Every Thursday, the RY research group gather to talk about goings on in our world today. We usually cover work, things we’ve learned or found, or what we’re stuck on, but this week was a little different. On Zoom during a global pandemic – the debate was firmly around bread.
“I can’t find any yeast in stores. Any ideas on how I can still make bread?” asked Eileen, one of our Sustainability Consultants. “The bread shelves are empty in the shops.” said another.
Like many of us, I’d noticed the influx of loaves on my Insta-feed but hadn’t thought much of it. I’d had no such urge to channel my cabin fever into baking, so I was no help to my colleagues on how to navigate their current bread woes. But one question did spring to mind: why are people turning to bread in the first place?
Half an hour later, our Zoom time was up, and we still hadn’t solved it. There was no going back, we had to crack this one for the good of all of us.
*Thank you (Eileen) for the pun.
The research process
The initial question was clear.
Why on earth are people making bread, now?
We all had our hypotheses, some more likely than others. But all (technically) possible. Here are five starters for ten:
1. Comfort? In times where our modern world has been shaken, harking back to something simple and self-sufficient brings people comfort. Bread has been a staple in the western world for thousands of years. Baking bread subconsciously tells us ‘I can survive on my own’.
2. Guilt? Maybe people feel inherently guilty that they aren’t working hard enough working from home, or even aren’t working at all? Where can you find the fulfilment that you’ve lost? In a manual task - even better - one you can eat. Enter: bread.
3. Ducks? One of the hardest hit and most overlooked groups from the whole COVID-19 pandemic is actually the duck community. Maybe there is a strong and committed undercurrent of duck fans in the UK who want to provide for their feathered friends.
4. Armageddon? If we end up living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, baking bread is going to be a hugely valuable skill. What better time to practice and perfect your process than now? You’re going to have lots of friends if we start living like Mad Max.
5. Flour? Stocking up and panic buying has made everyone realise they’ve got a hell of a load of flour. We’re all asking ourselves why we keep kilograms worth of the stuff in the back of our cupboards. Maybe now is the time to find a use for it. We have the time, after all.
Which was most likely? Could we uncover the truth? It was time to dig into the data and find out.
Just like any ground-breaking research, we kicked off with Google Trends. I looked up searches of How to Make Bread, just to make sure we weren’t imagining it (spoiler alert: we weren’t).
The related search topics of How to Make Bread were mostly linked to necessary ingredients for bread and the different types you can make.
Some started with bread basics, while some aimed high at first before downgrading their search to just baking. Others (who were clearly artisans) were focusing more on trying to perfect the faultless loaf.
Nothing seemed to emerge around ‘recipes’. This indicates that in this moment of crisis today’s ad hoc bakers start with whether they had proper tools and ingredients at home to embark on a bread-making journey, rather than making a shopping list of ingredients. This tells us the current bread making obsession is likely spontaneous, people aren’t necessarily planning ahead.
I did some social listening on Pulsar to gather more data on the bread trend progression and start to uncover why it might be happening. From what I could see, the bread conversation loosely followed Boris Johnson’s isolation announcements. Pandemic milestones seem to send people into bread-induced spiral with remarkable consistency.
After sifting through posts and conversations – clear behaviours, attitudes and sentiments were forming. As the self-isolation situation evolved, so did the conversation around bread.
As we all know, research isn’t truly valid until we’ve gone direct to the source. The people.
I asked colleagues on our #general Slack channel to DM me if they made bread during the pandemic for a mini interview. Our research group also got in touch with family and friends to widen our sample.
The result? People were eager and willing to talk about their bread-making experience. The responses made me laugh, tear up, but mostly made me hungry. Our sample of bakers sent beautiful shots of loaves in baskets, expertly folded in napkins, or cooling on baking racks, carefully sliced to show delicious angles.
The audience research didn’t just support the behaviour already found in the data but also started to give us a deeper look into the all-important ‘why?’. Why do people turn to bread during a pandemic?
I organised their responses into an Empathy Map to put myself into our isolation baker’s shoes. Tricky, seeing as I’ve not yet so much as glanced at a bag of flour.
From the audience research, we uncovered a couple of relatively linear paths that people were taking to get their beloved bread fix.
