Are gluten-free foods just a fad?
Back in 2006, brewery giant Anheuser-Busch™ marketed the first gluten-free beer when most consumers and manufacturers barely paid attention to the specialty diet meant for the gluten intolerant. Half a decade later, the gluten-free food market is exploding and marketing executives are cashing in on what promises to become a $5 billion industry by 2015.
"Gluten-free has become a new buzzword," observes Debra Marrano-Lucas, Ph.D., University of Phoenix School of Business marketing instructor and marketing industry veteran. "Advertisers are picking up on this and exploiting the term in their market materials."
Gluten-free food products were originally intended for individuals diagnosed with celiac — an autoimmune disease that affects 1 in 133 Americans. Today the high-priced retail food is rising in popularity among gluten-tolerant consumers, primarily as a weight loss alternative. However, notes Marrano-Lucas, mainstream marketing seems to be fueling the latest gluten-free attraction rather than an increase in celiac sufferers.
Marrano-Lucas says we've seen consumer consumption trends like this before. Grocery aisles are lined with fat-free, sugar-free, soy and organic foods that tantalize consumers with their marketing allure of having a health benefit, she explains. Now sections of grocery aisles featuring gluten-free products are attracting average consumers, many of whom are perhaps unaware of some negative side effects associated with adhering to a gluten-free diet, including possible weight gain.
"As for making [a product] a [marketing] sensation, the messaging has to connect and talk to the right audience," says Marrano-Lucas, who helped develop a variety of University of Phoenix undergraduate courses in integrated marketing communications, strategic business communications and events and recreation management. "Creating buzz through social media and public relations [also] keeps a product front-of-mind."
However, Marrano-Lucas acknowledges the rapid growth of the gluten-free market is, in part, because such products hold real health benefits for the increasing numbers of both diagnosed and undiagnosed cases of celiac disease that marketers are now targeting. Yet it appears many marketers are simply following the general marketing principals that help create such mainstream sensations.
"Marketing is a process," explains Marrano-Lucas, that's steps could lead to widespread public awareness of a product type, like gluten-free foods. The fact that gluten-free products, in this case, attract a consumer base outside those affected with celiac disease shows the magic of such effective marketing steps that, in part, include marketplace analysis, audience targeting and assessing whether the marketing plan as executed is a success and ought to continue. As for the latter, it is clear that such a marketing plan is working, regardless of whether it's a consumer trend or medical need.
Anheuser-Busch is a trademark of Anheuser-Busch Inc.