and over 35 years of experience in the market, living since 1996 in Canada.

“This is extremely important to consider, because if an industry focuses on a product or something that looks like a trend, but in fact it is a fashion resulting from a trend, fashion can pass more quickly than it is able to produce and make this economically viable production ”, reinforces Sandra, who admits that she is literally passionate about food.

To explain the difference between a trend and a fashion, the consultant goes to the definition of terms according to the Michaelis Dictionary: 

Trend : 1. Natural disposition that leads someone to act in a certain way or to follow a certain path; inclination, predisposition. 2. Evolution of something in a given direction; guidance. 

Fashion : 1. Excessive interest or fixation on something; craze. 2. Way or style of acting.

In summary, trends are plastic, happen in a long period of time, and are driven by macro events that cross the whole society. Fashion, on the other hand, is the visible cultural effect of trends, explains Sandra, who accounts for consulting, lectures, and workshops in companies and universities in Brazil, USA, Canada, and Mexico, approaching topics such as the paradox of food and health throughout history, trends in the retail market, history of food and cooking, psychology and anthropology of food, and food applied to the development of new products, using trends as a tool for new product development.

To exemplify what a trend is, Sandra uses the figure of the iceberg: everything that is behind, underneath the water, is what will promote that, at the top, we see the tip of the iceberg, the trend

“A flavor, a texture, an ingredient or product, in fact, is the result of systemic processes. And this is very much the result of all macro trends and all social processes. ”

Barbecue sauces and smoked flavors, for example, which are very present in the United States cuisine, originated in the South of the United States. Its popularization was the result of the migration of blacks from the South, in the 1960s, to the great cities of the North, such as New York, Detroit and Chicago. “One way for them to show themselves, to assert themselves as a social group, was through food, which is the famous Soul Food.”

And so it happened, in Brazil, with the Italians in the region of São Paulo, and the Germans, in the South region; and in the United States, with Mexicans who entered the South, and today the Americanized profile of Mexican cuisine is all over the place.

Fashions come and go. “That is why it is important for the industry to map these fashions and to know how to get the best out of them”, she defends.

Can you tell us about the difference between trend and ‘fashion resulting from a trend’?

Trends are plastic, in the sense that the world is irreparably modified by them. Trends happen over a long period, which the current of French historians ( École des Annales ) called “ la longue durée ”, The long duration. The trends are driven by macro events, which cross the whole of society. Trends happen without the intervention of a person, an ‘influencer’ or a company, no matter how important that company is. 

Fashion is the visible cultural effect of trends. Fashions woo advertising, trends don’t. 

A fashion, to happens, must be sustained by this advertising, whatever it may be. Unlike trends, which are plastic and transformative, fashions are elastic: fashion passes and the world continues to revolve, they do not change societies in depth. 

We can also say that fashion is what people are doing and trend is the why and in what way people are doing those things. 

However, the best way to understand these two concepts is with clear examples. Nowadays it is said that plant-based proteins, which simulate meat, are a trend. No, they are not. These foods are a fashion due to megatrends (or the great paradigms) such as sustainability and well-being (in this case, not only physical, but spiritual as well). 

One of the answers found for the sustainability trend was the creation of plant-based proteins, since one of the widely disseminated data today is that the creation of animals, especially cattle, produces high amounts of greenhouse gases. Countless other solutions could be created. Plant-based proteins are one of the countless possible responses to the sustainability trend. 

Now imagine that you can work on raising animals in the so-called regenerative farming system and that it is confirmed that the carbon footprint of the meats produced through this system is the same or less than producing all-plant proteins. Simulated meats will most likely lose the appeal they have today. If they were really a trend and not a fad they would not be affected.

Another example: gluten free. Gluten free foods were a fashion created – literally created – to try to respond to the great trend of healthiness. See what is happening: even olive oil today has a “gluten free” label and this is a clear sign that fashion is running out. 

Another practical way is to ask yourself if the product (or service or ingredient or whatever) you have doubts about whether it is a fashion or a trend disappearing, what will be the consequences for society and the planet. Take the example of ‘vegetable meats’: if they no longer exist, if they disappear overnight, what will really change significantly in the Food System and in society or on the planet? Even if you are the most radical vegan, nothing serious is going to happen. Now imagine that sustainability was something that disappeared in the same way: what would happen? Would there be implications for the country or the planet? I think the answer is very clear with this type of questioning. 

Someone my age, 60, has seen other fashions before: margarine versus butter, eggs and low-cholesterol foods, light foods, sugars, carbohydrates, etc. All these fashions have passed, but the tendency to be healthier, through a good diet, among other things, continues. 

Fashions will, like all fashion, lose strength until they disappear. People are so tired that they end up being forgotten as soon as a new fashion appears. The trends, however, remain and gain strength. They change over time and often merge with other trends, forcing everything on the way to change. 

