Marketing Food in a World of Global Identities

Food is a sensitive subject in many ways. It’s more than sustenance, it’s how we define ourselves – and others. In a more global world, cultural and ethnic boundaries are increasingly becoming more permeable. Food in particular is available in more ethnic diversity than ever before. And therein lies a paradox. As diets become more different, they also become more similar. As individual tastes find greater opportunities to explore, the world shrinks just a bit. I can find Ethiopian cuisine in rural Indiana even as I find KFC in Beijing.

One way of reading this paradox is to shift from thinking of food in terms of “model” to “style”. The consumption model is a concept that refers to a community, nation, etc. “Style” refers to individual behavior, which, while culturally bound in many respects, is increasingly untethered from tradition. The individual’s food patterns lose any reference to a sense of collective belonging; the family, the social group, their economic class, the local community. They become driven by their subjective choice and hedonistic or ideological nature. So style choices become subject to a diversity of options and contexts. Food consumption becomes an expression of self more so than an extension of cultural norms.

In this sense, self-identity is determined more by lifestyle where people are presented a diversity of choices in all areas of their lives. The self is a reflexive project sustained through the routine development and sustainment of a coherent narrative of self-identity. However, while we are more likely to identify ourselves as being individuals, as creative as we get, it is our social interactions that regulates this sense of identity.

This paradox makes marketing food increasingly complex. Do we tell stories about the myth of the food or the product? Do we sell to the masses or do we find points of meaning among subcultures, cultures of practice, etc.? Do we adapt messaging to specific contexts and to what degree? Programmatic and hyper-targeting have allowed us to narrow the field and message to potential customers and consumers with amazing precision, but there are limits to what these tools can do. They don’t adapt to the shifting contexts and psychological factors that govern our decisions. Which means the role of creative, strategy, and research become ever more complex and important as we work to resolve the paradoxes surrounding food. The data is comforting because it is fixed. It lends a veneer of scientific legitimacy to the things we create. But, we have an opportunity, not just with how we market food, to bring an more expansive lens to the collection, management, and curation of messaging. We have an opportunity to spark more intimate conversations and connections.  

The diversity of foods across the globe has made food a much more democratic facet of modern societies. As a style, it is something that consumers are increasingly food-literate and empowered to comment on. Contributing to this are the swathe of entry points into the world of food for the modern consumer: celebrity cooking shows, foodie magazines, websites and food festivals. Here everyone is invited to participate in a range of cuisines that we might never eat. Like sports, you don’t have to play to be a member of the club.

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Fieldwork Part 2: Hemophilia

Coming out of the field, two themes emerged again and again from our research: the idea of rite of passage and the importance of control.

Rites of passage in adulthood serve as a symbolic transition into a new state of being, with certain responsibilities, actions, benefits, and social roles. In the case of non-compliant sufferers of hemophilia, that transition was almost always lacking. There is no ritual of separation as parents continue to call several times a day. There is no statement by either the person with the disease or the people who care for them acknowledging that they are now responsible for their own life – not just figuratively, but literally. And so, our participants created it for themselves.

This process was entirely personal, and these young men found themselves in an extended transitional state, searching for a sort of resolution. Until that resolution was found, the medication became a target for asserting a sense of growing personal control. The medication and the needle became the symbol on which to hang a new sense of control and identity.

Control over the physical, psychological, and cultural state that had dominated every element of their lives was central to our participants’ move to a new identity. There is no cure for hemophilia, but, in gaining control over their identity and establishing themselves as something “beyond the disease”, they are reborn as someone “with hemophilia” rather than a ”hemophiliac”. They become a fully realized person, rather than being an extension of the disease.

Having finally identified our two major conceptual themes, we developed a new campaign centered on the passage into adulthood. Working with our creative team, we changed the conversation from one of vague rebellion to one of control. Taking control of your regimen is a symbolic rebirth. Taking control of infusion means leaving your past behind, not just following the same old pattern. The focus was on defining your future through medication and redefining being a “hemophiliac”. Treatment would be synonymous with stripping the disease of its power and ushering in a whole new world of possibilities defined by the person with the condition.

