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Coping through food

Food’s role in helping Canadians connect has never been more important

As Canadians entered 2020, they could not have foreseen what the new decade would bring. The lives of all Canadians—and indeed everyone around the globe—have been upended by COVID-19, making the future even more difficult to predict. While predictions at this time are challenging even for the most confident of prognosticators, companies and brands can look to how Canadian consumers have, thus far, reacted to the current pandemic to map out their plans for moving forward.

At Mintel, we’ve been tracking Canadians’ reactions to COVID-19 since early March. What have we learned? While anxiety levels rose quickly in March, they appear to have levelled off as of mid-May, in terms of consumers’ concerns about exposure and the impact of the virus on their lifestyle. While COVID-19’s impact remains stark, our findings show Canadians are resilient and are adapting to what has become a new normal. Such findings can provide some comfort to grocers in that Canadians are responding to an utterly new shopping experience and have adopted a “search and extract” mentality, with 70% of Canadians making fewer trips to the grocery store and 69% spending less time at stores when they do make trips.

For food and drink manufacturers looking to introduce new products on shelves, these findings represent a challenge. While grocers and manufacturers should by no means shun new innovation, it does highlight the need for brands to be cognizant of what Canadians are going through to inform their innovation and messaging strategies.

Much of the innovation that has taken place in food and drink has related to physical well-being. COVID-19 has accelerated a movement that Mintel has been monitoring, which is food’s relationship with emotional well-being. As Canadians practise social distancing, the link between food and drink and emotional health has never been so important to so many.

For Canadians right now, emotional well-being is manifested in their ability to connect. Our research shows there is no other aspect of life that has taken on a higher priority than staying in touch with family and friends. And when social distancing measures are relaxed, Canadians most look forward to spending time in person with family and friends.

While there’s been a general increase in the number of food and drink launches incorporating ingredients that promote calmness and stress reduction in recent years, food and drink’s more general role in offering comfort at this time is readily apparent. When asked about health and wellness in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, just over a quarter of Canadians say they are eating more indulgent food and drinks to help (them) cope, which is slightly ahead of the number of Canadians who say they are taking more supplements/vitamins to help boost immunity. These findings suggest Canadians are looking to balance their emotional health with their physical health.

Feedback also shows that nearly half of Canadians claim to be cooking more from scratch, and while this is undoubtedly influenced by the fact Canadians are eating out less, it can be argued that cooking can be therapeutic in a time of great uncertainty. In this context, baking’s surge should come as no surprise given that 86% of Canadians who bake agree that baking for someone is a way to show love, while three-quarters agree that baking with family/friends allows them to connect emotionally.

A path to relevance in an era of uncertainty is in providing consumers with a sense of grounding. Brands that help consumers tend to their emotional needs in addition to their physical needs can come through this tumultuous time in an even stronger position.

This article appeared in the June/July issue of Canadian Grocer.

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