Trends influence business models. Fashions influence advertising campaigns.

There is a need to always offer something new, innovative to consumers. How can the food and beverage industry know, what precautions can it take to understand if the flavors, the products pointed out as a trend for the next year, are really a trend or if they are a fashion resulted from a trend?

Trends do not indicate what will be the flavor of ice cream fashion for next summer nor what will be the new miraculous super food that will solve all your problems, according to some commercials. These predictions of flavors, colors, products, ingredients are fashions stemming from major behavioral trends or from what is happening in the global catering industry, which is one of the best indicators for identifying the fashions to come. 

The industry must have a clear awareness that these products and flavors will not last in time. Some may even remain, but most will be forgotten. However, it is important for the industry to map these fashions and to know how to get the best out of them. This is exactly what some companies do, which end up “creating” fashion for the following year in such a way that they control the dynamics of the market.

What are the risks of a company betting on products that are just fashion?

I want to make it very clear that it is not a bad thing to follow the fashions, whether they are one year or several years old. Often, the food industry sees something that lasts for 5 years and thinks this is a trend. Any industry that can quickly, and without significantly affecting its costs, produce something that the market is looking for at that moment, is on the right track. 

What the industry cannot do is lose sight of what trends it wants and can really follow its business model. There are companies that work on mass products. There are others who work with high-end products and each of them will have to choose their path, respond to trends as they can. 

What is dangerous, however, is an industry focusing on fashion and losing sight of the trend. What is a trend? I’ll give you an example from the late 90’s, early 2000’s: the fashion was products reduced in fats. Like all fashion, it penetrated areas where two concepts clashed: ice cream. Ice cream is a pleasure in the solid (or semi-solid!) state, but several companies – and even some huge ones here – believed that the frozen yogurt had come to stay. Unfortunately, the short-term view prevailed. They set up complete factories, with specific equipment, invested heavily in R&D to arrive at “the best frozen yogurt”. But the fashion has passed and these companies are, some until now, looking for what to do with the equipment, which were developed specifically for frozen yogurt. 

Who was right was a company like Haagen Dazs, who understood that people did want to eat healthier and with less fat, but for that they did not need to remove the fat from the ice cream. On the contrary! What they did was the famous line ‘3 ingredients’, “super rich but very small sizes”. In other words, they reduced the portion sizes, but increasing people’s pleasure in enjoying real ice cream. It worked wonderfully, so much so that they keep making the ice cream more sophisticated and always in small portions.

Both companies were under the sign of the same trend: healthier eating. Only some followed a fashion. Haagen Dazs followed the trend and more the psychology of food consumption . And also something super important: understood the semiotics of ice cream , what ice cream really represents to those who consume it. 

What are the main aspects that influence the formation and consolidation of a trend in food? Can you give us some examples?

All food trends follow megatrends, the great paradigms that currently govern the entire planet: 

1) climate change and resource scarcity;
2) demographic and social changes
3) accelerated urbanization;
4) technological advances;
5) changes in global economic power and social inequality.

We must also take into account, in addition to paradigms or megatrends, the factors of permanence or change that can cause trends to accelerate or slow down. 

The 5 megatrends influence food consumption trends, of course, but with different intensity, depending on the type of industry, region or social, economic, political events or, as in this current period, by a global dimension pandemic. 

I mapped 5 macro trends in food. Other trend mapping professionals subdivide these megatrends into 7, 8 or more. In my mapping I arrived at the following macro trends:

  1. Sustainability;
  2. Health and wellness;
  3. Individualization and practicality;
  4. Eating for a cause;
  5. Cost and social differentiation. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated, for example, the trend towards sustainability, health and well-being. 

In other words, an event such as a pandemic, a war, an economic crisis of global dimensions (such as the 2007-2008 crisis), a major technological revolution, or in the most local case, a serious political and social crisis in a country or region, can cause trends to accelerate. Therefore, the importance of being always very attuned to the changes around us, because they do not always arrive as abruptly as the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Social and behavioral changes are extremely important and we must always be mapping what is going on in society, not necessarily what is mainstream , but mainly more peripheral movements. If these movements start to gather and gain strength, they will carry with them changes in behavior, including behavior in food choice.

Again, let us look at an example from the not-too-distant past: in the 1950s, processed foods were considered to be the best in American society. They represented modernity, the victory of the post-war ‘American way of life’. Unprocessed foods, in their natural state, were considered something backward, from the past when the United States did not yet dominate the world. 

But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, small social and behavioral movements began to emerge among young people around the world and especially in the United States and Canada. These young people showed their discontent with the status quo through clothing and the arts. Clothing is something that changes before eating. 