We also knew that a traditional campaign wouldn’t have legs if it didn’t have a digital extension, so we developed an entirely new web presence: a new, secure website focused on the aspects of transition to living away from home. We developed a private community with a focus on tips, not support. The term support conjured images of the meddling they were trying to escape. “Tips” conveyed shared knowledge and the sense of fostering a community from a group with similar experiences others can’t quite grasp. The community is closed to anyone who doesn’t have the condition or who hasn’t been invited into the conversation by someone with hemophilia. Control is exclusive to people with hemophilia, they have the power to limit or extend their world as they see fit.

At a more concrete level, users gain control over payment, appointments, and doctors. They gradually transition into managing their own care over time, with a series of guideposts, acknowledgements and reminders.  This led to developing a model that allowed content to be restructured to reflect where users were on the transitional/post-transitional continuum. Content could be assigned based on how long they had been out of their parent’s home, whether or not they were living alone, and whether or not they were working regularly with a medical team to address the disease. All of this provided tools to manage the transition to independence.

This website also provided these young men with an outlet for sharing their experiences and stories, moving them from a sense of isolation – it’s decidedly uncommon to find someone else with hemophilia in your circle of friends and acquaintances – to one of community. The upside of this was increased support, a sense of belonging, shared advice, and more sustained, expansive interaction. Not only did it help increase compliance, it also helped broaden the conversation to other young men with hemophilia who were using another medication to regulate the disease. Jacob, a 19-year-old electrician expressed it by saying, “There aren’t that many of us, so when we’re talking with each other it’s believable, it’s real. It keeps you honest.”  In other words, it built awareness of and consideration for our client’s medication. And it helped these young men feel like they were more than their disease.

The pharmaceutical industry is extremely conservative and generally fixated on data. While the industry does hire people to do more exploratory work, numbers rule the marketing landscape. For this reason, and the fact that this was the first time they had ever funded this type of research, we chose to set the stage by telling a story.

The response? In addition to giving the green light to all of our proposals, the client asked that we share the work throughout the company as a demonstration of the power of qualitative research.

In the end, getting our heads out of the data, rethinking the questions, and getting into the lives of these young men made all the difference to the brand, and, I’d like to think, the people coping with the disease day to day.

Art, Advertising, and Food

From da Vinci’s late-15th-century “Last Supper” to Dana Sherwood’s contemporary videos of cakes being devoured by baboons, to The Food Network’s Cake Wars, food and art have always been inseparable. No single generalization can blanket our engagement with food across the broad range of media, from oil on canvas to fermented cabbage, or the variety of actions undertaken, but we can explore universal whys behind our food. At its simplest level, food looks, tastes, and smells good. It is fundamental to our existence.

But beyond that we interact with food intimately, consume it, ingest it, digest it—and internalize it in multiple senses—and with multiple senses. Food defines ordinary life and special occasions alike. It can create pleasure and provoke shame. A vehicle for stories, it prompts nostalgia and inspires utopian dreams. It embodies generosity, community, culture. It causes pollution and contributes to climate change. It’s in the kitchen, at the drive-through, on TV, filling up Instagram. It is fast and slow, super and junk, street and Michelin-starred. As long as art has been made, artists have found in food an endlessly elastic metaphor, and today’s artists use it for varied investigations of the body, identity, gender, community, the domestic, the sacramental, economics, politics, and the environment. 

Food is a basic human necessity. Art exists far down the continuum of biological need. Yet both serve to define Homo sapiens as a species. Humans are the only animals that cook and the only ones to create symbolic representations of reality. These two acts—the essential and the essentializing—have repeatedly converged in human history. From the beginning, in fact.

