Retail as an Entertainment Space

Shopping is usually thought of in terms of work – procuring goods, meeting needs, etc.  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.  But it isn’t so simple anymore. As incomes have grown, access has exploded and free time has increased, shopping has become entertainment as much as anything else. Even in an unstable economy, the decision to buy is driven as much by value as it is by need (perceived and real). 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.

This is not to say that entertainment is the only way to look at shopping, but it increasingly an element that shouldn’t be overlooked. Shopping becomes entertainment depending upon the function, need, and desire for the object being shopped. For example, shopping for t-shirts can sometimes be a pain in the butt if it is “needed” for a “utilitarian function” (a “work bra”), but it can become entertainment if the t-shirt is “desired” for other cultural functions.

What this means for shopper marketing is that the best retail experiences, those with the highest degrees of loyalty and sales, are those that project a story and invite the shopper into the narrative. Increasing sales revolves around more than getting people in the store, it involves getting them to think of the store as a destination and thinking of it as a “Place” rather than a “Space.” Place comes into existence when humans give meaning to a part of the larger, undifferentiated space. One of the most affective ways to do this is to incorporate people into an entertainment experience and directly involve them in the story. So, how do you go about doing this? It starts with some simple but powerful tools.

  1. Language: In the past, language emphasized the skill and mastery involved in shopping. There were very real, practical results stemming from skill as a home manager. With time, the primal need to “hunt” has changed. Hunting and production are no longer about survival, but about the challenge and the social capital it brings. Lines between work and leisure are blurred. Language used in advertising and inside the retail space needs to speak to the romanticized view of the hunt as much as it does the material benefits of the products. Rather than speaking about functional benefits, the focus needs to reflect on the social capital gained by the shopper and the storyline of the shopper’s life (or desired, projected life).
  2. Create a Stage: The store is indicative of a theater. Even without the direct associations with a specific story line a retail space should still conform to some very basic principles.  Namely, escape, fantasy, and inclusion. The total experience speaks to cultural and psychological triggers of enjoyment and participation. 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. A good retail space needs to be create a shared identity, connecting the company and the shopper by developing clear imagery and displays that create the sense that there is a narrative behind the façade.
  3. 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.  Natural space is replaced by constructed space. Retail spaces that encourage people to interact both with each other and the space leads to a greater sense of calm and reinforces the roles people have adopted for that shopping excursion. For example, placing small sweets throughout a lingerie store (returning to our bra example) increases the sense of romanticism and allows people to “play” to the underlying storyline the shopper and her counterpart are seeking.

In the end, retail shopping is becoming more complex. 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. Anything a retailer can do to improve the experience is a key differentiator. Differentiate your store and you increase loyalty and sales.


By Gavin

Lying Liars and Lying in Research

Humans are masters of lying and self-deception. We want others to believe us good, fair, responsible and logical, and we yearn to see ourselves this way.  Sometimes this is overt and conscious, other times it’s a matter of the subconscious directing our actions and words.

When our actions appear selfish, prejudiced or in opposition to cultural norms, we engage a host of strategies to justify our behavior with rational excuses. “I bought that gigantic SUV because I have I have kids.” “I bought myself these extra jeans because no one helps around the house and I deserve it.” “I buy Maxim for the articles.” People restructure situations, from actions to words, to view their behavior in a more positive light.

So what do we do about it?

  1. Listen for cadence and the amount of run-on language when people are answering specific questions.  While there are simply people who talk (and talk and talk), people are trained to take turns in language. When a person talks more than he or she normally does, assuming you don’t intentionally give signals cuing them to speak, it is often a sign of avoidance and lying.
  2. Body language signs of lying give a person away easily primarily because lying is not a natural thing. We respond with hard-wired responses that are subconscious and therefore hard to fake. Or to hide. The simplest thing is to tell the truth and the body knows this. Avoiding eye contact, hand wringing and face touching are signs that consciously or subconsciously, the person isn’t telling the truth.
  3. Recognize that lying isn’t necessarily intentional or negative. Ethnographers do not assume that people are lying during an interview, but that their perceptions and ideals may not correspond to the realities of their daily life. People often “weed out” information that they believe is extraneous, may be embarrassing or that they simply forgot. And that is data.


By Gavin



Let’s Rethink Hispanic Marketing

In the last few years, we have witnessed growing in Hispanic marketing.  This is sometimes a well developed plan and at other times it is something of a short-sided.  In both cases, however, the definition of the Hispanic customer is often one dimensional.  Even as we’ve witnessed the growth in interest on the part of marketers, we have also witnessed the Hispanic market rapidly maturing in multiple dimensions. Examples include a proliferation of ad campaigns targeting Spanish speakers and the continued growth of media sources geared toward consumption by the Hispanic market.

