Mike Lee, Founder and CEO of The Future Market and Alpha Food Labs, sat down with Ken Ouimet to discuss establishing trust through health and wellness offerings, the need to scale personalized nutrition, and making sustainability an altruistic goal. He contends that flavor, desire, and consumer emotions play an important role in the success of sustainable food offerings.
Below is the transcript of their conversation:
Ken: Hey Mike, I’m glad you could join us today. I saw yesterday you were giving a talk, you were on a panel about the health and wellness conscious consumer. Can you tell me more about that?
Mike: Yeah, so I was moderating a panel about reaching the health and wellness consumer and it had really great diverse points of view from three different company founders and CEOs. One was Jordana Kier. She runs a next generation direct to consumer brand, all about women’s reproductive health. Her insights about how that area of the health and wellness industry has been stigmatized in terms of conversations–people don’t openly have these kinds of candid conversations as much as maybe they should. They’re just doing really, really great stuff, creating stuff and taking women through that whole journey, which can be daunting, so they did a great job with that and some really interesting insights from her.
Establishing trust through health and wellness
Mike: We had Frank Scorpiniti from Earth Fare, CEO of Earth Fare, just talking about their point of view and for him and the third panelist also, Brian, the president at Numi Tea, we talked a lot about trust, and how so much of health and wellness is establishing that trust with the consumer because you’re a guide for that person. And navigating a tea collection or navigating a retail set is daunting, especially with the proliferation of so many different health and wellness products. I think people need that person, that sort of Sherpa to guide them, because otherwise you can just drown in the amount of choice and detail out there. And so it’s really interesting to see how those two guys have built that trust over the years. And then with Jordana it’s interesting because that conversation’s just more emerging, I think she’s trying to shatter the establishment of reproductive health products out there as this new startup, new-ish startup. So it was really interesting to see those different angles about how they approach trust and how they really connect with consumers.
The need to scale personalized nutrition
Ken: I’ve been seeing a naturopath for over 10 years. One of the things he does routinely is checks his patients’ blood, sees what foods they’re sensitive to, and then has them eliminate those. And so I was talking to him about that, “Well, how do people react?” He says, “Well, first thing they do is they get all these blood tests and each kid needs some different food. So then Mom’s cooking multiple meals, going through and reading all the labels, and it’s a lot at work.” He said usually it ends up being too much work for people so then they just go back to their original diet.
Mike: It’s a real challenge, especially for families because health is so personal. Like you and I can have the exact same diet plan and workout plan and we will get different results, and that’s just the way all humans are. It’s hard though, right? Because to do it at scale, how do you do personalized nutrition at scale? Obviously if you have a high-touch relationship, one-on-one, everything can be very easily personalized, but that’s very expensive and time consuming. Can you scale personalized nutrition? What does that even mean? What technologies are we going to need for that to happen? What advances in nutrition science are going to need to happen for you to actually predict that? We can read your microbiome right now fairly accurately, but then what? What does it mean? Okay, I have this many formiculites in my microbiome. Okay, now what do I do about that? Do I eat more yogurt, do I do this? So I think it’s going to be interesting to see in the next 10, 20 years just how personalized nutrition science democratizes itself and scales, really.
Food is emotional
Mike: There’s a lot of logic behind food with nutrition and science and diet and things like that. But food is also just super emotional. We are irrational people at the end of the day. I always think it’s funny, the same person who stands in the aisle of the grocery store reading and scrutinizing the back of a label on a box of cereal, when it’s date night and they go out to an Italian restaurant they don’t ask how many calories are in the Parmesan cheese and the pasta, right? Because there’s a sort of romance in there.
Food for the future
Ken: What inspired you to start Future Market?
Mike: And so I started going to like, food trade shows and remember when they first started doing that and it was like, um, where’s the, the concept car for food? who’s thinking almost conceptually 10 years out to say like, what’s, what’s after this, right? In combination with the stuff you’re doing today. I didn’t see it and I wanted to create this platform where you basically could have a conversation about the future, deeper into the future, and almost suspend disbelief a little bit and say, what products might we see in 25 years?
