Anjali Puri and Mark Standley describe the moment when snacking and technology collided for marketers

The snack food sector is well-versed in psychology. To be successful, a brand must know that we nibble not only to satisfy our basic hunger but emotional needs too. Snack food brands have historically positioned their products to predict and ‘be there’ at the moment of a range of emotional states: fatigue, self-indulgence, comfort, boredom and pain.

But these moments are becoming increasingly ‘noisy.’ Snacking choices and consumption patterns are changing as they’re challenged by an increasing focus on health – with 38 percent of meals featuring ingredients specifically chosen for health reasons last year – and surprisingly, technology.

Think about it. When was the last time you sat down in front of the TV with only a bowl of popcorn in your hand? Or the last time you drowned your sorrows alone with a tub of ice cream following a bad day or breakup?

Chances are, these days you turn to your smartphone instead.

Our addiction to technology tends to satisfy our psychological needs. Hands that are busy texting or gaming can’t reach for that favourite snack. Moments once spent deep in thought are interrupted by the call of social media.

Globally, on average we spend 4.4 hours of our free time each day using a PC, laptop, tablet or mobile phone. Passive TV entertainment has given way to active engagement with multiple screens presenting a real challenge to snack food manufacturers. How can they navigate their customers’ snacking needs in a more active and tech heavy context?

It’s time for snacking brands to rethink the moments during which they can engage with a health conscious society.

CUT THROUGH NOISE To compete in a more stimulating environment, snack foods should ramp up the sensory hit they offer and understand the right moment to deliver it. Sharper flavours and formats can help cut through the noise at a moment when blander and more traditional snack foods might melt into the background.

A plethora of surprising and inventive flavours and textures are emerging to respond to the more adventurous palates of consumers.

The increasing popularity of snacks like chilli chocolate, wasabi nuts and Bombay mix suggests people have a lust for harder hitting and exotic flavours. McCain has even created a potato scented bus stop to target hungry commuters – an example of the new trend in sensory based marketing.

Heritage cookie brand Oreo has traditionally maintained its staple black cookie with a creamy centre product line.

But as people increasingly crave for out of the box flavours, Oreo has evolved to anticipate these moments to ensure customers don’t venture out in search of something more exciting. Instead of sticking to old comfort flavours, Oreo cookies now aim to surprise and delight snackers with new tastes such as popping candy and peanut butter.

PRODUCT INNOVATION As people change their snacking behaviour, new opportunities arise for snack food brands to update and innovate around their product offers. So it’s important to spot the right moment for product innovation.

This could mean a very simple packaging format renovation such as Walkers’ tear and share bag. Walkers effectively targeted ‘sharing’ moments with a handy design innovation that’s easier for groups of snackers to use.

McVitie’s Nibbles is a product innovation that’s more game changing. The traditional biscuit in a smaller format facilitates sharing and plays on the senses in a way that’s usually associated with ‘candy bites.’

Both brands effectively targeted the changing needs of consumers and rethought the moments in which their products could be a part. And they responded with bold and unexpected products.

BE THE MAIN EVENT Smart snack brands are also placing themselves front and centre, facilitating moments between people instead of simply seeking to enhance them.

Creating an immersive experience where your snack is central to the moment – instead of accompanying another activity – can create positive emotional associations and real life moments. This could range from creating a pop up shop to releasing recipes that include your product… as long as you are centre stage.

Luxury chocolate brands are turning rich and extravagant snacks into indulgent experiences through the Magnum Pleasure Store, facilitating real life moments while placing their brand front and centre.

TODAY’S MOMENTS Snacking has always been associated with real life touchpoints: a bag of Walkers Crisps with a packed lunch or a Kit Kat during a break at work. But consumers are becoming ever poorer at changing these needs and touchpoints. Building associations with new moments can create a habit, redefine a mealtime or associate you with a different lifestyle choice.

Realising that many busy commuters skip breakfast, Belvita seized the moment to launch its breakfast biscuits. It began a trend that has been copied by many. By positioning its product in train station vending machines and designing something that is easy to eat on the go, the brand created a whole new snacking moment based on the morning dash to work.

Metcalfe’s Popcorn built credibility for its positioning as a healthy snack by collaborating with the Nike Women’s 10-kilometre race and provided popcorn in a goody bag. A snack available at this crucial moment created associations with healthy lifestyle choices while the low calorie snack benefitted from a brand ‘halo effect.’

AN ERA FOR SNACKING The rules for snacking have changed: needs, wants and habits are evolving to suit the hyper connected and health conscious consumer of the 21st century.

To reclaim some of the airtime that’s lost to modern customers’ lightning paced lives and addiction to technology, brands must understand the exact drivers that prompt us to pick up a bite to eat.

Snack food brands that best understand our relationship with snacking by using deep insight to seize their unique moment will cut through the noise.

Anjali Puri is the Global Head of Kantar TNS Qualitative and Mark Standley is FMCG Director at Kantar TNS UK