As a girl born and raised in the suburbs of New York City, it’s safe to say that I have enjoyed some of the best pizza, bagels, and pasta that the world has to offer. Over the years, I’ve eaten whatever I wanted and my trips to the grocery store were fairly straightforward. My primary concern as a 20-something-year-old shopper was selecting items that fit my budget before considering other qualities like taste and ingredients. I was living the easy life… until I visited my doctor a few months ago and discovered that I have a gluten allergy. Just like that, I had to change the way I think about, select, and consume products forever.
I knew that foods made with flour, like traditional versions of bread, pasta, and most baked goods, were off the table now (literally). So, I began my shopper journey by looking at online reviews of gluten-free brands and pinpointing what qualities were important to gluten-free consumers. I came to learn that, as great as reviews are in general, they can be even more meaningful when it comes to niche categories like gluten-free products. Having access to other consumers’ opinions on specific brands served as a great starting block for making my own selections as a new consumer diving into the category.
Once I established the brands I wanted to try based on their reviews, I grabbed pictures of their packaging I found online and went to the grocery store. I assumed my favorite brands would now be off limits, but I was surprised and delighted to see traditional manufacturers as well as new companies with viable alternatives. Finding the gluten-free aisle and locating the options for bread and pasta that I wanted was easy. However, the first few trips to the store opened my eyes to factors that informed what I call my “gluten-free filter.”
I had no idea some products contained gluten in the first place. I learned this in real time as I browsed the “regular” aisles at the store, and only due to the bright, bold “GLUTEN-FREE” call-outs on some of the packaging. A quick search on my phone confirmed that, yes, I needed to be wary of gluten in many multivitamins, hot dogs, soups, soy sauce, ice cream, pre-made salad dressings, and gravy, among other foods. Even beer presented a challenge! Therefore, the call-outs on packages of sneaky gluten “offenders” became vital for me to look for in the future. (Some of the more traditional brands familiar to me take advantage of this, which increases the likelihood of them being the first choice for gluten avoiders!)
“Gluten-Free” somewhere on the product is the first line of defense to give me the confidence to place any item in my cart over another product that may very well be gluten-free, but fails to call it out on their package.
Conversely, I forgot to research brands for other products (besides bread and pasta) that contain gluten, and only realized this as I visited the store with my “gluten-free filter” engaged. Products like crackers, cookies, breadcrumbs, and pancake batter needed to be replaced, and this is where my existing brand relationships played a greater role in selection. A couple of major companies that produce “regular” forms of breadcrumbs and pancake mix but seized the opportunity to develop gluten-free alternatives, won me over immediately. My loyalty to and recognition of these brands (based on prior knowledge of their tastiness from my carefree, gluten-filled former life) shined through before I considered their lesser-known competitors. The default choice of a familiar, reliable brand became more instinctive and intuitive.
In my exploration of the world of “gluten-free,” I quickly noticed that there appear to be two general strategies when it comes to packaging for products that qualify for consideration. On one hand, some brands opt for large, high-resolution photographs on their labels and packages of the morsels contained inside. I interpreted this as an attempt to reassure customers that their gluten-free products look familiar and taste just as yummy as their traditional counterparts. On the other hand, some companies feature additional healthy or alternative ingredients used in their products (things like “organic” or “fair trade”) to make their product stand out. Signaling these additional features and benefits on their labels and packaging were even more reasons for me to choose those brands, over the product that simply communicated “Gluten-Free” on the packs.
All in all, the combination of online research, brand recognition, packaging promises have helped me navigate this journey to make safe choices and become gluten-free. Of course, the First Moment of Truth, choosing the product, is followed by the Second Moment of Truth, actually experiencing the product I chose. Despite a few disappointing meals of soggy pasta, dry bread, and not-so-sweet sweets along the way, most products are living up to their packs. But those who didn’t meet the Second Moment of Truth, won’t get a repeat purchase, no matter how enticing the packaging.
When it comes to making major diet adjustments, especially out of necessity or a desire to be more health-conscious, it truly takes cognitive consideration to determine the brands and products that are not only appealing, but also work best. Packaging will definitely be a key component of my consumer choices, and ultimately determine what will pass through the “gluten-free filter” and into my cart.
Erin McAllister is the Marketing Coordinator at PRS IN VIVO and is part of the Global Marketing Team. Being interested in both behavioral science and marketing, she has greatly enjoyed learning about the world of market research from her expert colleagues. When she is not at the Teaneck office, she can be found at the gym, cooking new recipes, or watching any thriller she can get her hands on.