Interestingly, it is at the moment this market seems to have arrived that it is changing in ways that will again challenge businesses.  It is precisely at the point where the Hispanic market has become large enough to warrant such interest that it is changing and becoming something altogether new.

The Emerging Biculturalism

Marketers obviously need to be well informed to successfully merchandise a brand to Hispanic consumers, but before they can take that step they must define what it is they mean by “Hispanic.”  Identity and language are dynamic, and so how we perceive ourselves changes with our community at a given moment, allowing us multiple identities within a day.  The same can be said for a brand as people internalize it. One extremely difficult but fundamentally important piece of information is coming to an understanding that “Hispanic” is a loaded term and changes meaning frequently. Because ethnic identity is fluid, it means people work within a set of roles that are created in social interaction with other people. As people change, so does the meaning of “Hispanic.”

A great deal has been written about levels of acculturation and the ongoing shift from Hispanic and/or ethnic dominant cultural patterns to bicultural cultural patterns. Material is continually being written about how this shift will reshape key issues in marketing, the role of language, and the continuation of aspirational advertising.

There are, as might be expected, individuals and companies conducting research to dispel the fact that language use and language preferences are changing.  Of course, they have a vested interest in promoting a Spanish-language focus.  On the other side, there are those who embrace the notion that English is playing an increasing role in the lives of Hispanics. The reality is that increasingly, the norm lies somewhere in between and that there are varying degrees of language loyalty on any given day.  Considering this segment is growing at twice the rate of other Hispanic segments, it is a significant issue. They have more disposable income, higher levels of education, and a greater influence on popular culture at large. What this means for companies reaching out to Hispanics is that the would-be consumer target is in the process of becoming something entirely new.  Targeting these evolving consumers will no doubt lead to increased awareness and profits, but understanding them, reaching them and deciding how they fit into a broader business strategy is decidedly complex and requires a subtle approach.

As the market matures and becomes a fixture of the larger American experience, the question is less about whether or not the Hispanic market is viable and a point of growth.  Instead, it is about uncovering how we respond in the long term.  Inevitably, as companies increase their presence in the Hispanic market, they invariably change its nature and help create something new.  It is the companies who can think creatively and act quickly that will succeed in this newly developing conversation and approach to understanding.


By Gavin

10 Things to Look For When Hiring an Ethnographer

Following are a number of questions every ethnographer should be able to answer.

1.  Is my project a good fit for ethnography?

Your ethnographic provider should be able to determine whether ethnography is a good fit based on your business objectives, timeline and budget. Ethnography is good for teasing out tactical insights, but best for strategic work because it focuses on systems of behavior and cultural meaning.

2.  What methods are utilized during ethnographic fieldwork?

Ethnographers utilize a combination of multiple methodologies, but should always mention participant observation and inductive interviews.  The interview, however, is only part of the process and an ethnographer should be able to discuss how he or she will uncover what people do as well as what they say.

3.  How long do ethnographic projects take to complete?

It depends on the scope of your project, but a really fast ethnography will take a couple months.  If a provider tells you otherwise, they aren’t doing ethnography.  That isn’t to say they aren’t doing ethnographically-informed work, they just aren’t doing a full-blown ethnography.

4.  Do ethnographers have a discussion guide like focus groups moderators?

Yes, however each ethnographer has a different style of inquiry, and will not repeat verbatim what is in the field guide.  The guide is meant to articulate possible avenues of inquiry, but the participant typically directs the conversation.

5.  What is the ethnographic analysis process?

Ethnographers should be able to explain their analytical process and this description should include a reference to social and cultural theory.  It should involve cultural modeling, uncovering variables and a process for systematically connecting elements of information.

6.  What is the difference between videography and ethnography?

Videography is story-telling through video. Videography may capture the moment, but lack the rigor of structured research. Videography is typically a portion of ethnography.

8.  What qualifications should ethnographic fieldworkers have?

They should have significant training in a social science disciplines, such as anthropology or sociology.  They should also have a wide range of field experiences.

9.  How do ethnographers learn ethnography?

They learn the basics of ethnography in graduate school and through hands-on experience in the field. To become a practitioner requires understanding of social science theory, research methods and research design.

10.  How can I be sure I can use the results from ethnographic research?

A good ethnographer will work with you to plan a research project that is designed around your business objective.  Therefore sampling, data collection and data analysis will all be guided by the end goal.  A good ethnographer understands the difference between interesting and actionable findings.


