14 Overcoming Market Neophobia

Nonfood makes an algae-based nutrition bar and recently released golden chlorella powder that reignites the culinary imaginary in an age of climactic transformation. What follows is an extract from a longer conversation between Black Almanac and company founders Sean Raspet and Lucy Chinen that took place via Zoom in early June 2020.

Black Almanac: To start, is neophobia real?

Sean Raspet: It’s a scientific term. I mean, neophobia in general is just fear of new things or situations. In my understanding it’s considered somewhat of an evolutionary adaptation. It’s adaptive for an organism to be somewhat afraid of new things. I’ve heard theories that it goes back to being in a forest and encountering lots of berries. If the berry that you pick looks new and maybe tastes different, you don’t eat a whole lot of it at that moment, because it’s a little bit weird, you’re not sure. You eat a small amount, and then later, if nothing goes wrong, when you’re hungry again you go back to it and you’re like ‘Oh, this is not so bad.’ That’s how I’ve heard evolutionary theory explains it. But regardless of any theory, it’s a measurable thing that people in the industry work with.

Lucy Chinen: When we were working on the Nonbar flavor, we noticed all the other protein bars out there are incredibly sweet. They’re super sweet – almost like from the candy bar realm or something. We were confused for a really long time. Like, why is it that they’re so sweet? I’d guess most big food companies do these test groups. Probably they’re like, very normie, intentionally regular people. So probably they don’t have very a diverse diet. Sweetness enhances the flavor and the opinion of Middle America gets expanded to the whole aisle. Someone said they tried the Nonbar while they were on a trail, walking in nature, and they said the whole experience was really intense. I was wondering if part of the experience of trying something in a completely blank room makes you want something that intense.

SR: There’s probably multiple feedback loops that are happening, multiple neophobia-amplifying feedback loops between focus groups that might determine a certain consumer palate. Well, that might determine a certain product development pathway that then becomes a product that then becomes the environment of products that a consumer experiences over their lifetime. It determines how they respond in a focus group, which then determines the next round.

LC: You can only be comfortable with things that you have access to. When something is completely new and you can’t even buy it – you have no chance to develop something.

SR: On the product development side, I’ve heard people say you basically have one chance to try something and decide to become a lifelong consumer of it. Like it’s either gonna happen or it isn’t. It’s interesting too because focus groups are only one occasion. You don’t have the same people come back like a week later and try it again – which would be how people develop tastes over time. But since you don’t have that and since the way that it’s thought of is that the consumer is either gonna like it or not, that’s maybe another amplifying factor or neophobia in the industry.

LC: Food used to be way more difficult. It was chewy, or at least you chewed on it for a long time, like sugar cane. Or it was slightly bitter. Or it was like rough and then slowly it just became more manicured.

SR: Refined in both senses of the word.