Do Moms Still Matter ?

The American family has been perhaps the single most important institution in our society. Within the context of the family, nearly every aspect of behavior is in some way learned, shaped or determined.

So it's something of an understatement to suggest that food companies interested in understanding consumers at the deepest levels would want to begin with the family. Yet they need a much deeper awareness of the personal and contextual dynamics of the American family than truisms like "We believe Latino families represent an ideal growth opportunity."

The stereotypical American family with one or two parents in one house with children is no longer the norm. During the past 20 years, the American family has become more diverse, with adult-only households now commonplace as adults are remaining single or choosing to live in same-sex households. In fact, according to a November 2010 poll by Pew Research Center, 40 percent of Americans believe the institution of marriage is becoming obsolete.

Who are we really?

While television and film might portray the contemporary family structure, many food retailers rarely stop to consider the numbers. The United States tops the list of developed nations with the most single-parent households, according to a 2011 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. One in four children in America is being raised by a single parent, the most of any other developed country in the study.

In the 1950s, the percentage of single women giving birth was about 4 percent. In the 2000 census that figure rose to 33 percent, and demographers expect it to continue rising. The relationship between motherhood and marriage is diverging, and single moms are getting older as they give birth.

Americans' increasing "singlehood" also is evident in household living situations: In 2009, an estimated 6.7 million unmarried opposite-sex partners were living together, while in 2010, there were 7.5 million. And according to estimates from the 2010 census released in September 2010, there were 131,729 same-sex married couple households and 514,735 same-sex unmarried partner households in the United States. Nearly one in five same-sex couple households was raising children at home – widely distributed among those who reported being in marriage relationships and those who were not.

Occasion-based marketing

How can food companies market to these demographic segments in transition? A more effective approach is to adopt an occasion-based perspective around eating and shopping centered on specific occasions, such as shopping after work. Freed from trying to chase down the ever-evolving American family by segment, you can focus on the context within which families live, shop and play, and in the process reveal a much larger marketplace.

Consider some of the recent findings from the Hartman Group's June 2010 Eating Occasions Compass:

    • Seventy-two percent of family eating occasions involve only adults.

    • Eighty percent of adult-only family eating occasions bring two generations together, and 10 percent involve three or more generations.

    • The remaining 10 percent of adult-only family eating occasions consist only of siblings.

These findings suggest the transformation of the American family is having a direct impact on family eating occasions. The fact that three out of four of these occasions do not include anyone under the age of 18 should serve as a wake-up call to any food companies still focused on the classic view of the nuclear family. The role of Mom as family gatekeeper also will become increasingly irrelevant to what are now largely independent adult agendas.

Given that 44 percent of all adult eating happens alone and 75 percent of adult eating is not a family occasion, food companies and retailers must look beyond marketing to families to attract consumers in the future.

What are the implications?

Due to these demographic shifts, conventional problem-solving and solution-based platforms designed for busy single-parent households often need to be adapted for households that by design comprise single adults – with or without children. Put another way, an empowered single-parent household might not be looking for brands to "help out." Instead, they may be focused on brands that inspire.

If America's notion of family is increasingly moving away from marriage proper, begin to think about the implications for communications and marketing messages. Make no mistake, family values are likely as strong as ever, but increasingly may have less to do with the institution of marriage.

Traditional marketers have behaved as if selling to singles meant teens or those in the 18 to 24 age group. Beyond those age groups, the tendency was to market to families. But when you combine the quickly growing segment of singles with record-low birth rates, suddenly you have a highly desirable target market. An older group of more affluent consumers who are more advanced in their careers, without the constraints of children at home, can drive significant lifestyle purchasing.

Food companies selling to moms increasingly will be building relationships with single moms. And these are not struggling moms suffering from divorce. Instead, some are successful single women who have made a conscious choice to have a child.

Where are we heading?

The redefinition of the American family will require new ways of thinking. The changing demographics of the American consumer, from a marketing and social perspective, is one of the most profound revolutions in our lifetime and will pose unique challenges and significant opportunities.

As marketers face this ongoing revolution, they will need innovative ways of thinking (and doing) to confront this entirely new and unique landscape. Eating alone, as it happens, might represent the most lucrative eating occasions.

72% of family eating occasions involve only adults.


Harvey Hartman is founder, chairman and chief executive of Hartman Group Inc., a leading consumer culture consultancy specializing in the analysis and interpretation of consumer lifestyles. He is the author of the book "A Brand Called Hope: Reimagining Consumer Culture."