Four Things the Food Industry Should Leverage to Remain Relevant

The goal of any food service establishment is to be able to remain relevant as new trends and consumer needs emerge. The past five years alone have seen leading international brands miss the trend roadsigns, such as McDonald’s in the fast food category and Applebee’s in the casual dining segment, to name just a few. The risk of losing relevance and meaning is on every food operator’s mind, as Millennials drive new food demands and day-part behaviors, and determine who is winning or losing market share.

Just as the food industry is grappling with the onslaught of Millennials, there is a new emerging trend on the horizon that will significantly influence how the industry needs to evolve to remain competitive and viable. Since our firm specializes in designing foodservice experiences, we are keen to help our clients become nimble at capitalizing on these potential emerging trends.

One of these new disruptive trends is “normcore.” Emerging from the fashion industry, it is now reflective of a new attitude towards brands and branded experiences. The term first appeared in the webcomic Templar, Arizona before 2009 and was later adopted by Greg Fong and Emily Segal, founders of fashion trends consulting firm K-Hole.

Although the fashion industry quickly embraced this new term as the next wave to influence what we wear, the founders’ original premise for normcore had nothing to do with clothes. The term had more to do with attitudes towards lifestyle and a move away from consistent individual expression as a means of fitting in by embracing conformity as a way of being hip. In essence, normcore is less about leveraging brands in defining a person’s self-identity and points to a trend that is quite the opposite – it finds liberation in being nothing special.

This new emerging trend is driven by Generation Z, individuals born after 1996, and comprise around 60 million consumers. By 2020, they will outnumber Millennials and become the next generation to have a significant impact on the food service industry. So how does the food service industry remain relevant by embracing Generation Z and their desire to conform? I have outlined five factors to take advantage of this emerging trend:

1. Grey is the new black

New restaurant designs that embrace normcore will evolve to effectively appeal to Generation Z as part of their lifestyle desires. First, a restaurant’s branded experience will focus less on the brand and more on the food itself. It will begin downplaying the large logo on food packaging and move its focus towards creating a sense of place. The use of strong, branded messages and corporate colors will need to reflect more neutral and inviting tones, supported by less disruptive building exteriors.

The new facility design will need to incorporate the use of familiar finishes and materials found in homes, creating a strong sense of familiarity and comfort, while ensuring the experience does not make a major brand statement. As the majority of Generation Z will be brought up in urban settings, the concept of free-standing, drive-thru restaurants will be a thing of the past. Food operators will need to rethink their location and facility design strategy, and how their brands fit into the community. Our recent work and research for a large food service provider reinforced the notion that more low-key colors and less branded experiences tend to have a high appeal amongst Generation Z consumers.

2. Less manufactured and more personalized

Reflecting on where this new trend will lead the food service industry, menu boards will need to do a better job of communicating ingredients and where they are sourced, instead of focusing on a wide range of combos and products. To succeed, the food service industry will need to rethink the entire front counter ordering and food preparation process, moving away from a food factory experience towards one that celebrates how the food is prepared and customized.

Everyone knows what they will experience when they enter some chain restaurants. One of the keys to creating differentiated experiences is personalizing the experience to both the community and the audience. Our work for Tim Horton’s Coffee House created a place that spoke to the community, with visual elements representing the area of Toronto where the stores were located. Adding localized content into store design creates a relatable environment for locals, increasing the feeling of belonging to the experience. 

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Image Source: SLD


3. Celebrate the diversity, not the conformity

Generation Z will represent the most diverse society we have ever known, with redefined marriages and families, multiethnic cities and children, and education systems focusing on all things “global.” Some researchers believe normcore is fuelled by diversity, and that its goal of blending in is a subconscious move towards a time when ethnicity will become more and more blended. Food service providers will need to be mindful of offering a wider range of foods from various cultures as multiethnic families become more ubiquitous and urban children grow up eating everything from sushi to dim sum.

No longer will the “Big Mac” be the defacto choice of the masses or a way of conforming with society. Fast food and fast-casual chains will need to reinvent their menu offering to provide a greater variety of toppings and protein types to reflect the diverse tastes of Gen Z and Millennial tastes. Hiring practices will also need to take into account various cultural nuances ranging from respect for given religious practices to holidays. The whole notion of conforming to what the cultural masses expect will be a thing of the past, and a significant irritant for Generation Z supporting the normcore trend, who will see diversity as ordinary.

4. Casual and low-key will be the new value

Casual attire and being low-key will become the key brand attributes that service chains will need to embrace if they are going to meet the needs of Generation Z. Long gone is the whole concept of increasing curbside visibility and visual impact – it’s more about reinforcing less conformist brand attributes. The notion of one design fitting every location is one that restaurants are realizing is not feasible, as Starbucks has learned in the past year, and flexibility and modularity will be the new standard and will force the food service industry to rethink the definition of creating a sense of belonging and place.

Chipotle, putting aside their food safety controversy, is a brand we can learn from that captures the fundamentals of what it means to embrace the normcore trend, appealing to both Millennials and Generation Z. The new trend will evolve brand consultants and foodservice operators current paradigm that a brand is reflective of a customer’s self-image. As foodservice operators look to the future, with the increase in food and labor costs, they will need to keep their eye on the trend that has the most potential to disrupt their business model. Ultimately, they will need to become normcore advocates if they want to conform to the needs of future generations.