DIY Market Research for Specialty Food Producers

This information was created by Sara Talcott, a brand and growth strategist for craft food and farm businesses with over 10 years of experience leading marketing for brands like Chobani and Maple Hill Creamery. It is a resource ideal for value added producers or those growing and raising niche agricultural products. 

What is market research and why is it important? 

Conducting market research is the process of gathering and analyzing data, insights, and information about the competitive landscape and your position in your category, and how this can inform and help your brand grow in a healthy and sustainable way. The end goal is to more deeply understand your brand’s key aspects and how you measure up against competitors, and where to put your resources to strengthen or shift your position in your markets.

You already know a lot about how your business is perceived by customers and within the local market, just from the day-to-day work of running a local food business. Market research is a more methodical approach to researching sales data and channels, consumer trends, and changes in your markets. It’s a shift of focus off of your business to more deeply understand the “whole picture” of your current market and consumer and your growth market and consumer, and where opportunities and challenges live.

How do I start?

Every food brand will approach market research differently based on their end goals and resources. It’s unlikely that small food brands in the US have the resources to purchase syndicated data–e.g., the sales data sold by the large grocery / retail data houses such as IRI and SPINS, or expensive trend and market reports supplied by large consumer research firms. However, it’s possible for small farm value added producers to obtain similar data and insights via free or low-cost routes, especially if you can dedicate time and effort to this process. 

As you discover and compile information, it’s a good idea to collect all information in one place so it’s easily accessible and shareable for you or future team members, business partners, funders, etc. An easy way to start market research is to break up the areas of research into the following sections, which will also provide directional information and direct resources. Keep in mind all of these areas overlap to some extent in how to obtain insights and data.

Market Research – Areas of Focus & Resources

Category Research
Category research focuses on learning more about the category your brand lives in–e.g., your brand and all of the competitors who are making and selling similar products at both a local level and national level. For example, if you are making salsa with ingredients that you grew on your farm, your competition is not only other small farm salsa producers, but other specialty small batch salsa brands that are targeting a similar audience. It’s vital to understand the growth potential and competitive set in your specific category that this research provides if you’re planning on growing your brand. 

Here’s some places to start: 

  • If your brand is in brick and mortar grocery retailers, visit those stores quarterly to see what’s on shelf and where you’re at on shelf. Talk to grocery managers and department managers to get an idea of how much the category has grown / is performing, what products are performing well, and how shoppers are shopping this category. You’ll also want to check out the category via the retailer’s website / online shopping and via third-party grocery shopping apps, such as Instacart (more on that below).
  • Subscribe to free, category-specific trade journals in your category. You can find these by a simple internet search, e.g., “dairy trade magazine”, “specialty gourmet trade magazine”, etc. These journals are a great short cut for getting category specific data and trends delivered right to your inbox every day.
  • Sign up for your competitors’ (large to small — local, regional, and national) e-newsletters, promotions, and social media feeds to see what others in the category are doing and saying to their consumers, which will inform you of directional trends and how your competition is carving out their space.

Consumer Trend / Sentiment Research
Consumer research focuses on how your consumers are thinking and feeling, who they are, where they live, etc., and how all of this translates into what drives people to purchase in your category. It also helps you understand how to better communicate and position your brand to your current and potential consumer, and may reveal opportunities for new product development. 

  • If your current website is not running with Google analytics, and if your social media pages don’t have integrated business accounts set up, and if you’re not doing email marketing, work with a digital marketing professional so you can begin tracking where and how your consumers are finding you digitally, which will give you some hard data on your current consumer. 
  • Working with your team, create three “consumer personas” for your brand. Think of three types of real-life consumers who already love and buy your product, and flesh out their lifestyle: age, household / family mix, household income, location, buying habits, beliefs about food, etc. Clarify a distinct “why” for each persona–what drives them to choose your brand over competitors. 
  • Subscribe to health-specific consumer publications which provide insight into current consumer trends and sentiment around food and health. 
  • Subscribe to food cause / food justice publications, which provide extensive insight to disruptive, ahead-of-the-curve consumers who are driving demand for more sustainable and regenerative food, and who actually drive most of the innovation up the chain for food production. 
  • Sign up for free white papers and newsletters focusing on consumer behavior. Many of these sites / services offer free overviews and information (you can ignore the upselling). 
  • Keep in mind that consumer behavior data and overviews are useful to an extent but limited by generalizations and are only directional at best. You know your current consumer the best; keep an open mind to trends to connect the dots between the consumers who buy you now, and the ones who are likely to buy and become brand loyal outside of your local market / in a larger market. 
  • Again, leverage social media to more deeply understand the relationship consumers have with your brand and your competitors. You’ll understand what excites them, what drives them, and what is important to them by reading their feedback / viewing their engagement on your pages and your competition’s pages. 

Sales Data & Sales Channels
Understanding your own sales data in the context of your category, larger data trends, and exploring new sales channels are all part of sales data research. When growing your brand, it’s vital to be able to know how you’re performing against your competition, or to at least have a clear idea of how your sales and growth are tracking. 

  • Compile your quarterly sales data into reports of 12, 24, and 48 weeks at overall brand / business level and then at sales channel specific level (for example by customer or by retail outlet). This will set you up for ongoing reporting that is useful in the retail context. 
  • Ask your retail buyers and partners for internal sales data or records to cross-check your performance based on your own distribution and revenue records. 
  • If applicable, set up a free Instacart account to ensure that your brand listings are updated, optimized for consumers, and ready to go if you choose to enable campaigns. 
  • Sign up for a free account with Byzzer for free category insights and reasonably priced ad-hoc reports if you’re thinking about purchasing data. This is a recent launch by the data giants to specifically help small brands get actionable, understandable data without a huge price tag. 
  • If you are in brick and mortar retail, research and record your competitive set’s pricing structure / SRPs and promotions on a quarterly basis to help you understand the general trends in pricing promotions in your category / best practices for pricing promotions. 
  • If you are looking to grow beyond your current retail footprint, research retailers you think may be a good fit for sell in, including retailers outside of traditional grocery. 
  • Engage the help of a broker or sales consultant who has direct experience in both your category and the retailers you’re looking to break into. 
  • Sign up for free grocery trade journals, which are a great resource for understanding and familiarizing yourself with local, regional, and national retailers.  

Examples of category specific trade and trend websites

Beverage Industry for juices, wine, cider, tea, and other plant based beverages. general trends for food and beverage.

Feedspot a list of top food related magazines.

Prepared Foods trend reporting for value added food products.

Specialty Food Association access to food producer community and trends.

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