Since the creation of the cave paintings at Lascaux, food’s visual form has presented a challenge to virtuosity, inviting artists to imitate reality or redefine it. Food brings to the table the enduring themes of desire and transience. Food is an important aspect of how we document ourselves and our lives, even though it is very mundane. It isn’t just something we consume, it’s something we do. It’s not just a critique of other people but an introspective act.

Food is a medium with which to create emotion and, through emotion, to convey ideas. Caravaggio’s painted figs and apples expressed a poignant truth about time’s corrosive effect on beauty. Perhaps the same can be said about how we create advertisements for hamburgers, coffee, or tofu. Perhaps the same should be said. The outcomes of food-based advertising are irreconcilably different and dependent on its cultural role; the starting point is not.

Fieldwork Part 1: Hemophilia

David has hemophilia. Three days a week, he wakes up, showers, dresses, and sticks a needle into a vein. He’s been doing this since he was a child. He does this three days a week, for fifteen minutes each time, because if he doesn’t, a fall or scrape can land him in the hospital – or a coffin. This needle is a reality he’s lived with all 22 years of his life and one he will carry to the grave. It is, and always has been, a symbol of who he is. It has defined his life.

It would seem on the surface that medication compliance would be a non-issue. But for the makers of blood clotting drugs used to treat the disease, it turns out that managing this very necessary element to living with hemophilia is not as simple as it seems. Quite simply, young men (women very rarely suffer from hemophilia) are not particularly good about taking medication, even when that medication is essential to living a healthy life.

From the time they are children these individuals have limitations imposed upon them. Playing with others is often curtailed, parents hover, and they grow up constantly under a watchful eye. As one of our participants, John, explained as we sat in the Seattle apartment he shares with a couple of fellow college students:

“My mom and dad were everywhere, all the time. I get it, but it fucked with me, too. I couldn’t play sports until I was in high school. My mom controlled my infusion schedule and always checked to make sure I’d done it. So, when I went to college, yeah, I kind of slacked off. I don’t think it was some sort of rebellion, I mean, I wasn’t angry. But there’s a kind of freedom I’d never had before, and you take advantage of that, I guess. People can’t imagine what it’s like to shove a needle into their body twice a week, every week, and spend 15 minutes slowly pumping yourself full of your medicine.”

The transition from adolescence into adulthood can be difficult, but when chronic illness is a central marker of identity, that transition becomes harder for young men who have lived in a framework of dependence. Taking care to infuse means being able to engage in every activity they choose with the people around them, but there are a host of reasons to let treatment slide; some functional, such as time management, and some symbolic, like telling the disease to fuck off. 

The fieldwork noted that the role of shared space vs. private living space – often very limited – had an enormous impact on compliance. The first evidence of this point was the role of the refrigerator. Because the medication needs to be kept cold until use, it has to be stored in the refrigerator. Having the medication on public display was embarrassing and inevitably led to questions by both roommates and visitors. That meant that he and his medical condition were suddenly thrust into the spotlight, focusing attention not on the person, but the person as his illness. The second shared space vs. private space problem was finding a place to infuse. The process takes about 15 minutes and while it wasn’t hard to find time to do it, the patient needed to avoid interruptions, excuse himself and ensure some degree of privacy. Because this could be difficult or embarrassing, he might simply forego treatment.

House hygiene was another issue, especially in a shared environment. When we entered one apartment, as might be expected, I had to search to find a space that was free of pizza boxes, clothes, or textbooks. Keeping infusion equipment clean, keeping the bathroom clean, keeping the refrigerator clean, etc. was often a point of contention. Because the person with hemophilia is dependent on others to help keep a clean environment, it was often simply easier to skip infusion than to confront or manage the living situation with roommates.

