Today, consumers self-select the news they see, the ads that are served to them are based on their purchase and browsing history, and they can load a custom playlist for their next Uber ride. Big data analytics interpret our digital trail into products and services that appear to be custom built for us. We’ve entered into an era of personalization, where context and relevance reign supreme. Food is ripe for innovation to support this trend, because each person has unique flavor preferences, nutrition requirements and ethical standards that they’re unwilling to compromise. Because … why should they?

Enter the SoulFuel cookie from cult cycle studio SoulCycle. You read that right – a fitness institution that now offers a bespoke pre-ride snack, sold conveniently at locations nationwide and specifically designed to provide the fuel required for 45 minutes of high intensity cardio.

 

Photo courtesy of SoulCycle

 

The idea of personalized wellness and eating plans is not new. Since the inception of the dietetics profession more than 100 years ago, U.S. dietitians have prescribed personalized eating plans for clients, limited in the early days to hospital patients and World War I soldiers.

The Blood Type diet was one of the first to focus on personalized nutrition on a mass scale, back in 1982, proclaiming that the foods you eat react chemically with your blood type and that eating the foods right for your blood type can help you digest food more efficiently, increase energy, prevent disease and boost weight loss (although there is no substantiation for these claims).

What’s different about this trend in 2018 is the accessibility to almost all consumers, regardless of where they live or their budget. Today, for example, it’s easy to go dairy-free if your 23andMe results indicate you may be genetically pre-disposed to intolerance to lactose. Personalized nutrition counseling is a growing field, with researchers and companies eager to jump onto this trend.  Many of these programs are focused on providing personalized dietary advice based on factors like gut bacteria, body type and genetic background, despite having scant evidence that proves scientific validity.

Of course with any new way of eating, it’s important to weigh the intended and unintended consequences of some of these plans – as always, consult a registered dietitian or physician for advice and to address any questions first!

 

Photo courtesy of 23andMe

 

“This craze of ‘mass customization,’ Egan says [Sophie Egan, a program director at the Culinary Institute of America, author of Devoured], makes people feel both unique and catered to when they are able to have it their way.  It’s a ‘desire within our hyper industrialized food system to have something that feels like it meets my personal taste profile. We have access to customized and personalized food experiences at the restaurant level, at the fast casual level, and at the packaged food level and it has only increased.’ People can personalize their order at Starbucks or wherever else, and they can also purchase whatever weirdly precise flavor of chips they prefer. (For example, Barbecue, Honey Barbecue, Sweet Southern Heat Barbecue, Hot n’ Spicy Barbecue, and Mesquite Barbecue are all available from Lay’s.) Some fast-food chains have ‘secret menus’ which offer both more options and a supercharged opportunity to signal how special you are for knowing about them.” – The Atlantic, “Fancy Starbucks Drinks and the Special Snowflakes Who Order Them

Given the application of big data to deliver contextual advertising to consumers online and the accessibility of mass customization, the personalization of products, services and messages is becoming an expectation consumers have for all brands. After all, we’re each unique and special gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, flexitarian snowflakes trying to live long and healthy lives in a world overloaded with choices.

 

As marketers, what should we make of all of this? 

  • Find interesting and fresh ways for consumers to interact with your brand/product/service/campaign in personalized and meaningful ways. This can be as simple as an online quiz to “find out what type of X you are”, with enough questions to produce a personalized (and brag-worthy/socially sharable) result.

 

  • Consider the data you have and are able to collect via your target audience / users / fans / followers and make that data work for you. Do you have a mobile app? Able to poll visitors to your booth at a large upcoming event? Turn that data into information you can use to gain insight into your target audience’s needs and wants.

 

  • On the other side of the spectrum, we need to be cautious about over-customizing, where we can turn off some consumers completely while trying to attract a super specific subset. If focus group testing is an option, try out a few varying degrees of customization to learn what is the most impactful message for a variety of consumers. Even running an office pool or a Facebook question to your friends and family can help you understand if you’ve gone too personalized and specific with your idea / message.