What is the Ugly Food Movement?
In Britain, they call it “wonky,” in America, “misshapen” or “misfit.’. Either way, the “ugly food” fever is a very welcome trend emerging amid (and despite) social media’s beauty standards.
In the UK, 4.5 million tons of fresh fruit and vegetables are thrown away every year because of their appearance — perfectly edible, nutritious food that will never reach grocery shelves because it is considered deformed and bad-looking.
The United Nations has designated 2021 as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables, in an attempt to encourage sustainable production and reduce waste. One of the many side effects of the COVID-19 crisis (and this is a good one) has been rising awareness of and sensibility around global issues, which has contributed to the positive evolution of the commercialization of ugly food across the globe.
Key motivators behind this trend: Analysis from our Culture AI and Search Behavior Method
People are increasingly searching for ways to minimize food loss and organic waste, and saving some money while they’re at it — even if that means renouncing cosmetic privileges and “Instagram-worthy” products.
We decided to get down to work and unfold this growing trend. We conducted qualitative and quantitative research on 150 related hashtags popularised in the US and the UK, examining over 2,000 posts on Instagram. Our Cultural AI grouped similar social media interactions into different clusters and analyzed the semiotics around the ugly food movement.
We identified four predominant codes.
1. Earth Instinct: A strong focus on protecting the planet and caring for the environment
The recurrence of phrases like “sustainable living,” “climate change,” and “future generation” indicates active concern about and awareness of the long-term environmental impact of land exploitation and overproduction.
2. Stand Together: Joining in the Ugly Food movement is a display of solidarity
Ugly food’s advocates share a deep sense of solidarity with the people affected by food loss, from farmers to people living in hunger. Phrases such as “Landfills protecting,” “local farmers,” and “zero hunger” stand out as proof.
3. Embrace the Ugly: Not shying away from the language of imperfection
Our analysis revealed expressions like “Perfectly imperfect,” “natural beauty,” “beautiful on the inside,” and “the wonkier, the better”. We interpret these as linguistic markers indicating a less superficial, more accepting society, one that judges neither a book by its cover nor a fruit by its peel.
4. A Rallying Spirit: Movement-like features
Many of the posts related to food loss have the feel of a grassroots movement looking to gain visibility. Phrases detected include call-to-actions like “Join us” and viral challenges such as “#VegPledge”. These encourage others to eat smart and take action to “rescue” the planet.
Trend Tracking: Comparing searches before and during COVID-19
We also examined search performance before and during the pandemic to identify behavioral patterns, with March 2020 defined as the moment from which the COVID-19 crisis shook the world.
Searches ranged from questions about new brands, “ugly” products pro-cons (reviews), accessibility (delivery area), and technological innovations (Apps) to zero-waste tips for the consumer to adopt at home.
Retailers like Misfits Market, a subscription service of “funny-looking” fruits and vegetables in the USA, had an exceptional year, with related searches increasing an impressive 201%.
Likewise, on the other side of the ocean, London-based OddBox, with its proposal to “save the planet from your doorstep,” has gained lots of attention with people increasingly trying to access their services. Search demand for their deliveries increased 331%, and a whopping 557% for discounts.
Another ugly produce company, Wonky Veg Boxes, in the English Midlands, also improved their associated searches rate by 73% during the last nine months of 2020.
What are some key takeaways from this?
In a year of economic contraction, a good deal is always welcome.
Many people spent a significant part of 2020 trying to adjust their finances to face the hard times ahead of the pandemic. Ugly food is an ally for those managing their budget more cautiously these days, as “imperfect” vegetables and fruits are way cheaper than their fancy-pants counterparts.
Fruits might be ugly, but sustainability is sexy.
After almost a year of coping with coronavirus and with the pandemic still in full swing, experts and recent studies concur that consumers are more concerned about purpose-driven initiatives with the people and planet at the center. Effectively highlighting the closeness of a product to nature and its pro-environmental properties is way more appealing than a shiny look.
Food is food, not edible artwork.
Since its arrival on the social media scene, Instagram has turned food into social currency. During the last decade, virtually everyone has shared, at least once, a #InstaFood or #FoodPorn post. Yet, recently, people seem to be tired of media food art standards with their glamorous kitchen settings and perfectly splendid tables.
We’re seeing more pictures without studio-shoot framing or brightness and contrast editing: some people just want to eat their food. And they want to eat it while it is still warm.
How might brands tackle ‘ugly food’ barriers?
With a load of positive framing
Misshapenness, blemishes, or product damage could turn off more top-of-funnel consumers who might still be in the prospecting stage, unsure about swapping to ugly produce. To dispel people’s apprehension, wonky brands can take steps to sweeten the offer until they are normalized. For this group of hesitant consumers, brand awareness efforts can experiment thematizing the cost-saving benefits (both environmental and monetary cost), as opposed to centering the ugly aspect.
Exploring Partnerships with Cafés
Numbers show that imperfect fruits and veggies do better if they are offered alongside “optimal” food instead of being condemned to a relegated space. The physical placement of these products have to be reimagined if brands intend to target more than just customer segments out for a good discount.
How far are we from bumping into wonky fruits on the shelves of Pret A Manger? To reach other consumers who might carry ‘discount rack stigma’, explore partnerships with cafes and food outlets with social capital.
Taking these products out of the supermarkets and into our everyday coffee shops potentially also enables elevating wonky produce to the level of hipster-cafe-esque trendiness.
A good sense of humor
Everyone loves a funny guy, and wonky food is naturally jolly. These weird-looking pals can come across as charming (have you seen those heart-shaped potatoes?!) or badass (uncool people would call them over-sized).
Brands could ride this wave, embracing an anti-aesthetically-pleasing vibe, which opens up opportunities for witty marketing (we’re thinking of meme marketing).
Our parting thoughts…
Authenticity has become a precious asset.
Just as #SKINPOSITIVITY and #UNIBROWMOVEMENT do, the ugly food movement understands that so-called ugliness is nothing more than a cultural construct. And this trend is not reduced to the social media sphere. Our numbers confirm that consumers’ behavior is experiencing a mindful swift towards authenticity, the true satisfaction attached to showing your true colors, to being real.
Instead of trying to make it up for not being pretty enough, ugly food should be recognized by all its other attributes: it is sustainable, conscious, and people-centered. And that’s factual information.
Products could then weave into their narratives consumer anecdotes for more sensitive branding. In the end, they all strive for the same thing: to make the world a better, kinder, more empathetic place.
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