Big Food & Women Go Together Like Oil & Water

Grocery store produce

Women control 93% of the $1 trillion spent on food purchases in the U.S. annually, and they are chomping away at Big Foods.

These are the women who as early as 2008 were saying they wanted healthy attributes, guarantees of freshness, safety and pure ingredients, according to a comprehensive study fielded by Boston Consulting Group and published in the book, Women Want More by Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre. It was revealed that women also wanted to make connections with food producers who ensure social responsibility and encourage philanthropy. And women across all of the lifestages and demographic segments studied, said they would trade up to get the kind of quality they want in the food they purchase for consumption at home.

Based on all of the research collected, the authors concluded that delivering food of the kind that women really want was one of the largest and most essential business opportunities of the female economy.

So, who was listening? Well, not Big Food companies.

An analysis by Robert Moskow of Credit Suisse found that the top 25 U.S. food and beverage companies have lost an equivalent of $18 billion in market share to smaller companies since 2009, watching their control slip from a combined 49.4% share in 2009 to 45.1% share in 2014. Their dominance of the core U.S. market seems to be slowly eroding. “I would think of them like melting icebergs, Moskow says. “Every year they become a little less relevant.”

And there is a great deal of recent talk about the inevitable erosion of Big Food companies as we know them today. Most of which don’t even mention women specifically.

From the media:

  • “One thing is clear: Big Food is suddenly looking like an underdog.” ~ Beth Kowitt writes in Fortune
  • “Quite simply, big brands are losing one of their most valuable assets: consumer trust.” ~ sums up in AdAge

From CEO’s of Big Food companies

  • “We are well aware of the mounting distrust of Big Food. We understand that increasing numbers of consumers are seeking authentic, genuine food experiences and we know that they are skeptical of the ability of large, long-established food companies to deliver them.” ~ Campbell Soup Co. CEO Denise Morrison
  • “We look at our business and say, ‘How can we remake ourselves?’ ” ~ Richard Smucker, CEO The J.M. Smucker Company
  • “I’ve been doing this for 37 years,” he says, “and this is the most dynamic, disruptive, and transformational time that I’ve seen in my career.” ~ Steve Hughes, a former ConAgra executive who co-founded and now runs natural food company Boulder Brands.

From retailers:

  • We are changing the grocery assortment to appeal to shoppers that want “more choices that support their wellness goals. That means more natural products, more organic, more gluten-free items that have simple, cleaner ingredient labels.” Brian Cornell, CEO Target
  • Walmart announced a new policy urging suppliers to reduce their use of antibiotics on farm animals, limiting it to medical purposes, not to spur growth.

From activists:

  • “Learn the lessons from our countries – GMO is not worth the risk. If allowed, you will have GMO contamination of non-GM crops and nearby land for many years to come” ~ Jessica Harrison, Coordinator of the GM-Free Australia Alliance (GMFAA).
  • 92% of consumers believe that GMO foods should be labeled accordingly ~ 6/14, Consumer Reports
  • Even Neil Young is singing about the woes of Starbucks, Monsanto, and GMOs in his upcoming album, “The Monsanto Years.”



And they are cutting out what they don’t want while actively seeking more natural and healthy  alternatives.

According to Anita Gandhi, Vice President of Strategic Services at Experian Marketing Services, women have stopped buying “diet foods and drinks.”


There has been serious pushback against chemical-laden “diet foods” in the last five years:
  • sales of sugar-free foods are down 15%
  • fat-free foods have dipped 17% (low-fat is down 13%,)
  • low-cholesterol foods are down 22%
  • natural and organic foods are up 10%

That doesn’t mean women are any less health-conscious than before. Instead, the definition of “healthy” has evolved, says Gandhi. Now women are gravitating toward natural and organic foods.


  • Diet cola sales have plummeted 21% since 2009
  • Non-cola diet soda sales have dropped even more, by 26%
“People saw diet soda as a healthy alternative,” says Gandhi. “You could drink soda [thinking] it doesn’t have the calories and sugar.” Yet in the past five years, we’ve seen an influx of information touting the “negative impacts of even diet soda, the chemicals in it,” says Gandhi.

Grocery cart

Also, Alexia Howard, a stock analyst who follows the packaged food business, cited a few more factors contributing to the decreases in Big Food business.

  • Millennials who began forming households after the recession and are led by moms who are “better educated and are less brand loyal than earlier generations.”
  • The rise of social media has also led to a “massive online conversation about what to eat and what to avoid — and concerns about the additives in many heavily-processed foods are on the rise,
  • Lastly, advancement in distribution methods are extending the shelf life of fresher, less-processed foods

So, what can marketers and Big Food companies do now?