We also identified a few key personas.
The First Time Flourer: It’s never too late to start. They’re taking baking on as a new challenge, an activity they can get better at and feel like they’ve ‘accomplished’ something. The perk of being able to eat the end product is of course a bonus!
The Sporadic Sourdougher: They bake now and then, so why not now? They want to do more things they enjoy during isolation now they have a little more time on their hands (and probably the need to keep the kids busy and fed). They’re motivated to dust off the old baking pans by the fluctuating availability of store-bought breads, asking themselves “why not just bake it myself?”
The Pain au Raisin Picasso: This isn’t their first rodeo. They’re continuing to do what they love while at home. They might be a little more endowed with the gift of time and the lingering feeling of needing to accomplish something. Or just trying to hold on to some sort of normality.
What did we find?
Although most of us had secretly hoped that we’d prove it was all for the ducks, it looks like it probably isn’t.
The first and most important finding is that the perceived increase of bread-related activity wasn’t just in our heads. The data supports vastly increased bread baking, bread searching and (most likely) bread eating behaviour. Good to establish off the bat.
So, why’s it happening?
The research lends weight to several of our initial theories. It seems the hypotheses of comfort, fulfilment, Armageddon and flour have support in the data.
It’s likely that more of us are baking because it gives us a sense of comfort and fulfilment. Homemade bread is a fantastic centering point in an uncertain world. A sense of achievement comes from a manual and inherently human task. It’s a basic necessity people buy, but now they’ve made it themselves (and can eat it after they’ve put in the work). People are getting the kids involved and sharing on social media. Bread brings us together and makes us proud of ourselves.
The correlation with BoJos’ pandemic announcements suggests that there may be an element of Armageddon. Although it’s unlikely this is a conscious behaviour, maybe in the back of our minds we’re all doomsday prepping?
The search behaviour around people looking for how to make bread, not what goes in bread, strongly suggests that they know they have the ingredients at home anyway. People aren’t going shopping; they’re raiding their cupboards. It seems an overabundance of flour (and time) inspires baking behaviour as much as anything. Use up what you have, stay at home. Simple.
We also learned some useful bread basics while shedding light on search behaviours:
1. Try a Sourdough Starter when you run out of yeast. And it’s more of a time investment – a pandemic win-win situation.
2. Banana Bread takes the cake on popularity. It’s a middle ground of bread and a treat and it uses up old bananas and baking ingredients.
3. Go back to the basics with Irish Soda Bread. Again, no yeast needed!
4. Pizza Dough is a pre-pandemic staple as well as during. It can be personalised and it’s a fun activity for the whole family!
What else did we learn?
We’re surviving and thriving. People are sharing their loaf-pics for the world to see what they’re doing at home at an amazing rate. There’s an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment, twinned with an ongoing challenge to bake the perfect loaf. And (importantly) it’s all edible.
People are getting back to basics, a simpler time, and doing what they love. And people really love bread. People are spending time with family over video, they’re nostalgic for home or life pre-pandemic. Bread is a simple pleasure that people love, and clearly cannot go without.
Avid bakers are getting back to it now they have more time. Some look up recipes online, while others use recipes handed down from family. Some bake alone or with people they love (or just in isolation with). They’re doing what they can with what they have on their shelves or what’s available at the store.
A positive in recent weeks is that social media has shone a light on people reacting wonderfully to what is a serious crisis. People are helping the vulnerable, supporting others, staying home, and showing love for the NHS. Who knew Instagrammed loaves would be a part of the heartwarming response to what’s facing us, and a part of the resolve of the nation to pull together and carry on?
As we settle into a sense of ‘isolation normalcy’, we can take comfort in the fact anger around the fluctuating bread situation is subsiding and a positive homemade bread trend is taking over.
Breads of all kinds are bringing people together at home and on the internet. Previously ‘just’ comfort food or everyday staple, now it’s a source to channel isolation frustration productively.
Perhaps Napoleon was almost right - although Britain might be no longer 'a nation of shopkeepers', we appear to be becoming 'a nation of bread-makers'.
Please tag your bread-making experience with #TheKnead4Bread!