As an anthropologist once said, it is easier to change the height of your skirt than to change your favorite wine. But this generation of the 60s, the hippies , ended up – as societies have always done in all historical periods – also using food as a way of expressing their ideology and worldview. And they went in the direction diametrically opposed to consumption considered the normal pattern of American society: they began to consume unprocessed products and, even, women returned to breastfeed their children, in a clear form of protest to the system. This generation ended up creating a trend that today is mainstream: the most natural, organic food, which thinks about health in a holistic way, that is, not only about the person, but also about the environment. 

It was this generation that created Whole Foods Market. And this trend has generated fashions – not in a pejorative sense, but ‘fashion’ as the visible part of the trend – different in response: vegetarianism, veganism, whole foods, clean label, etc. Many of them can remain, settling in and becoming part of the habits. Others may disappear. But everything indicates that the trend will continue for a long time to come. 

In fact, if we look at history really in the “longue durée”, we will see that this type of trend had already happened in several eras: in Greece and Ancient Rome, in the Renaissance, in the middle of the 19th century.

In other words, whoever maps trends – be they in tourism, education, food or any other area – has to be very attentive to social movements, because they can drive trends or even create new trends. On the other hand, even these social movements are not dissociated from other factors, such as economic ones, and that is why it is not possible to look at only one aspect, but the whole. History teaches us that it repeats itself in cycles. Watching for signs that one cycle is ending and another is starting is the big secret. 

When is the right time for a trend-based launch?

It is very important to keep in mind the company’s ability to promote the trend and even help to drive it and where the trend is at: if it is still incipient, nascent, if it is starting to settle in strongly or if it is already installed. Some companies, due to the very nature of the products they manufacture and sell, are able to quickly position themselves in relation to trends. Others are created from scratch according to the trend. 

Let’s give some examples to make this clearer. A company like Quaker Oats has as its flagship a product that was already perfectly aligned with the movement of hippies and the natural food they preached. The company simply adapted the product communication to the new public: what was sold as a product for the traditional family, for a quick and practical breakfast, started to be advertised as a natural product, with little transformation. The nature of rolled oats allowed this. In fact, Quaker does this constantly and in recent ads it said that its products “were natural and clean label long before it became fashionable”.

For most companies, however, the ideal time is when it identifies having a critical mass of users for the product that allows the profitability of the new launch. Or, in the case of an extremely financially sound company, to invest and consolidate the brand or product before the others enter the market. Whole Foods Market is one of the best examples in this case. They started as a small cooperative of natural products exactly where there was a significant consumer group of the supermarket concept they were creating. But more than anything, they were able to read between the lines of society and identify that there would be much more public for the market they were creating. 

Another company that perfectly understood what was happening and that launched a product right at the beginning of the trend was Hain Celestial with the Celestial Seasonings line of herbal and flower infusions. 

It is not possible to draw a definitive line in these cases, there is no white or black. It is necessary to evaluate the type of company, the type of product, the critical mass of consumers, etc. What should be avoided at all costs is to try to place a launch that requires a lot of investment at the beginning or at the end of a cycle. 

Why do these products often fail?

There are countless reasons why a product will not work. Most of the time it is because the product did not correspond to what the user really needed or desired. Another reason is what was mentioned above: the market was not yet ready for the product. I myself participated in two launch projects here, in Canada, of products completely aligned with the trends, but the Canadian market was not yet mature enough to buy those products in industrialized form. People were starting to make it at home and consume it in restaurants, for example. But there was no critical mass of consumers that would allow the product to survive on the market until the trend set in. 

This was an example – sad, because the products were really incredible and today other companies market similar things – of a premature launch. The concept was perfect, but for markets like British Columbia or California and not for Québec or Ontario at that time. 

There is something that is very important and that every company should keep in mind: innovating also means taking risks. There is never a 100% certainty that a product will work well in a market. The human being is not predictable and, even with immense quantitative market research saying that 100% of people say they are going to buy the product, it is not even possible to be sure. In fact, this is also a major failure factor: relying too much on statistical data and leaving aside the user’s deep understanding. 

On the other hand, if two different concepts collide in the same product, the chances of success are really very small. The example here is what was given earlier, that of frozen yogurt. Apparently, it was a product that had everything to work. But in reality, it was just the appearance. It had everything to go wrong, because the concepts of healthiness and pleasure clashed. And it is exactly this type of product that can present incredibly good results in quantitative research, but that would not withstand half a dozen in-depth ethnographic interviews. 

Here we could spend a long time discussing the pros and cons of the type of research to be done in the early stages of new products ideation. I am from the school that prefers to have a ‘deep understanding’ of the users’ needs in this phase of product concept creation. And this deep understanding is not achieved with statistical data. In other words, qualitative research of the ethnographic type is what has given the best results or which at least maximizes the chances of success. 

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