Home cooking vs. ready meals: brands need more consumer insight, says Engage

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Home baking boom

Home baking boom

Two seemingly contradictory trends – one which suggests a rise in home cooking and another which projects double digit growth in the ready meals market – underline the importance of brands becoming more intimate with their consumers’ apparently contradictory behaviours, according to customer insight agency Engage Research.

Not long after John Lewis reported a 126% rise in sales of silicone bakeware and a 70% year-on-year rise in sales of cooling racks on the back of the popularity of shows like Great British Bake Off, a new report from Key Note – Ready Meals 2013 – has suggested the ready meals market in the UK is set to grow by 20% over the next five years.

Ready meals: sales rise

Ready meals: sales rise

Key Note’s report found although home cooking has been experiencing a resurgence, there remains a strong demand for ready meals in the UK, especially during the week. Moreover, a growing number of working professionals are eating at their desk, which has also boosted ready meals sales, while consumers living on their own are also likely to eat these products. 

“There is a seemingly unstoppable rise of convenience shopping,” said Lyndsay Peck, director of Engage Research. “Our current fast paced lifestyle suggests that many of us are putting together our weekday meal options on the go, as we leave work, as we get out of the station and rush for those last minute pieces. We get a picture of a time-poor consumer, keen to keep costs down and shop for a bargain. This seems to contrast with the growth in cooking from scratch, though the occasions on when we do either are likely to be different.”

Given this steer, Peck argues, brands would be well advised to get closer to and better understand the behaviour of their customers because understanding customer behaviour is the greatest currency available to brands today. This means there is real potential for brands to benefit from an ethnographic approach to their research. Observing and discussing the ordinary activities of people in their naturally occurring settings can uncover more insightful information about what people do, rather than what they say they actually do; this might not sound much but the impact can be significant. It allows for a more personal and in-depth view of the participants, their behaviour and choices in order to provide valuable insights about how, why and when customers might choose brands or new products and the role that these will play within the consumer’s life.

Ethnographic exploration can help brands understand the role for cookery as well as convenience products for different people and at different points in time. It can help brands understand what people consider to be “cooking from scratch”; definitions vary wildly – for some it may be the serving of a sauce from a jar with pasta cooked separately whereas for others it mean starting with raw ingredients; some make cakes with a recipe and raw ingredients whereas other would still consider it baking if they had to add an egg to a packet mix. Ethnographic research can help understanding of what drives these behaviours and what motivations are at play.

“To some consumers who are rushed all week baking a cake occasionally makes them feel like they are cooking properly for their family; for others, cake baking can be an important creative outlet,” said Peck.

“Ethnographic research enables brands to observe and monitor anything from food preparation rituals to food storage habits and from cooking equipment to cookery skills;  which products are given priority position at the front of the cupboard and which are pushed to the back, and why? Which products only make it as far as the “back up” store cupboard? We look at what we term “real life packaging”, observing how easy or difficult families find it to manage types of product packaging, which can be used by brands to inform new packaging options. It can also monitor eating occasions, frequently videoing family eating occasions to look at how, why and when certain foods are included.

“This enables brands to witness actual behaviours; seeing the consumer in their natural environment, with nothing artificial or contrived to influence the findings. There are now many examples of brands taking rich insights obtained through ethnographic research and utilising them for tangible effect. All sectors can use this form of research effectively, particularly when minute observations and insights can have such an influence. Rather than making marketing or product development decisions based on instinct or a general feeling for the way the market is going, only closer consumer research can provide brands with detailed insights on which to rely.”