By Gavin

So Video Ain’t Science

None of us would claim that sticking a camera in someone’s face doesn’t alter the dynamics or change the behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions we are trying to study.  But I do argue that the use of video in market research and data collection should lead the way in understanding and developing more complete pictures of user-centered design, customer-focused products and services, and customer behavioral patterns.  Unfortunately, the methodology has sometimes been disregarded as too expensive, too subjective, or not reflecting “real science.”

Even in an age where video capture is part of every living moment, it’s not uncommon for a researcher using video in data collection to run into people concerned with the validity of the method.  Sometimes the concerns revolve around whether film and video are art or science.  Because of its interpretive, creative, impressionistic, and emotional attributes, art is sometimes assumed to be in direct conflict with an objective, value-free science—apparently creating an unavoidable conflict between the goals of film as art and user research as science. Consequently, people, academics and professionals alike, assume limited possibilities for video.

Film and video are frequently seen as a humanistic sideline to significant scientific work designed to satisfy the creative urge or appeal to the emotional pliability of the audience.  Ultimately, the producer of the final visual document is seen as selectively building subjectively constituted data and constructing a piece that reflects his/her interpretation rather than “the facts.”  However, the same can be said for any written document, particularly when behavioral research methods are applied to data collection for a specific task or client need.  And it holds true for both the quantitative and qualitative sides. The impact is wide reaching; a logo-centric culture perpetuates a compartmentalizing and hierarchizing of sources of ethnographic knowledge, which prevents researchers from benefiting from the full breadth of insight and information available.  Slide decks and written reports often have pictures, and films often use verbal narratives, subtitles or intertitles, and have accompanying written material, in the shape of film-makers’ notes, contemporary ethnographies, study guides, or internally produced handouts and bibliographies.  The reality is that while the film-focused researcher does indeed run the risk of compromising the complex realities of a particular behavior or series of behaviors, the risk is no greater than that of the researcher relying primarily on the written word.

Typically, film is accepted most openly is when it is considered to fit the documentary archetype.  This stems from the widely held belief that film is a mirror for the world, that the camera never lies.  Within a positivist science, the camera is regarded as a device for scientifically recording data about human behavior that is more objective than other types of information because of the mechanical nature of the collection device.  It can be argued that unedited research footage is scientific data that researchers can study because of its assumed purity. However, given the context of the work (time limitations and constraints imposed by the nature of contractual research), the footage supplied by the camera may be as close as we can get to a check of objectivity.  The reality of research purchased by a company is such that it assumes, even demands, a final product that is easily used, applies to a wide range of internal needs, and can be readily disseminated.

For some, manipulation of the footage (editing it into a film, altering, etc.) destroys its “scientific value.”  Thus the science of film is found in the raw footage, while the art of film is located in constructing it into a film.  In a perfect enactment of this model, collaborative teams go into the field to film material that the scientist studies and the filmmaker transforms into art.  In actuality, this fantasy is never realized.  The footage is indeed dissected and analyzed by the researcher, typically transformed into a product the client will readily consume, but by its very nature qualitative research always has a degree of subjectivity.  In fact, any and all research, be it in the field and interpretive or in the laboratory and highly controlled, involves subjectivity and personal biasing to one degree or another.  This hardly invalidates the work or the means by which data are captured and displayed.  Validity and reliability are not necessarily one and the same.

In fact, the film or video editor who was not present at the interview can assume the role of journalistic gatekeeper. This is precisely the role of the editor in many documentary film productions.  There is no question that pieces of information may be lost, but the alternative of having a film be ignored or a report sit unused because the basic issues could not be made clear quickly and concisely may conceivably outweigh this fact.  It is a simple reality of conducting research for industry.  The editors job, then, is to ensure that the video is dynamic and concise enough to engage the audience(s) while conveying the most important information.


By Gavin


My Meat Has Meaning

Success translates well into narrative.  So does failure. Who hasn’t heard those wonderful stories of marketing campaigns gone astray when introduced into a global setting? Remember when Puffs tissue started marketing their tissues in Germany and it didn’t do so well because “Puff” means “brothel” in German?  Or when Bacardi launched a fruit drink named Pavian in France it translated into slang as “chick,” but when they promoted it in Germany the same word meant “Baboon?”

We’ve all heard of these mistakes and we all get a chuckle, but the business ramifications of not doing your cultural homework are tremendous. And this goes well beyond something as superficial as a mistranslation.  We are prone to imposing our way of seeing the world on others, but what we may see in the developed world as universal may be significantly different in developing countries. Culture shapes how we use, interpret and shop for goods and what US shoppers may see as simply, say, buying chicken for dinner may mean much more in another part of the world. In other words, retailers and manufacturers need to understand what matters and why it matters according to different cultural perceptions.

