Comfort Food in Uncomfortable Times

Munching on in the great pandemic

To say that the COVID pandemic has brought about great change would still be making an understatement. Common habits such as shaking hands with people, commuting to work, and talking to others mask-free, now seem like a distant memory.

Think of food-related lockdown trends, and you might be thinking of sourdough. Banana bread maybe. Home cooking adventures.

Trends to do with comfort creation, and a catharsis found through the act of going through steps off an instruction list, relief that comes through enacting routines.

But let’s talk about eating food.

Exploring the Meaning of Comfort Food

We grew up watching movie’ scenes of people turning to comfort foods during tough times (Hello, Bridget Jones…). In reality, we are not too different from film characters. During the 2008 recession, sales of ‘Kraft mac and cheese spiked.

Now, to cope with the new ‘isolation’ lifestyle, two in three Americans are turning to comfort food, a survey conducted by OnePoll has revealed. Sales of hot dogs, pizza, and processed snacks have soared during the pandemic. Pizza has been America’s favourite comfort food year after year, so it’s no surprise it increased its demand during the lockdown.

Why? Because people tend to associate comfort food with the idea of reward. Case in point: Back in the day, I remember telling myself that I was only allowed to have a chocolate bar once I finished my college assignment, which certainly pushed me to work more efficiently in those last-minute sprints.

But food, especially of the unhealthy, highly caloric kind, is more than just being about reward. It’s also about being soothed through consumption, when there is a need for alleviation. People seek this kind of food when they’re feeling ill or stressed, when they’re facing financial difficulties, when dealing with a break up and even when they’re grieving.

In summary, when the future feels completely unpredictable, or when things don’t turn out as expected, we clutch for the familiar.

Examining Comfort Consumption…

So, it’s really no surprise that we see a greater interest in comfort food now. Search interest for comfort food recipes peaked in mid March (when lockdown rules were being announced), before decreasing.

Now, we see them creeping slowly up again towards a new peak. This time, the occurrence is due to the dual stress of a worsening pandemic situation and the upcoming presidential elections, a stressful time for many Americans.

In fact, with a second wave of illness on the horizon, problems such as job losses, reduction in wages or work hours, reduced savings are only more likely to be top of people’s minds. With all these looming worries, Comfort food is all the more a welcome solace.

At a time when unemployment has increased, parents have suddenly lost childcare support and things seem uncertain, comfort meals become all the more beautiful. For one, approaching thinking about consumer needs from the perspective of consumers’ mental bandwidth to satisfy these needs, we see that microwaving a pizza or assembling an instant mac and cheese kit takes significantly less effort than cobbling together a multi-step meal from scratch, taking up much less mental effort for equal — if not more- satisfaction.

In these times, while some may be indulging in the desire for rituals of the tedious sort (making sourdough from scratch, for example), some are having significantly less of a good time, which calls for a form of self-care involving taking up as little time for functional adulting as possible.

Apart from the ease afforded by comfort food, comfort food consumption can also be interpreted as enacting rituals from childhood times- enacting motions that have been proven to bring joy, motions that take the consumer back to a happier time, and motions that have long been associated with not only reward but a worry-free time.

On this note, our team here at Quilt.AI decided to take a deeper look at Comfort Food. Analysing hundreds of instagram posts across four classic brands — Oreo’s, Reese’s, Papa John’s and Kraft’s Mac and Cheese with our proprietary Culture AI tool, we found some interesting nuggets of information.

Our Emotion AI analysis revealed that across the accounts, the top emotions present in the images were Affection, followed by Creativity, followed by Affiliation. The high amounts of affection and affiliation suggest that these pictures semiotically convey a great deal of warmth, with key ‘objects’ like people’ smiles, laughing expressions while looking at each other, and cheerful colours functioning as symbols signifying merriment, bonding and love.

Creativity suggests a high amount of playfulness present in these social posts, with vivid colours and aesthetics that closely resemble artwork or illustrations, like Oreo’s use of tiled images.

Rituals of Comfort in Adjacent Spaces

Interestingly, we see that comfort consumption is not only restricted to food. A quick poke-around through Google Trends found us some interesting nuggets of information: search interest for 90’s movies, Lord of the Rings and 2000’s TV series, Gossip Girl, soared after lockdown restrictions were announced in the US.

It’s safe to say that a sizeable portion of these searches come from people who have already watched these films, and are in the mood for a rerun. Unlike watching a movie for the first time, re-watching brings a less thrilling joy. It is instead the joy of predictability, of having things pan out exactly the way you expect it to, with no plot twists to trigger a hair-pulling ‘NOOOO’ moment (we’ve got enough of that in real life already).

What are some key takeaways for brands?

We see that predictability is in demand.

We see that people are willing to spend on comfort.

Nostalgia is riding high.

Whether that’s pivoting brand messaging to call up the look and feel of retro, well-loved advertisements, or positioning a product to appeal to quieter, calmer needs and wants of today’s consumers, we’re pretty sure our team would have a whole load of fun unpacking this. For more information, get in touch with anurag.banerjee@quilt.ai

Quilt.AI creates culturally intelligent AI products to achieve impact at scale. https://quilt.ai

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store