food innovation

Food Product vs Food Marketing

I stumbled upon an old Steve Jobs interview where he lays out what happens when tech companies — specifically those with monopoly power — adopt a product-first mentality versus a marketing-first mentality. By adopting this kind of approach, he laments, companies eventually lose sight of staying connected to consumer needs.

The interview really hit home for me, because it eloquently encapsulates so much of what I see happening in the food industry today. In fact, Jobs even cites PepsiCo as a prototypical marketing-first company.

The interview excerpt is embedded below, followed by my thoughts on the parallels to what’s happening in the food industry.

"The product sensibility—the product genius—that brought them to the monopolistic position gets rotted out by people running these companies who have no conception of a good product versus a bad product..."

A Lack of Innovation Investment

If big food companies want to survive in the future, they need to completely rethink how they innovate and how much they invest in innovation. Launching funds and incubators is certainly an important part of an innovation strategy, but companies also need to figure out how they can create great products for 21st century consumers. No longer can they succeed by solely milking their legacy products for diminishing shreds of market share with lavish marketing campaigns.

Are the monopoly powers in big food in marketing mode? Absolutely. At PepsiCo, from 2013 to 2015, the company spent 3.1 to 3.6 times more on advertising and other marketing activities than they did on R&D.

Source:  CB Insights

Source: CB Insights


At P&G it’s about 4-5 times more spent on advertising than on product development.

Source:  CB Insights

Source: CB Insights


Compared to other industries, the CPG industry as a whole spends 1.58 percent of revenue on R&D compared to 13.38 percent in tech and 11.15 percent in healthcare. Food is just not investing in its own future via product innovation.

Source:  CB Insights

Source: CB Insights


People Want Better Food, Not Better Marketing

Since the Green Revolution, food production (especially of the packaged variety) has been pretty opaque. Enamored with fast, convenient food, consumers didn’t seem to care enough to ask where things came from.

For decades, big brands really didn’t have to think too hard about the product, vis a vis how wholesome it was, the quality of the ingredients and the integrity and sustainability of the process. R&D was mainly focused on food science to prolong shelf life to unprecedented lengths or dosing a snack’s salt/fat/sugar content to trigger the maximum bliss point in your mouth.

Marketing led the conversation in big food, not product. As Jobs stated, “for PepsiCo, that might have been ok,” especially because of their duopoly over the market. While marketing is a crucial part of the business that won’t ever go away, the future of food means a return to food products taking center stage.

Product Takes the Lead

We’ve entered the age of product-first, marketing-second food. It’s a paradigm shift driven by consumers who now demand better food, and can see right through the bullshit of any disingenuous campaign. Smaller challenger brands, like Back to the Roots, Justin’s and Sweetgreen, are leading with well-crafted, wholesome, sustainable products first and letting that be their marketing focus. Gone are the days of cheap catch phrases or mascots to sell product, it’s the product quality doing the selling now. Digitally powered word of mouth weeds out the subpar, so you really can’t hide behind anything inferior for too long. This shift back to product-first food production is a good thing.

There are some great people doing amazing things at big food companies today, and I’m optimistic that they will help their companies lead the charge for a better food future. Yet, I’m shocked at the number of people I’ve encountered in leadership positions at food companies who treat food like a mere widget on the shelf. Yes, food is a widget, but it’s one that’s inextricably linked to the well being of our planet and society. Maybe selling food as a mere marketing exercise is a good strategy for moving units, but is that really how we want to look at our food system?

In tech companies, the product people are the designers and programmers who have the consumer’s best interest in mind and who craft the products for marketers to sell. These are the people that Steve Jobs championed and raised the bar for the whole industry in Apple’s heyday.

In food companies, we must ensure that food designers, chefs, farmers and dietitians are empowered in the right decision making circles to create food that’s better for people, planet and profit. Intrinsically great food products might mean less work for the marketing department, but certainly more value for the consumer.

The Future of Food is Everything

There’s a trend in the Future of Food discourse, where a single thing, like Soylent, is touted as THE Future of Food. Case in point: 

I get it, a strong, simple declarative headline grabs attention and clicks. No one wants to click on a headline like this...

“The Future Of Food Is A Diverse, Plant-based Diet, Produced By A Local, Organic, Crop-rotating, Agricultural System Paying Workers A Fair Wage Under Safe Working Conditions, And Possibly Delivered By A Mobile-app Centric Distribution Platform, But Sometimes Purchased At Your Local Farmers Market" 

...even though we as a society should be clicking on things like that. Nuance doesn’t play well in media, food media included. 

But the thing that bothers me more is the idea that one, or just a few things, can represent something as broad as the Future of Food. I can’t tell you how many times in conversation at an industry event, on a panel, or Q&A session I’ve been asked something like “is [blank] the future of food?” 