But the environment is only one of the issues impacting these men; social and psychological changes are another. After moving away from home, young men with hemophilia encounter a degree of personal freedom that they have never experienced before. The wide range of limitations placed on these young men growing up are suddenly gone and learning how to handle it is the problem. There is a significant resistance to personal and social childhood limitations, the result being that finally getting involved in intramural football isn’t enough. As one participant, Brent, told us, “Hell yes, I did stupid things. I had someone watching everything I’ve done for my whole life. So you go a little bat-shit when you’re on your own.”

Resistance might mean drunken Twister, midnight wrestling, or skateboarding without a helmet. In one instance, I had the dubious honor of “officiating” an arm-wrestling contest that was fueled by shots of Fireball – not something you drink when planning an evening of rich conversation. I watched as our participant had his hand driven into the table by a friend who was considerably larger. Under normal circumstances this would have hurt, in this instance, had the participant not been infusing, it could have been life-threatening. 

Chronic illnesses can shape a life-long sense of self, and adulthood is the first time these young men have control over how the world sees them. Social bonding becomes more important than managing the disease because for the first time, they can simply be “Steve”, not “Steve the hemophiliac”. This sometimes leads to a more exaggerated expression than you see with the typical 18-year-old man. And it often leads to less compliance as the young man finds himself expressing his identity in opposition to the illness.

Not taking the medication is dangerous, but it’s also empowering. One participant, Jason, lived with two other young men in a small apartment, strewn with the standard debris of college life. For him, this wasn’t just a matter of letting the housekeeping slide a bit, it was a way of demonstrating his sense of independence. And while his infusion tools were kept clean and away from the chaos of the apartment, there was a haphazard element to their storage that fit the overarching theme of making a break with the past. “I know it’s stupid, but at least I’m in control. Not my mom. Not the disease.”

Technicolor Malt Liquor and All-Night Fieldwork

In its original formulation, Sparks was one of the first alcoholic beverages to contain caffeine. Its other original active ingredients included taurine, ginseng, and guarana, the backbone ingredients of traditional energy drinks. It also contained 6% alcohol. Packaged in a can that looked like a AAA battery, its labeling boldly and loudly stated all of its ingredients and its 6% alcoholic content by volume.  Its flavor was similar to other energy drinks mixed with malt liquor, having a tart, sugary, synthetic taste. Its color was a vibrant day-glow orange. All of this added up to a drink that catches the eye. Sparks was a catalyst for exploring a wilder side. It was what you took to a party, a kickball game, a rave or an outdoor concert.

Ethnography involves significantly more than one-on-one interviewing. The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word. Getting at this sort of knowledge can’t be uncovered exclusively through the interview process. So in the case of Sparks, this meant meeting with our key informants and their friends. It meant going out on the town and being part of the activities, not just asking about them. Inevitably, this led us to bars, parties, etc. Being in the moment, taking advantage of unexpected fieldwork situations to gather information, became the unspoken mantra of the research.

And it is out of these moments that good insights, not just data points, begin to emerge. In one case we found ourselves at the apartment of a 28-year-old male living on the Upper East Side. He had gotten into the recruitment mix because he was making under $50,000 a year (the majority of Sparks drinkers were not affluent and so the client had asked that we cap the incomes). However, the participant, Marco, was taking time off from his job as the head of social media for a major clothing brand. At the time he left he was making upwards of $300,000. So Marco had gotten into the mix on a technicality. He clearly fell outside the segmentation scheme, but as it turned out, our day with Marco was instrumental to the success of the project. As it turned out, while he stocked his pantry with high-quality wines and liquor, he was also an avid Sparks fan. Not so much for its energy properties, and certainly not the flavors, but because it allowed him to reconnect with what he saw as his rebel past. Marco recounted his early years in New York, struggling to get by and living a romanticized quasi-punk existence. Every Sunday, Marco would spend the day in Brooklyn with his pre-affluence friends building and riding mutant bikes and the searching out the “worst” or “most ridiculous” drink possible. For Marco, and for almost all the Sparks fans we met, Sparks became something that not only gave them symbolic license to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, but also provided them with a sense of connection to their youth.

