Food, Blood and Marketing

Package it, slap a label on it and sell it for $4.99 a pound. It’s as simple as that when you’re selling groceries, right? Hardly. Food, meat in particular, is tied to cultural sensibilities about production, cleanliness, family values and a host of other topics. Meat, like Norman Rockwell images of the American farm, is myth. We’ve been conditioned to turn away from the origins of our food and respond to blood and death with repulsion. Or have we? With the emergence of a “foodie” nation and a growing movement interested in eliminating those things we deem bad for us (nitrates, high fructose corn syrup, glutens, etc.) we are learning to appreciate where our food comes from again. But how far are most of us willing to go? Understanding what organic means doesn’t mean we’re ready to embrace everything. Take blood.

Blood is one of the least used parts of the pig and it’s a terrible waste.  Not just in resources, but as a culinary experience. And in many cases, it endows the adage “blood is thicker than water” with a wealth of meaning. It, like the butchering, is part of a family tradition — it creates bonds of familial piety, it teaches lessons about the importance of food is the greater social milieu, it pulls people together in a primal understanding of the role of the family bond in survival. It even teaches us about cosmology.  It may look like just a bunch of blood and gore, but it is so very much more. But the idea of selling blood as an ingredient at the local grocery, or even a natural food store like Whole Foods, is probably more than most Americans are willing to stomach, literally and figuratively.

With wealth comes the desire to learn about where our food comes from, how it’s produced and what exactly is in it. But in a postmodern world where our food is often more a badge than an actual need or culinary norm, we have limits to what we’ll accept. The point is that shopping for food is an increasingly complex process as has less to do with securing calories than it does with symbols and meaning. And the same can be said for most products. If you’re a marketer, that means understanding layers of complexity that may have gone overlooked in the past and developing strategies to account for that complexity. Anything less and your plan is a bloody mess.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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  1. Actually, here in Spain some kind of black pudding (morcilla) is quite appreciated. During the ritual killing of the pig during winter, people took care of rescuing as much blood as possible in order to make morcillas. Morcillas had two meanings: 1) as using as much parts of the pig as possible 2) as a cultural barrier between Christian communities and Muslim and Jew ones during the Middle Ages. A comparison between black pudding and blood libels would be very productive for ethnohistory

    And now, in this plain, multicultural world, layers and layers of meaning are over our meals and the meals of the Other ones. Our ancestors just ate what their ancestor ate, but our urbanites contemporary meals are very far from our traditions and, because of this, we are working with very different, hybrid sets of meal-related symbols. For instance, in Europe go to a McDonalds is “American eating”, with all the positive and negative values connected to America. At the same time, Americans get puzzled once and again in our McDonalds, watching how people drink beer, wine and our national summer beverage.

    As meals are much more than commodities but consumer and even status-related products, ethnographic research of meal shopping and consumption at their respective context is more and more necessary.

    1. That is a terrific point, Juan. I should have clarified that I was talking about the US and Canadian food habits, though it seems the world is increasingly becoming detached from what it eats and though the interest is being rekindled, there is still a legacy of what constitutes “acceptable” ingredients. Particularly in urban and suburban settings where there are many people who have never seen a pig (unless it was at the petting zoo).

      1. I lived with three American students at the dorms at Hebrew University at Jerusalem, 1998-1999. When one of them tried to impress me, he took me into the meat market in the Old City, with lambs dropping blood into the soil. At the very beginning I didn’t understand why he seemed to be surprised by my lack of reaction, until I realized that possibly at his home he had never seen such things. it was one of the many cultural shocks that I experienced there, and very productive for discussions about culture.

        My children have seen farms and work at the orchards. Since they are 6 and 4 years old, they haven’t seen any blood or butchering-related activities, which is a proof that my world has changed too: although I am not traumatized at all for such sights and activities, I feel not appropiate for them to watch it.

        Anyways, although a lot of westerners are detached of the sources of their food, they cannot detach symbols and meanings from it, just change for other ones. The problem is, as always, to convince a potential customer that investing in fieldwork research is going to be productive for his or her meal-related company

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