It’s been a good year for food porn.

Kraft Heinz’s Super Bowl slot depicted a man addicted to watching frozen food heat up, while in the UK, Marks & Spencer brought back its “This is Not Just” food campaign that did much to bring the phrase into common use when it first appeared in the mid-2000s.

Unlike first time around, these TV campaigns are reacting to a trend most are tapping into at home, on social media. It’s now almost impossible to browse online without bumping into oozing yolks, giant milkshakes, or slow-mo shots of gooey cheese.

At the time of writing, the hashtag #foodporn was displaying over 211 million posts on Instagram; more than three times the number for #healthyfood, and more than #dinner and #lunch combined.

Images of food are common currency online, and alluring photography has become a go-to marketing strategy for retailers, CPG brands, restaurants, and any business with some connection to food.

But with the benefit of our research, we can show that in order to generate business and establish long-standing relationships with consumers, marketers have to think beyond the ooze.

Why our eyes are bigger than our stomachs

Our brains are programmed to view food as a scarce resource. When we see images of food, we get hungry. And with the explosion of visual media in the last decade, we as a species are being confronted with more images of food than at any point before in history.

As psychological research has shown, our brains are wired to “hunt” for food, even if it’s just a representation of it.

It’s no surprise then that social media, with its constant stream of images, is fuelling what neuroscientists have called “virtual hunger”. Using it in marketing appears an obvious choice, since it allows businesses to stimulate a psychological need. 

Brands are only one part of the equation, however, as they’ve been contributing to a movement consumers are all too happy to partake in. One commentator has even likened the act of taking photos before eating to a modern-day version of saying grace

If you try to imagine the kind of person who likes to take their phone out and capture a meal, you probably have a certain demographic in mind.

So it may surprise you to learn that 35-44s are the most likely to share photos of food they’ve eaten, whether they’re at home (35%) or at a restaurant (32%).

The biggest sharers of food photos are older than you might expect.

This is just one of many places where how consumers interact with food online isn’t always what it may seem.

Social media and media planning

As food images have spread online, branded food content has become increasingly popular.

Over 40% of internet users in the UK and 46% in the U.S. have either browsed pictures of food or watched food videos on social media in the past month. This follows fairly predictable demographic patterns, with women and younger internet users the most likely to do so. 

But this doesn’t always translate into consumers changing their behavior. 

We can break this down into two parts; how food content influences dining out, and how it impacts buying products to prepare food at home. 

meal inspiration choices

For restaurant visits, social media does play a role. But word-of-mouth suggestions are proving more influential than branded content.

As social media has become more visual, in many instances, there can be a decent overlap between suggestions from friends and aesthetically pleasing shots taken from the restaurant.

But even in our image-saturated world, research shows the “three Ps” still dictate our dining out decisions the most; price, proximity, and peer recommendations. 

On the home kitchen front, it’s a similar story. Friends’ recommendations on social media are more influential than branded content, and the most popular sources of inspiration are mostly from legacy media.

In this case social media trails websites/apps and TV shows. And recipe books, a strikingly offline medium, have proven very resilient, ranking ahead of social media for all age groups, and in both the UK and U.S. 

Consider the implications of this – food content is extremely popular on social media, and yet consumers don’t tend to use this content in their meal planning.

The discrepancy may arise because a lot of food content is consumed as entertainment, and stops there. Consumers may be inspired to eat, but there’s no guarantee of their behavior being a direct response to a brand whose content they might have viewed. 

Education, not just salivation

Our research alludes to how brands involved with food can build meaningful relationships with their consumers.

First, we have to consider the audience food content is most popular with:

Food content viewers skew young, and they’re less likely to actually be interested in the kitchen, or have an influence in it. 

In our Core research, only 32% of 16-24s in the UK and U.S. are the main ones responsible for food shopping in their household.

Beyond these practical constraints, there’s another intriguing trend at work; younger internet users are more interested in food and drink then they are in cooking specifically

How interest in food changes by age

But when we get to older age groups, this reverses. As consumers get older, they become less interested in food and drink as a concept and more interested in the mechanics of actually preparing it.

Any food content broadcast to the world on social has to consider its end objective.

What works as a popular or entertaining piece of content may not necessarily drive the bottom line. For example, appetizing content will likely hit a large audience, and will be useful at generating awareness, but driving a purchase may require a different approach. 

This gap between having an interest in food and cooking for younger internet users invites brands to step in and play an educational role. As a practical example, think back to the most influential factors when deciding meal choices. The biggest outright factor is the ingredients a consumer has at hand, and this is true across age demographics. 

So an ingredients-first strategy could be one prong of such an educational approach, and it’s already working for some.

This summer, the ever social-savvy Jamie Oliver launched “Vegepedia”, an online resource that gathers recipes and lists ingredients along with nutrition and preparation tips, all carefully linked to his social media accounts.

While it won’t work for every food-related business, it’s a good example of how content marketing for food can work online.

Building the marketing menu

When it was originally aired, Marks and Spencer’s “Not Just Food” campaign became part of the public consciousness in the UK, even though it only ran for three years.

A commonly quoted stat says that the campaign boosted sales of its melting chocolate pudding by 3,500%. 

But as with many things, food porn can now be found in many places. It’s so abundant online that branded content can easily be consumed as entertainment and not followed through with meaningful consumer behavior. 

Appetizing pictures of food will always serve a purpose – as many brands have shown, nothing generates discussion quite like it – but brands have to consider the bigger picture and think about other ways of marketing with food that can fulfil their objectives. 

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