2021 on a plate – what comes next?

By Alex Smith, managing director of The Story

“Everyone needs to eat, so we’ll be fine” – words we have often repeated to comfort ourselves in the dark moments of this year’s crisis while running our small food and drink agency. 

In part, that’s been true – so far, our clients including Sipsmith gin and Tony’s Chocolonely have kept products moving swiftly off the shelves to offer a much-needed pick me up.  But the climate is tough and we don’t expect the sector to snap back to anywhere near ‘normal’ next year.  Nor do we want it to.

There’s uncertainty and economic instability on the horizon.  But this won’t stop the best of the sector opening up to new possibilities, stoking its creative fires and coming up with delicious solutions to the problems generated by our current situation. 

We’ve spent lots of time talking to influencers, journalists, suppliers, wholesalers and clients.  Here are some quick thoughts about how 2021 could play out on your plate – and how brands can jump right in.

Better business

Brands like anti-slavery campaigners Tony’s Chocolonely have seen record sales during the pandemic despite their above average price point.  Yes – the chocolate is ridiculously tasty, but shoppers, shaken into a state of greater social awareness by this year’s crisis, are still keen to buy better.

Brands with real clarity on why they exist will gain and keep their listings.

The new luxury

We expect the definition of ‘luxury’ food shopping to change forever.  With tightened belts, shoppers who may have invested short term in the odd premium item will be calling into question whether they really need it.  A frivolous £30 treat purchase might now be downgraded to £10 – or deleted. 

There is an opportunity here for brands to build something around more than just taste to get them over the line – creating an experience and making spend meaningful.

Nutrition as a luxury or a necessity

It goes without saying that health has shot even higher up the agenda.  We should expect to see many new health products enter the market.  This area will reflect the biggest disparity between rich and poor. 

The affluent ‘worried well’ will spend heavy on new products and products that promise prevention.  Meanwhile many blighted by food poverty will be struggling to buy better quality produce and making it last longer. 

The basic stuff like cooking at home is an area for homeware and retailers to continue to explore at all levels.  People still want good digital content to help them eat better.

Eating out – yours or mine

It is one thing to see people rushing out to eat while social restrictions are in place but the issue of whether dining out will bounce back in 2021 will be more complicated than that.

Top end restaurants creating dishes you’d never replicate at home will be packed with the fortunate few craving the white tablecloth experience.  Sub £10 street food will also thrive as a low-risk, high-impact treat. 

But the restaurants in between, where we so quickly and thoughtlessly flocked before the pandemic, will struggle to cut through with a mass market brand position. 

The time is now for those brands to embrace creative collaborations and emerging new talent with kitchen takeovers and pop ups. 

While seven days a week of scratch cooking may not stick for good, FMCG brands and home delivery services will benefit from us eating at each other’s houses more frequently.  Perhaps we will prepare some foods from scratch but will be open to cheating at other times. 

So who wins at food and drink?  Those who don’t want ‘normal’

The reality is that many food and drink brands will see just getting back onto an even keel and keeping the lights on as a win in 2021. 

But uncertainty and adversity present enormous opportunities for challenger brands who demonstrate purpose, agility and original thinking.  Those brands that see nothing as ‘set’ and every day as an opportunity to pivot and roll with constant change will be the ones that respond best to the market needs. 

These are the ones to watch and the ones we get out of bed to work with.  Here’s to a better tasting 2021 on all fronts.



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