While each individual and situation in the fieldwork was unique, patterns did emerge. And when things started to click, it was precisely because we’d found ourselves engaged in the absurd. The questions that needed to be asked and the observations that need to take place could have only happened by breaking away from traditional methods.

Sparks isn’t as simple as the obvious functional benefits or flavor. It’s property that is guarded, like someone’s stash. It’s a mechanism for rekindling friendships. It’s an excuse to treat life as performance art. And most importantly, it’s a symbol that tells everyone the drinker has license to break the rules and to turn the night into something absurd. Inevitably, when you’re drinking Sparks, the expectation is that you’ll be out late engaging in the unexpected. In one case it meant heading to a rave in in the Bronx, followed by a sunrise trip to Hoboken to find a place that served legendary waffles. In another, it set the stage for semi-nude wrestling on the front lawn in the cold and damp of a Portland winter. The important thing to take away from this is that a pattern of behavior emerged that we wouldn’t have gotten had had we simple conducted an interview or run a survey. We had to be in the moment. That’s how you change the game.

We Are What We Drink

Just as beer cases have become filled with colorful labels and wine cellars have started to fill with more regional variety than we could ever have imagined, craft spirits are becoming alternatives to the traditional big liquor names. The number of craft distilleries jumped 16% in 2018 and 26% in 2017. In terms of what that represents to the workforce, 19,529 people now work full-time at craft spirits companies.

By far, the greatest number of craft distillers, 32.7 %, are in western states, with the South coming in second at 29.3. Third is the Midwest with 19.1% and the Northeast right behind at 18.9%. Among individual states, the leader by far is California, which has 148 craft distilleries, or nearly 10% of the total. New York State is next, with 123 craft distilleries. Washington State has 106, Texas has 86, and Colorado has 80.

Craft distilleries still represent a fraction of the overall booze market, but they’re steadily picking up sales and volume. In 2016, craft distilleries held 3% of sales. By 2017, that rose to 3.8%. On the surface that seems small, but gaining nearly a percentage point in such a massive industry point to a broader shift, just as it did with beer. Looking at the volume, that becomes abundantly clear. In actual cases, the craft industry has risen from 2.5 million cases sold in 2012, to 5.8 million cases in 2017. Interestingly, more than half of the sales for craft distillers come from customers in their home state. So craft distilling is on the rise, but why? And what does it say about marketing?

Food and drink can have something that the distilling world has long dismissed: a sense of place, drawn from the soil and climate where the grains grow – drawn from the history and cultural patterns that create a sense of meaning. This is tied to a growing international movement by distillers, plant breeders and academic researchers to return distilling to what they see as its locally grounded. Spirits with a sense of place can be made by cultivating regionally specific varieties, along with farming and distilling techniques that emphasize a spirit’s local flavor. But this idea goes well beyond flavor.

Something craft distilleries have done, whether intentional or not, is to tap into or create a sense of history and, in some cases, a sense of mystery. Lifestyle and connectedness have a great impact on consumer behavior and brand preferences. Very often, we choose brands that are considered “appropriate” for our self-image, that fit within a specific context/mood, or are representational of an idea. As a result, we use brands as a relevant means of self-expression and drama. They are “beacons”. Identifying the contexts in which a brand finds life and meaning establishes a sense of connectedness. Tying it to a sense of place and time creates a story that we can immerse ourselves in. For any brand, that crafting of the story can have a huge impact on its longevity and relevance.

We identify and find purpose through the symbols we adorn ourselves with. Those symbols take on the shape of brands, which is probably why a wider variety of cultural expressions among brands can close the gap between the individual self and the commercial self.

