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Investigating the Digital Path to Purchase for Food and Beverages: A Research Agenda for the Modern Marketing Age

2016 | View the report.

Food, beverage, restaurant and entertainment companies are increasingly harnessing Big Data to target consumers in retails settings, yet researchers do not know how their tactics influence diets and community health. To help close that knowledge gap, PHI's Berkeley Media Studies Group reviewed existing literature on food- and beverage-related digital marketing strategies and outlines recommendations for future research.

Read the report.

The food and beverage industry is at the forefront of conducting research and innovation in digital marketing to maximize product sales and revenue. The industry works with advertising agencies, marketing firms and digital media specialists to design campaigns that take advantage of the ways that consumers are engaged with social media and mobile devices. Many of these marketing techniques use "Big Data"—extremely large datasets of consumer and other information—to interact with potential consumers in new ways, with unprecedented precision and immediacy to promote brand awareness and loyalty. Food and beverage companies engineer a consumer's path to purchase by using mobile technology, location tracking and other innovation to influence attitudes and behaviors of customers as they make decisions about what, where and when to buy products.

When the National Academy of Medicine published its landmark report on food marketing to children and youth in 2006, the expert committee that issued recommendations had documented that a majority of food, beverage and restaurant companies that targeted young people promoted branded products that were high in sugars, fats and salt, and low in nutrients. The committee concluded that food and beverage marketing influences children's preferences and dietary choices, and that current marketing practices create an environment that puts young people's health at risk for obesity and other diet-related diseases. The report acknowledged the increasingly important role that the internet and other new marketing practices play in promoting branded food and beverage products to consumers, and the need for future research on the diet and health effects of digital marketing on youth. A decade later, we find ourselves fully immersed in a society permeated with an "Internet of Things" in which every common device (e.g., smartphone, camera) has network connectivity that allows the sending and receiving of data from the internet.

We now have a clearer understanding of the newer marketing methods used by food, beverage, restaurant and entertainment companies to target young and older consumers in retail and other marketplace settings. However, scholars still lack the knowledge about how these novel methods influence people's diet-related behaviors and community health. There is a large infrastructure of proprietary marketing research collected for consumers in the United States and globally about interactive media in retail settings and other environments. These efforts are primarily intended to support commercial marketing and advertising. Therefore, the implications of digital and interactive marketing on public health is limited in the published literature. Similarly, ethnographic scholars have conducted research on the use of social networking platforms, but for the most part have done so without consideration of the effects of digital food and beverage marketing.

In this memo, BMSG briefly reviews existing research on the digital marketing strategies used in retail settings and their potential to impact nutrition and health outcomes for individuals and populations. We also share recommendations for future research developed at a convening held with leading experts in the disciplines of communications, media, food and nutrition policy, law, privacy, marketing and public health.


Lillian Seklir, Laura Nixon, Lori Dorfman

Produced through PHI's:

Berkeley Media Studies Group