Mike: And so how do you take an emerging trend and technology like lab grown meat and say, okay, let’s fast forward 25 years later and let’s take it with a grain of salt. But let’s assume that everything that these guys are purporting to do with that comes to come true. Then what?
Ken: What’s the scope for The Future Market, what’s the scope that you’re looking at? You’re looking at delivery, health?
Mike: You think 25 years out or 30 years out, that’s an interesting thought experiment because the main consumers are not just like our kids now. It’s like our grandkids and our grandkids’ kids, right? And so I think the thing that’s underserved in this conversation with the future of food is like trying to think about behavioral attitudes. The things that we think are maybe disgusting or good today might not hold true anymore. Technology, more or less, is somewhat linear or exponential. You can of say like, okay, well this product is going to be here in this many years, right? Way harder to look at behavior, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and try to extrapolate that.
Ken: We find that retailers tend to be very tactical. We go in there and we talk to them about helping them understand their competitors’ strategies. A lot of times they’ll ask us, Oh, can you help us understand our strategy? So I was curious, how do retailers respond to the vision 25 years out?
Mike: We’re not advocating that everybody should eat lab-grown meat or advocating that everyone should have robots servicing a whole grocery store. It’s more that we want to create the scenario to get them to react to it. And I think it’s successful for us if they say, I love this or I hate this because then you can do something about it.
Make sustainability an altruistic goal
Ken: Over the next five years, where do you see the biggest changes in food?
Mike: Wow. Um, I think for me, something that’s very near and dear that I don’t think is going to happen on its own, and this is why we’re trying to push it along, is this stronger connection between what sustainable food means to the flavor and nutrition of food. Because I think if you asked most people, and there’s data to support this that I have in a presentation where you survey people about, what drives their food choices and it’s pretty typical of what you would expect. Taste, flavor, nutrition, convenience, right? All of these things. And so, but then you also survey people and you say like, Oh, do you care about sustainability? Most people do. But then when you ask them about how it impacts the food choices, it doesn’t really rank in the top five or six in most places.
Mike: And I always use this story of like if you’re a single parent and you’ve got two screaming kids in a shopping cart. You got off work late on a Tuesday and it’s 7:45 and you’re walking through a grocery store because the fridge is empty. Let’s be really honest, are you really trying to solve global warming in that moment? There’s no visceral immediate benefit to choosing something that feels more sustainable versus not. Right?
Mike: And I think that’s a structural problem that we have to work harder at because how do we create a condition where we can put out sustainable products that are not only really great for the planet and advance, regenerate our soil, clean water, all that stuff, do all of that stuff. But they also create a markedly different flavor experience, nutritional experience, emotional experience, because that’s how you can scale it and make it much more mainstream. Right? So I want to be able to say to somebody, here’s a product, it’s absolutely delicious. You should eat it. Not because–you should eat it because it’s delicious and it’s delicious because it’s sustainable. and so like how do we make that bigger connection?
Mike: And so I’m always trying to like encourage like brands and stuff like that is there’s a model of what Tesla did of what beyond and impossible impossibly did. Like the best way to scale things around sustainability and health is through the lens of flavor, desire, that emotional aspect, right? Impossible is not coming at you with a bunch of climate stats. You gotta go like four pages into the website to get to them. They’re coming at you with, this burger bleeds, like a beef burger. That’s a purely emotional angle, and then the rest will come, then you read about the resource efficiency and , all that stuff. And I think that’s really the model for if you want to do sustainable things and have it scaleable, and durable in the future, that’s gotta be your playbook.
Ken: So Mike I want to, I really appreciate you joining us today. It’s fascinating what you’re doing. I think it’s really needed, the creative vision, what the market’s gonna look like in 25 years. Thank you again for coming.
Mike: Thank you for having me. It was great speaking with you and really hope to see you next year.
For more information on combining personalized nutrition and personalized pricing, you can watch our interview on the topic with Marcia Webb of Nielsen here. For more information on retail technology and building trust, you can also watch our video with Wes Bean of Catalina Marketing here.