Yesterday, The Spoon held its first-ever summit around food personalization in NYC. Customize, as we dubbed the event, brought together startups, researchers, investors, and innovators across the food industry to discuss the concept of personalization in the food industry and how companies can strategically apply it to their businesses.
With 12 sessions and dozens of panelists, way more was discussed than I could reasonably fit into a single post. So to start, here’s a high-level view of some of the major takeaways from the event, and a hint of what businesses should be considering when it comes to making food more personal for their users.
1. “Personalization” means many things in many contexts.
The repeat theme of the day was that personalization has no set definition — nor will it ever. In a restaurant, it means using tech to make a person feel like a regular, even when they’re a brand-new customer. When it comes to grocery shopping, it might be getting a food prescription from a doctor, then getting help planning your weekly meals from an in-store nutritionist, as Kroger is currently doing in Cincinnati. And if we’re talking about fighting or preventing chronic disease, personalization is about understanding the microbiome in your gut and using that information to make healthier food choices unique to you.
Panelists and attendees agreed that we won’t see a rigid definition of the word “personalization” any time soon. Rather, it will remain fluid. In response, tech companies must make their products and services flexible enough to be useful in many different personalization contexts.
2. Data is key. But so are valuable customer experiences.
You don’t get personalization without data, and the key to building more personalized products and services lies in getting users to part with their personal information. That’s not too tall an order when it comes to restaurants, where customers happily fork over their names, addresses, and hatred of cilantro in exchange for faster service and more accurate orders. When it comes to more sensitive information — say, health conditions — the idea of personalization gets a little more controversial.
In her keynote at the event, Mintel Analyst Melanie Bartelme pointed out that customers will be more willing to share their data if the product, service, or experience they get in return has real value for them. Other panelists echoed her words throughout the day. That value could come in the form of actionable diet and cooking advice, food products that noticeably improve our health, or simply a faster, more seamless experience with a piece of technology. Providing that “transaction of value,” as Bartelme called it, is what will separate the winners from the losers when it comes to personalization.
3. Personalization must have empathy for the entire food system.
At the end of the day, Mike Lee pointed out that personalization is the ultimate example of human-centered design, where making the user happy is the driving force behind every step of business and product development.
That may or may not be a good thing, depending on the context. Lee pointed out that sometimes this user-centric approach can actually negatively impact other areas of the food system. Food delivery is a prime example. Customers crave speed and convenience, and restaurants have responded by offering on demand meals at the touch of a button. Those meals, however, come packaged in plastics and other non-biodegradable materials accompanied by disposable cutlery and other waste items that go straight to the landfill. Convenience has social impacts as well. The model for food delivery, whether it’s restaurant meals or grocery orders, rarely factors in the conditions of couriers shuttling the food to customers’ doorsteps.
As Lee suggested, successful personalization in the future needs to be “empathetic” to the entire food system. On the same panel, Food-X’s Peter Bodenheimer agreed with Lee, adding that part of creating this empathy will rest with VCs, who ideally should invest in companies that are prioritizing social and environmental responsibility alongside growth and profitability.
These takeaways are just a tiny sample of the topics, ideas, and advice covered yesterday at the event. Over the next few days, we’ll be posting more recaps and lessons on what it takes to offer true personalization in the digital age. Stay tuned, and check back often for more.