How to Define Your Food and Beverage Customers With Personas

Maybe your ideal customer doesn't even care if your food tastes good!

People at a huge dinner party
We all love good food that's convenient and a good value. Susie Wyshak

Are you selling to "Zoe" or "Bubba?"

Those are the fictional customers, or personas, that a natural foods industry sales rep described as driving food product and selling decisions these days.

If you're launching a new food business or planning your company's evolution, here's why you should start with defining personas:

Picture "Zoe" — a yoga-practicing, organic-eating, natural brand-loving young mom or single urban dweller.

And who does "Bubba" bring to mind? While you might think Bud drinker, perhaps this  fellow is evolving his tastes toward craft beer, which might explain that industry's growth.

These very questions introduce the fun practice of creating customer personas to bring to life the consumer who will love and crave your foods and / or food shopping experience.

A beer's branding and places of distribution (not to mention placement in the cooler, or not) would determine appeal to this Bubba fellow vs. appeal to Zack, a one-pant-leg-rolled-up bicyling-without-a-helmet hipster.

Example Food Shopper Personas

Mikey, the busy, 20-something, single coder who doesn't care what his food tastes like

A hoodie-wearing persona named Mikey flashed into my mind, when I received a press release from Soylent, the company that Kickstarted its "engineered, staple food," really a beverage mix.

Soylent is the perfect example of targeting a beverage product to a specific consumer — one who is too busy to make, buy or eat food.

  

The features: All the vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates, and protein that the body needs in a convenient, ready-to-drink package.

The benefits: The announcement touts that the ready-to-mix powder is "makes complete nutrition accessible to all, allowing one to worry less, buy less, waste less, and use less." The big deal is that you can do more with the time and energy saved.

 

Specific features of the new (and improved?) version of Soylent include:

  • Vegan
  • Low glycemic index
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Shelf stable

(But what about the fact that you have to wash a glass, as compared to a snack bar??)

No Flavor? No Problem

The Soylent press release did not mention the product's flavor. Digging further, you find a fact sheet describing the product's "neutral taste profile," similar to many nutritional powders. 

This persona has no taste buds and / or is simply serious about not caring one bit about food.

Side note: In contrast to pleasing this persona, the opposite challenge for feeding astronauts in space early on was delivering flavorful foods that the space travelers could enjoy despite de-sensitized taste buds. For the astronauts, the spicier and more flavorful the food, the better (something to remember for when Americans start to jet into space recreationally).

Alyssa, the Prius-driving Organic, Local Food Eater With 2 Young Kids

Back to the Soylent example. A busy mom would very likely prioritize natural and ready-to-eat foods rather than coping with piecing a meal shake together (unless fresh fruit and a blender are on hand).

In fact, products like Soylent offer an opportunity for makers of real fruit and vegetable sauces and powders to market their products as add-ins, much as for plain yogurt and other neutral foods.

The natural meal and snack bar business is booming specifically thanks to Alyssa, who appreciates texture and flavor — and the convenience of simply peeling open a package — a lot more than Mikey. Perhaps she only bought organic brands before, but now that big brands are eliminating artificial ingredients she is open to switching brands to save a little money.

This same eater may reject a delicious, organic snack food that doesn't have a resealable closure, prioritizing convenience over the actual food while on the go. Or a consumer who usually buys a private label brand may choose a brand name if sharing that food with peers, to avoid being perceived as thrifty.

Beyond the Persona, Consider Eating Occasions

What really fascinates me (personally, too) is how a particular consumer's motivation to choose foods may change depending on his or her needs at the time.

The organic food eater may indulge in M&Ms occasionally for a comfort food fix, turning a blind eye to the ingredients in pursuit of a nostalgic experience.

Don't Limit Your Foods and Beverages By Demographic

A popular first step in product development is to narrow your customer profile or demographics, or age, gender, income level and other specific attributes. 

Marketing based on demographic may be outdated. Research by the Potato Board found that attitudes of Millennials aren't so different from Baby Boomers, Gen X and other groups after all. 

Whole Foods Market has taken some criticism for stating its smaller, urban 365 by Whole Foods stores are designed for Millennial shoppers. Don't we all want fast, convenient food?

Frozen seafood appetizer company Sea Cuisine decided to develop foods specifically targeted to adventurous Millennial eaters by tapping into the Sriracha flavor trend. Big time. The company offers a Sriracha Buffalo Shrimp and a Bacon Wrapped Sriracha Shrimp.

Targeting this line to Millennials can help the company decide where to sell and how to promote the line. For example, a SnapChat campaign might be more effective than Facebook ads. Still, Sriracha sauce is pretty much loved by hot sauce fans. If the food is good, the potential is much bigger than a Millennial group.

That's what makes personas so useful.

Takeaways

Creating a food product line is so exciting and so complicated.

  • Personas will get you started on the right path.
  • Make sure that your product planning process takes into account all aspects of your product and customer experience.
  • Plan for growth, beyond today's trends and into new markets (geographic AND supermarkets).

You'll find a ton more product line planning tips in my book Good Food, Great Business. Here's to your success!