Soylent seemed to fill in that blank a disproportionately large amount of times. I usually answer that dystopian inquiry about Soylent like this: 

Soylent was made for a certain persona: the kind of person who’s so focused on something, that they don’t have the mental capacity to think about what to eat. Soylent fills that discrete need and as long as we have highly productive people in our society, something like Soylent probably has a market. But the idea that our whole society will stop eating real food is ridiculous and alarmist. The future has room for all kinds of food products, and just because someone is chugging Soylent, doesn’t mean you should worry about the end of restaurants or farms or food. Next question. 

I know I’m taking these headlines very literally, but we need to get out of this mindset that just one or a few things can save ourselves and our food system. During the Green Revolution, someone probably said, “The Future of Food is Corn,” and thus our monoculture ag system and corn addiction was born. 

We need to change the Future of Food conversation to embrace a more diverse basket of ideas and solutions working together. 

Cultures meat grabs a lot of these headlines too, and you can answer the, "Is cultured meat the future of food?" question similarly to the Soylent question. While cultured meat might not play well in a high end steakhouse,  it might be a great replacement for foods that use lots of dirty factory farmed meat. And in other cases, plant based "meats" might be the best option, or simply eating roasted carrots might be best. 

We shouldn't be putting all of our faith on any one thing if we want a food system that's more resilient to danger and able to feed everyone in the most  environmentally sustainable way as possible. 

So what is the future of food? It should be a little bit of everything. But it's also having the ability to look at the bigger picture and realize that reductive conclusions are certainly not part of a better food future.

More Ambitious Visions of the Future

Cooper & Kirk

Cooper & Kirk

In 1973, Martin Cooper was the head of Motorola's communications systems division. At Motorola, he was one of the earliest innovators to question the notion that communication meant being tied to a desk with a corded phone. Cooper was also an avid Star Trek fan who reveled in the futuristic visions of that sci-fi classic. 

For him, solving problems at Motorola by day and dreaming about science fiction by night were simply different expressions of the same activity. In fact, he attributes the sight of Captain Kirk speaking on his wireless communicator as a key inspiration to his greatest invention: the cell phone. 

The cell phone happened in part because Cooper was thinking ambitiously about the future, but was able to turn it into action for today. The 50-year vision he saw in Star Trek led to his 5-year vision of creating the elements that would lead us to the first mobile phone. 

Was it inevitable that society would eventually figure out how to create the cell phone? Or did Star Trek’s popularity inspire engineers to the point that we created the cell phone much earlier than we would have without the show? However it happened with Cooper and Star Trek, there’s a valuable lesson we can learn about why we should seek out and embrace incredibly ambitious visions of the future to improve what we’re creating today.

Breakthrough innovations are like bonfires, but so often the realities of today’s business environment extinguish the smaller fires you need to start that lead to the big flame. The problem is, most businesses are set up to overvalue short term gains and undervalue potential long term value. This creates an environment where incrementally innovative projects—the small fires—get attention above all else. 


But what Cooper did was see the bonfire first (Star Trek), then reverse engineer the smaller fires needed to get to the big one. The order in which you think about long and short-term timeframes matters to the outcome. You get a very different innovation outcome if you think long term first (What’s my 50 year vision?…) and short term second (…what needs to happen in the next 5 years for my 50 year vision to come true?) rather than the other way around. 

On Star Trek, a future reality was shown where one of the most core assumptions of the day regarding telecommunications was eliminated: the cords. If Cooper continued to hold on to the cord as a key assumption, he would’ve never had to figure out how to amplify a wireless signal, miniaturize the circuitry, or develop a more portable battery. The 50 year vision he saw of cordless communication, paved the way for his family 5 year plan to work on the smaller innovations—antennae, miniature circuits, portable batteries—that would get him there. 

I’ll always advocate for food innovators to draw inspiration from things like science fiction to help build a better future of food. Like Cooper’s vision of a cordless communication future, what infrastructure in the food system might make the most impact if we rethought or replaced them? Eradicating CAFOs? Getting rid of traditional supermarkets? Rethinking farming subsidies? 

What infrastructure would want to see reinvented? 

Open Sourcing Food Entrepreneurship

In nature, the more species there are in a system, the more diverse and strong that system becomes. The system evolves with diversity, as preferred gene variants improve species and the system as a whole. Conversely, problems happen when the system becomes too concentrated and a monoculture forms. The system becomes one-dimensional and is susceptible to disease and other threats

Food Innovation for Today and Tomorrow

As food innovators, we must remember that there are many flavors of innovation and they each serve a strategic purpose based on the needs of the customer and business. Incremental innovations support and extend existing product lines with new features or by serving adjacent customer needs. On the other end of the spectrum, breakthrough innovations create entirely new product categories and customers, boldly moving the industry forward.