One of the reasons that Category Management was invented over 30 years ago was to help address questions such as this. The most fundamental concept of Category Management is that the consumer should be at the center of all marketing and merchandising decisions. This means that how we define a category and how we merchandise it in the store should as closely as possible reflect how consumers define their needs and how they use and buy the category. The right answer to the "ethnic foods" question then would be based on the answers to these fundamental questions. Do consumers have a need to buy "ethnic food" products or is this need typically driven by how the consumer uses these products? If the latter is more typically the case, then integrating and merchandising these products within the categories that contain the products that use ethnic products as ingredients is more likely the right approach. The exception is when the products (e.g. plant based products) are new. Merchandising these separately is generally the right answer until the consumer becomes more familiar with these products, then Category Management principles would suggest integrating these products into their broader use categories.
I agree with the point of view that we need to stop using the term "ethnic foods." Again another Category Management principle is to not use names for a category or group of products that have little connection with consumer needs. How often do consumers go shopping for "ethnic foods"? I'd argue very rarely and therefore we need to revise the naming of a category or group of products to more closely reflect how consumers see and buy these products.
This is a good and timely discussion and I’m delighted to be part of it. What has amazed me is that the Category Management idea is over 25 years old since I first made reference to the idea in 1989 at a CIES conference in France. Very few ideas and methods have lasted that long in our fast paced business. Its longevity, in my opinion, has been the result of its simple philosophy and principles. If we understand and think like the consumer (now the shopper and consumer) and share the best possible insights about these ultimate targets of all our work we will make better decisions about how to best meet these needs.
What has changed over the years of course are two things. First the availability and quality of information and insights into consumers and shoppers and how consumer and shopper behavior are connected in an integrated journey. We can now have a clearer understanding of how consumer needs (always the starting point) ultimately end up in category and product purchase decisions made when the consumer becomes a shopper. Second is the rapid emergence of online digital channels as an alternative way for consumers and shoppers to meet these needs.
To me what is most exciting about this is that now we have more tactical tools to reach and influence the decisions of shoppers. In the original Category Management approach, the only tools we had were the traditional merchandising tactics (assortment, shelf presentation, pricing and promotion) all executed in an in-store environment. We simply now have more information and a broader array of tools to understand and deploy as we strive, as has always been the goal of Category Management, to create greater satisfaction and loyalty for our categories and brands.
As my friend Dr. George says, getting back to basics is the best way to start evolving Category Management to take advantage of the new opportunities. Let’s not make this too complicated. If we keep it simple, there is no reason why Category Management, like Brand Management, will not still be a method we are using in another 25 years from now.