A great place to start is one of the recommendations offered in Women Want More. The authors suggest that to truly understand women and to seize the opportunity of the female consumer, companies should follow what they call the four R’s:

  1. RECOGNIZE – be aware that women are looking for food products that are healthy, natural, more organic and are environmentally and socially responsible.
  2. RESEARCH – conduct extensive research through intensive listening, analysis and understanding and analyzing current products.
  3. RESPOND – learn from the research by offering transparency with ingredients in products produced, being authentic, delivering less artificial, GMOs, unsafe ingredients and more sustainable processes.
  4. REFINE – constantly refine products to respond to the research, changing conditions and shifting sensibilities.

A few changes some companies are already making

In the Fortune article mentioned above, Beth Kowitt notes that the traditional packaged-food companies are having to change. Below are just a few developments that have happened in the past half year.

  • Some are buying their way into the natural space by acquiring small health food companies.
  • Kraft Foods is removing synthetic colors and artificial preservatives from its popular mac and cheese.
  • Tyson announced it is eliminating the use of human antibiotics in its chickens raised for meat.
  • General Mills has already removed genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from its original Cheerios, and is now cutting sugar by 25% in its Yoplait yogurt.

The big guys can learn from the little guys: Unlike Kellogg and Kashi

KashiThe AdAge article mentioned above, revealed how Kashi (purchased by Big Food giant Kellogg Co. in 2000) hopes to reconcile their unsavory products with today’s more educated and health conscious female consumers.

They plan to let the ad agency creatives figure it out.

Yes. Seriously. In a request for proposals, recently sent to ad agencies, the Kashi brand, included the following:

“Most of our food supply comes from factory farms, is dependent on GMOs and chemicals, and is not sustainably grown or raised.”

Yet, when criticized for using genetically modified ingredients two years ago, Kellogg CEO John Bryant, stated that Kellogg would be moving toward using more non-GMO ingredients in Kashi. In response to declining sales at the time, Bryant said that the company needs to do more to make Kashi popular again with “forward thinkers” on the nutrition front.

“Where progressive nutrition was seven or eight years ago is now mainstream,” Bryant said in an interview.

Wait. What? So, he knew that progressive nutrition was mainstream two years ago, yet Kashi is now “dependent on GMOs and chemicals.”

Let’s review the four R’s from Women Want More, once again. To recognize and research what women want, without responding and reacting, is likely to get you into even more trouble.

For instance, in the same interview Bryant declined to say when he expects Kashi sales to turn positive again.

“I’d rather stay away from that,” he said, noting that Kashi is still one of the biggest natural foods brands on the market.

In August 2014, Bryant announced that Kellogg would be moving Kashi back to it’s roots in La Jolla, California, ” to be more in-line with that community,” Mr. Bryant said. “So I expect it to have a faster impact than, say, turning around a more of a mainstream business.

So, as a female consumer, I am really confused now.

Kellogg went from realizing that consumers wanting good nutrition was considered mainstream in 2013, to not treating it as mainstream in 2014.

Bottomline, Kellogg should have been reacting to what women are saying they want, by making real improvements to their flagship brands like Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies and All-Bran, instead of downgrading the quality of Kashi.

This could explain why in February 2015 Bryant had to deliver the dismal news that the company’s U.S. morning-foods net sales fell 8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014, making it the division’s seventh quarterly decline in a row.

It will be interesting to follow the agency that is awarded the task of convincing women that chemically-laden Kashi, is still one of the biggest natural food brands on the market. They will have to do this of course without saying “all-natural” due to settled or impending lawsuits claiming deceptive advertising on Kashi’s part.

To Big Food Companies Buying Organic Brands: Be Transparent. Keep it Honest.

Whether smaller organic companies being bought by Big Food companies is good or bad varies pending the individual companies. If an organic company is bought and loses its original DNA, taking on the likeness of the corporation, you end up with Kashi. But corporations able to provide an influx of capital can also serve to empower the smaller company enabling it to thrive.

The key for corporations moving forward is going to be TRANSPARENCY. Women are gaining more knowledge about and passion for healthy foods. And they are showing off with their pocketbooks.

Information like the Washington Post published recently from Michigan State researcher Phil Howard will become more available and women will hear about it, find it and share it with their closest 500 friends through social media.

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 4.48.29 PMHoward has tracked organic brand acquisitions or alliances by major food companies since 1984. This list shows 92 organic brands that were acquired by one of 2013’s largest 100 food processors.

“Some of these big companies go out of their way to hide their ties to the organic labels,” said Howard. “They know that consumers tend to be skeptical of the corporations, that a person who buys organic is often someone looking for an alternative to conventional food.”


Healthy food with pure ingredients, that is safe and free of GMOs and chemicals. Sadly, they simply want “authentic, genuine food experiences.” (to borrow a line from Ms. Morrison of Campbell) 

This is not a fad and it is mainstream. It’s time to respond and start bringing better food to the table.



Click here or on the image above to view the complete list of 92 organic brands and their respective parent companies.



Stephanie Holland is President and Executive Creative Director for Holland + Holland Advertising,Birmingham, AL. Working in an industry that is dominated by men, she is one of only 3% of the female creative directors in the country. Stephanie works mostly with male advertisers, helping them successfully market to women. Subscribe to She-conomy by Email

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