Retail IS Marketing

We’ve been hearing about the eminent death of brick and mortar retail for a very long time. And while the industry continues to be squeezed as more people shift their buying habits online, retail is far from dead. It does, however, need to evolve and think about how it can remain culturally relevant. A lot’s been said about how consumers today don’t settle for just great products. They want their brands to reflect their lifestyle and values. Things like authenticity, ethical behavior, relevance to their identity matter more than ever before. Retail shopping is becoming more complex and is more than a place to make a purchase – the retail experience is a marketing platform. With the increased use of online shopping and the ease of access to a more and more locations, people are making choices based on underlying desires, not just functional needs. Thinking about the retail experience as a marketing tool will increase loyalty and sales. Treating your retail experience as a marketing tool involves six crucial elements:

  1. Tell a Great Story

The term “lifestyle” is thrown around fairly freely, but for us it’s about storytelling and engaging with people in a conversational way. A retail brand needs to be viewed in the same way a customer might view a friend who’s changing and evolving, but still has a strong sense of DNA. That means having a clear tone, but not being restricted by a rigid set of rules. It also requires that the brand communicate its story in everything it does, from traditional adverting, to how employees interact with guests, to its presence in social media. Every touch point needs to align with the other to create a clear, singular expression of why the brand exists, not just what it sells.

  • Unexpected Topics

Your brand shouldn’t be pigeonholed; it should be seen in a light where there is meaning and narratives are celebrated. A retailer can’t be afraid to venture outside its vertical and engage with people in unanticipated ways. This isn’t to say that the brand should jump into every conversation for the sheer sake of having a voice, but it should think creatively. For example, knowing banks need to attract younger customers, why not have a pop-up retail presence at a music festival? If your brand sells men’s clothing, why not host a happy hour? The point is, being an unexpected part of a conversation makes your brand more relevant in daily life.

  • Guides, Not Clerks

Going forward, in-store staff will have to be more educated and receive more training than retail staffers get today. That will of course lead to a larger training investment by the retailer, but the benefit is that there will be greater incentive to reduce staff turnover, which in turn will improve the shopping experience for consumers by making staff more knowledgeable and able to build lasting relationships with customers.

  • Technology

Technology will continue to change the store experience. Not just technology for the supply chain that gets products into the store faster and more reliably, but technology that consumers can use in the store. The technology that’s coming will recognize the consumer when they come into the store and make recommendations that are relevant and time-saving for them. It will also help retailers to organize and present products in ways that are more relevant to how consumers actually shop. With that in mind, staying ahead of the curve will ensure customers think of your brand first when deciding where to shop.

  • Create a Stage

Shopping is seen by most marketers first as a function and secondarily as something that serves emotional and social needs. Even as we talk about retail therapy, we revert in marketing to discussions about seemingly rational behavior. In fact, entertainment and a memorable in-store experience probably have more to do with a sale than the product or the ease with which people find it. Choice equates with enjoyment, turning shopping from labor to entertainment. The retail environment is an expansive, immersive media platform. People create memories within places if storylines develop and form personal connections. The stronger the connection, the more likely they are to frequent the space and to buy.

  • Foster Social Roles

When shopping is done with others, as a family or with a friend, it is as much about establishing social bonds and being an outing as it is about fulfilling specific needs.  It has replaced the park, the lake, etc. Brands that encourage people to interact both with each other and the space leads to a greater sense of brand affinity, reinforces the roles people have adopted for that shopping excursion, and creates a shared cultural connection.

Even as we talk about retail therapy, we often revert in marketing to discussions about seemingly rational behavior. But it isn’t so simple anymore. Shopping is about more than just getting more “stuff”.  Brick and mortar shopping as it is practiced today in particular jumps the line between a transactional and social experience. Shopping is as much about entertainment, establishing cultural roles and teaching cultural norms (or rebelling against them) as it is about anything else. No doubt we’ll see a range of creative ways in the future of dealing with the diversifying modes of shopping. For example, product companies may provide space to relevant service businesses. A luggage or travel store can have space for a Kayak or Expedia kiosk or service desk. The point is that it’s going to take creativity to get maximum leverage out of limited capital. But the payoff is a stronger connection to a brand, increased loyalty, and more dollars spent.