Just ten years ago, artisanal food brands didn’t need to take the digital landscape into consideration in their marketing efforts. They were effective in reaching prospective customers through traditional means: retail stores, mail catalogues, advertisement in luxury lifestyle publications, and word of mouth.

Even as early as 2010, traditional outreach methods for artisanal brands remained sufficient. Though social media websites like Facebook and Twitter were beginning to grow by that time, few could have predicted that these services would, by 2017, serve a little over 2.1 billion active monthly users. Nor could they have predicted that reaching customers over such channels would no longer be a faint possibility, but a necessity.

Add to this a dramatically increased world of connectivity via smartphones—at least 68 percent of adults in the United States own one at this time—and a slew of other highly active digital services with which consumers of all descriptions are engaged, and it isn’t hard to recognize the overwhelming evidence that today’s communications world is much different.

While catalogs, full-page advertisements and a retail presence offered the full range of traditional artisanal food marketing at one time, in 2017, it is clear that this is no longer the case. New traditions have emerged, and have created a new breed of consumers.

Millennials—here described as people between the ages of 22 and 35 years old—have now come into their buying power. This highly scrutinized generation is officially driving market trends and becoming “tastemakers” in every corner of the food industry. This challenges previous mentalities that millennials were “cheap” or unrefined in taste. It is becoming clear that millennials are eager to spend good money on food… with the caveat that brands must meet them halfway; engaging with them via social networks and keeping in mind their priorities and values.

New challenges have emerged in our digitized, millennial-run world. But brands must adapt, as the media landscape is unlikely to go back as millennials are followed by their younger, “digitally native” Gen Z counterparts and as technologists work to bridge the literacy gap for previous generations.

Fortunately, with these new challenges come new tools, and artisanal brands would be wise to invest in their use.

Tools like the ad platforms offered by Facebook and Instagram (a subsidiary of Facebook, Inc.) provide brands new formats and opportunities to easily reach consumers with owned and paid media, and to monitor engagements with all media closely. This gives brands an opportunity to paint a data-rich, information-rich picture of customer preferences. Digitally managed multi-channel loyalty programs, which are catching on with fast-casual and fine-dining restaurants, offer another possible pathway to creating a strong, insight-driven presence for artisanal brands, and Whole Foods brands are just starting to experiment with this possibility.

Artisanal brands should also consider becoming early-adopters of an opportunity that is still in its early stages: online food retailing. While it’s no secret that millennials are incredibly fond of e-commerce, both retailers and consumers alike have been slower to warm up to online food purchase and delivery… until recently.

A 2016 Mintel study published in partnership with the Specialty Food Association indicates that more consumers than ever before are interested in purchasing foods—including specialty items in particular—through online channels. The “I-want-it-now” mentality, fueled by digital channels creating convenience, is forcing artisanal brands to provide consumers with their direct wants and needs. This is evidenced in part by the increasing relevance of brands like Blue Apron, in part by the continued industry growth of gourmet food subscription boxes, and in part by a reported increase in purchase of specialty goods by mid-level income groups.

As the market undergoes massive demographic and practical change, brands are advised to make flexibility, learning and adaptation key priorities going forward—especially artisanal brands with a sense of legacy. A flexible, growth-oriented practice will help brands to cross the digital divide and build strategies that meet the needs of the modern customer. Change and adaptation is critical to brands, and artisanal brands should embrace this opportunity to breathe new life into the pillars of business that made them great in the first place.

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