When It Comes to Food Marketing, “Local” is All Over the Map

Local is arguably the single biggest food trend since the turn of the millennium.

So much so that back in 2007, the Oxford New American Dictionary named locavore its “Word of the Year.”


A recent survey by the Nielsen Company showed consumers rank “buying local” as their most important food-related cause, ahead of other options like “GMOs in food,” “no artificial ingredients” and “antibiotic use in livestock.”

But the biggest evidence of the trend comes at the cash register.

In 2014, local food accounted for $11.7 billion in total food sales. By the end of this year, that number’s expected to be $20.2 billion. (See “The big business of local food.”)

And big national food brands know this. They know that local is super marketable right now. They also know that local food poses a major threat to them, which is why they have been scrambling to buy out local and regional brands in order to maintain their market share.

Anheuser-Busch, for example, has made 10 strategic buyouts of craft 

breweries since 2008, so that they could get a piece of the local action.

Consumers Know Why They Want Local Food…

The reasons for buying local are fairly obvious.

Locally produced foods travel shorter distances, minimizing one’s environmental footprint. Traveling shorter distances also means the food is probably fresher and tastes better and might even retain more nutritional value, in some cases.

Buying local also means circulating money through the local economy, which benefits communities immediately around you and helps to keep regional food cultures somewhat distinctive. This has become more forefront in consumers’ minds as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds.

There are more reasons to buy local, of course, but these are the reasons most consumers can easily cite offhand.

…But Disagree on What Counts as Local Food

What’s interesting, however, is how consumers vary so largely on what qualifies a product as “local.”

Unlike the “organic” label, which is regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program, there are no official criteria for what foods qualify as local. This means some food producers, retailers and marketers have been playing fast and loose with the term and leaving consumers to make sense of it all.

So what do average consumers accept as “local” when it comes to food? The answer is–literally–all over the map.

In their 2019 report “How Americans Shop: What Products Do Consumers Care About When Buying Local?,” the Nielsen Group aggregated the results of 20,000 consumer surveys on buying local.

The biggest takeaway? The definition of “local” shifts for most consumers according to product category.

Consumers were most limiting in their definition of local for foods with relatively short shelf-lives. The majority of consumers wanted produce, baked goods and eggs, for example, to come from the same town or city.

Farmer's market

With shelf-stable goods and frozen foods, local was more broadly defined. Presumably, freshness became less of a concern for such categories and consumers were willing to concede any of these items produced in the U.S. as local.

For items that may be harder to find produced in one’s own town or city–like dairy, meat or seafood–consumers also became laxer in their definition of local.

See some of the results below for yourself.

Product categories aside, what’s the average expectation for a “locally” made food? That it’s produced within 50 miles.

The Takeaway for Food Brands

Local is going to be an enduring priority for consumers.

Consumers will grow warier of the use and abuse of the term, however. And as they do, they will demand more transparency from food brands. Food brands, in turn, need to meet their expectations with honest and engaging narratives regarding their food production.

If you would like to learn more about brand transparency and local positioning statements, or how else we can help with your food brand story, please reach out to the NewPoint team. If you are interested in more food marketing topics, please visit our “Food for Thought” page. Alternatively, check out NewPoint’s book: Moving Your Brand Up the Food Chain.