Love is Served: Food Gets a Little Emotional.

“[Food] makes you think of happy times. It warms your heart.” – Active Explorer, anonymous

kzwp2iiyxma-toa-heftibaAfter years of studying the Active Explorer, one of the most loyal and dynamic psychographics in marketing today, we’ve learned one thing: they never cease to surprise. After tracking down every food trend, from meal delivery services to sous vide cooking, that affects this adventurous group, we finally sat down and asked them a few questions about how they think about eating.

And it comes down to honesty, authenticity, and family.

The most important value for food companies, from restaurants to retail, among Active Explorers is honesty (24%). A close second was family (21%). We were expecting more exploration values to pop, like originality (2%) or innovation (1%). Maybe even adventure (2%) or discovery (1%). But no. AE’s may be pushing the envelope on self-discovery, only not when they’re hungry. The biggest values after family were ethical (9%), respect (7%) and caring (7%).

“Comfort food to me is the meal you cook after you have completely ruined a meal you were going to try.” – Active Explorer, anonymous

xksrpuh0vzo-yvonne-lee-harijantoFood is comfort, and comfort means food. That’s what our User Group played back to us. They rely on it to warm them during spells of cold weather (29%) and ground them after stressful days at work (16%). But you don’t need to be sad to reach for the mac and cheese: comfort food is what AE’s reach for when they’re in a good mood (13%) or when they’re in the mood to celebrate (11%). In short, comfort food is “fresh, fills you up, and makes you feel loved,” in the words of one respondent.

Ultimately, this is what food means to Active Explorers. It’s an emotional connection to friends and family. It’s a place to feel safe and warm. It’s a place you leave every morning, touch base at lunch, and return to at dinner to share stories, build memories, and express love.

No matter whether they’ddzyotzunbk-eaters-collectivere cooking for themselves or going out to eat, food occupies a special place in the mind of the Active Explorer. It’s a beginning and an end to the day, fuel and sustenance, an expression of honesty and family. It’s where they start and where they inevitably return. It’s a place called home.

Active Explorer Restaurant Chains: A Top Ten List

Tried and true. With a dash of spice.

e6hjqab7uea-dan-goldThat’s what our Active Explorer User Group told us they preferred when they went out to eat. Not in so many words, mind you. In general, Active Explorers are the most likely to crave culinary adventures. They love learning to cook new things, explore new restaurants, and taste dishes they haven’t tried before.

But not always. When they responded to our survey, they revealed that their default setting was a little closer to home. When deciding to go out on the spur of the moment on a Saturday night, nearly half (44%) of Active Explorers choose a sit-down restaurant close to home.

But which five sit-down restaurants were the most likely to be chosen by Active Explorers? Drum roll please…

  • Olive Garden (11%)
  • Chili’s (10%)
  • Applebee’s (9%)
  • Outback Steakhouse (8%)
  • Cheesecake Factory (8%)

The fact that these were national chains wasn’t surprising; this was a national survey. What’s interesting is who was left off the list. No Denny’s, Red Lobster, Buffalo Wild Wings, or TGI Fridays – names you’d expect to be competitive in this race.

When we dug a little deeper, we noticed something our winners had in common. Each of them has recently emphasized a value in their marketing that olivegarden575-calpromostrikes a chord with the Active Explorer. For example, Olive Garden has recently hit “fresh,” “healthy” and “gourmet” pretty hard. Same with Chili’s and Outback.

When it came to fast-food restaurants, we learned even more. Here are the top five finishers:

  • McDonald’s (10%)
  • Panera (9%)
  • Chick-fil-A (7%)
  • Taco Bell (7%)
  • Chipotle (7%)

Panera and Chipotle are perennial Active Explorer favorites, so it’s not surprising to see those place well. But we were curious to see what McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Chick-fil-A were doing right. A lot, as it turns out. All three have spent a great deal of marketing emphasizing their fresh, local, bold new menu items.

mcdonaldsbillboard2Even McDonald’s has made a big push in the Pacific Northwest, sourcing their fries from Washington farmers and putting up billboards that connected the McDonald’s brand to a sense of outdoor adventure.

What else did we learn? 1 in 4 Active Explorers said that spending time with family and friends is the best thing about going out to dinner. About the same number said the best thing about going out to eat is not having to make it themselves.

Active Explorers are, at their heart, explorers. But as we learned from our travel survey, they also like coming back to a place they feel comfortable. In the food industry, that’s where fast casual brands are making their biggest gains. There’s always a place for known quantities that are trusted brands, are convenient and reliable, but also consistently provide new flavors or refreshed menus.

Put all the Active Explorer learnings together: buzzwords, restaurants, food trends and lifestyle: what does it all mean? Let’s talk about that next week.

For Active Explorers, Food Buzzwords Don’t Equal Buzz.

shutterstock_126187640We were wrong.

Like we said in our first post about the Active Explorer Food Survey, we went into our latest study with some expectations about how they viewed the terms “natural,” “sustainable” and “gluten-free.” We thought we were confirming some things about the Active Explorer that we already knew. Some of that – well, most of it — turned out to be wrong.

But that’s a good thing. We’re happy to be wrong. Now we understand some things that get us a lot closer to right. This information may come in handy if you’re in the food industry, or even within shouting distance of it.

So, how do Active Explorers feel about the words “all-natural,” “sustainably grown, and “no trans fat?” Suspiciously, it turns out. Those terms seem to be table stakes on the grocery shelf. They’ll make Active Explorers more likely to buy those products than products that don’t have those terms – but surprisingly, they won’t pay more for those products. Let’s take a look.

Of the terms we tested, only “organic” makes Active Explorers more likely to buy and pay more. Other terms, like “fair trade,” “farmer-owned” and “non-gmo” didn’t move the needle at all. That’s at odds with what we suspected they valued in a food

And don’t get us started on “gluten free.” It was a net negative for our user group, making them less likely to buy and less willing to pay more.

What we’re learning is that Active Explorers aspire to a certain set of values, but that those values only come into play when there’s a clear, differentiated benefit for themselves and their family. “Organic” is the one value that drives purchase intent and price upward, which makes sense – it’s not just a label, but a certification, a badge that makes you feel more wholesome. That makes sense: more than half of AE’s (56%) say that food certifications are somewhat important or very important in their food purchases.

Everything else? Just words on a package.

But that’s in the grocery store. What happens when Active Explorers go out to eat?

That’s a funny story. We’ll save it for next week.