Cooking up a storm: how can brands drive differentiation in a heavily cluttered foods market, by Ipsos’s Chirag Buch

By Chirag Buch, director, Ipsos.

One of the biggest coups that one experienced during the 2-year-old pandemic is the entry of men in the kitchen. Fathers, brothers & sons across many Gulf countries started their tryst with cooking, baking & kitchen chore that historically has been a forte of women in the region. However, as countries opened borders and restrictions on movement got lifted, lot of old habits got re-instated. Whether men will continue to cook and bake is anybody’s guess! Whether women are happier with the change, or they prefer the earlier status quo can be a topic of intense debate as well (with all the ‘after-work’ that most novice men end up creating in the kitchen!)

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A highly cluttered & heavily promotion driven space

For most women, however, the responsibility of being a ‘provider’ of food continues to be one of the major sources of their self-identity. Consequently, brands in the food categories such as spices, ghee, butter, oil, condiments etc. that form an integral part of the kitchen cabinet always had their work cut out. Unlike other F&B categories that are consumed directly by consumers, these categories aid in making the end dish cooked in the household, making the dish the ‘hero’ whereas the brand plays a supporting role. The challenge for brand custodians has always been around driving differentiation in these excessively cluttered and heavily promotion driven categories. A look at the shop floor aisle that stocks spices, condiments, oils etc. will reveal the ‘sea of sameness’ that characterises brands in these categories. However, it seems to be a typical chicken-and-egg situation and brands have partly to blame themselves for getting into such a conundrum. A look at all the communication and targeting efforts by marketers will reveal that most brands talk about aspects such as taste, quality, convenience, freshness, authenticity, health etc. and in the process portraying the homemaker as an ‘expert chef’ that knows all about the needs of her family (read husband & kids). But the question is – can a spice brand not stand for taste, quality, convenience? Can an oil brand not make the end dish tasty or authentic? Clearly, these are generic to the category and not necessarily differentiation platforms. Brands need to take the focus away from the ‘process’ of making food and the ‘end dish’ and understand the key motivations behind cooking as an activity and role of food in a consumer’s life.

Spotlight on the motivation and not on the process or product

Ipsos work in this space reveals that beyond the core motivation of caring for the family and preparing that perfect meal for the husband and kids that showcases the woman’s devotion towards her loved ones, there are more shades that explain brand choice amongst women in the region. While being a caretaker of the family continues to be one of the key motivations, other more individualistic drivers of choice have emerged over the past few years. Taking Pride in her creation is one such motivation that has transformed the way the region’s woman sees role of brands in her life. An oil or spices brand is no longer a saviour of her traditional role in the society, many now seek recognition and applause for preparing the best meal using the best of ingredients. The focus here is on personal gratification as opposed to a society defined role. And brands that help her satisfy this personal need are more likely to be picked up than the others.

Many women also expect cooking to be a hassle-free experience that saves them from spending too much time in the kitchen. And this motivation is not visible amongst working women only. Women who have traditionally spent hours in the kitchen trying to satiate their family, now want more time for themselves and enjoy life. The focus here is on ‘getting the job’ done as opposed to ‘doing the best job’. This does not mean they compromise on the quality of output but for these women, cooking is a means to an end and not an end in itself.

Finally, for many women, cooking is a chore that they must get done well every single day of the week and hence they look for more convenient and efficient ways to prepare quality meals and free up some time. Women seeking this gratification are more likely to prefer simple, basic and familiar categories and brands since experimentation takes them out of their comfort zone. This motivation is visible across life stages and work status and not restricted to any specific demographic.

What does it mean for brands?

As brands clamour to occupy both shelf space and consumer mind space, they need to step back and understand the real reasons that drive consumer brand choice. And there is enough evidence that it is not the taste, quality, health or convenience that makes a consumer choose one brand over the other. These are more of table stakes to operate in the market. The real motivation behind cooking that lunch or dinner dish could either be her selfless devotion towards family or passing it on as a necessary chore. It could also be driven by the need to take pride in one’s culinary skills or simply have a hassle-free process. Which motivation a brand can target is a function of lot of variables like size of pie, level of competition in that space or simply the brand’s medium to long term vision.