Returning to our example of purchasing chicken at the grocery in the US, take concepts of cleanliness and food safety. As a population that has had easy access to meat for longer than most of us can remember, our concerns revolve around the promotion of “health” as a means of reducing fat in the diet. Increasingly, we make decisions based on the sanitary conditions of the farms where chickens are raised and the ethical treatment of the animals.  We increasingly associate “healthy” with being “green” (another wonderfully loaded and vague word). That has led to a push for reduced packaging as proof of sustainability and healthy living.

Now, take China. In a place where access to meat was – until fairly recently – limited, chicken is associated with status and upward mobility.  In the past, the source of the meat itself was usually suspect because you often purchased it in less than uniform locations.  Consequently, what we would see as excessive packaging is understood differently – the factory setting implies progress, wealth and modernity, which in turn imply good “health.”  Meat is something you want to show off to your friends and family because it is associated with status, which is associated with good health. Add to that the fact that people in much of China (as well as East Asia and the Middle East) have traditionally seen the chicken as something other than a pure commodity.  Indeed, there are many poems written about chickens. The result is that if you position chicken in the developing world as you might in the US, as a low-fat, easy to prepare alternative source of protein, it won’t correspond to the local worldview and your brand won’t gain traction.  You will invest a lot of money and may get very little in return. And China is only one example; expand this to the BRIC nations or the Middle East.

So what does it mean for marketing your brand in the developing world (in fact, what does it mean for marketing your brand in Alabama vs. LA)? It means that before you decide to launch or even reposition a brand or product around the world you need to spend some time digging and learning why people live the way they do and how your brand can fit into that complex system of practices and beliefs.  It isn’t enough to make sure the language is translated correctly or the color pallet makes sense. You have to come to understand the population the way you understand your neighbor. That’s where you find new opportunities and that’s where you find growth, both in terms of brand equity and the bottom line.


By Gavin

For the Love of Shopping

To the credit of marketing, advertising, and research people the days of talking about the consumer as the sole focus of shopping activity are essentially gone. We recognize that the shopper and the consumer are not always the same. Indeed, it is often the case that they are not. The focus has shifted to the process that takes place between the first thought a consumer has about purchasing an item, all the way through the selection of that item. While this is a reasonable approach to understanding the people who buy and use a company’s products, it still has one principle flaw. Namely, it focuses on individuals rather than systems of people and the behavioral and cultural drivers behind their actions. The distinction is subtle but important because it assumes the shopping experiences goes well beyond the product itself, which is largely functional, and considers the product (and brand) as a means of facilitating social interaction. In other words, it thinks about shopping as a means of establishing cultural norms, emotional bonds, and identity.

Shopping as a Function
Think of the shopping experience as a continuum of cultural patterns with the shopper moving along the line as influences shape their intent and behavior depending on context, consumer, and people of varying influence falling at different points along the line. The baseline goal may be as simple as getting groceries in the home with the consumers all adding to the shopping list. On the surface, it is a reasonably simple process to understand. We need food to survive and we need to make sure the food we buy reflects the realities of personal tastes within a household. This is the functional side of the shopper experience. First, shopping is viewed as a collection of interdependent parts, with a tendency toward equilibrium. Second, there are functional requirements that must be met in a social unit for its survival (such as procurement of food). Third, phenomena are seen to exist because they serve a function (caloric intake). So shopping is seen in terms of the contribution that the individual shopper makes to the functioning of the whole or the consuming group. Of course, this is part of what we have to market to, but it is only one part of the shopping equation.

The problem is that this approach is unable to account for social change, or for structural contradictions and conflict. It is predicated on the idea that shopping is designed for or directed toward a final result. Shopping, it assumes, is rooted in an inherent purpose or final cause. Buying cookies is more than getting calories into your kids. In fact, it has precious little to do with the kids at all and it is at this point that the shopper begins to move to the other end of the shopping continuum.

Shopping as Part of Something Bigger
Human beings act toward the things they buy on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters. Shopping, then, can be viewed through the lens of how people create meaning during social interaction, how they present and construct the self (or “identity”), and how they define situations with others. So, back to cookies. The mom buying cookies is rewarding her children, but in doing so she is expressing to herself and the world that she is a good mom, that she is loving, and that she understands her role as a parent.

As another example, imagine a husband who buys all organic vegetables for his vegan wife. He is expressing solidarity, support, recognition of her world view, etc. He may, however, slip a steak into the basket as a personal reward for having been a good husband which he expressed through accommodating her dietary needs. The fundamental question is not whether or not he responds to advertising describing the products, but what are the social and cultural mechanisms under the surface that shape why he makes his choices. What the shopper buys and the consumer shares are individual, rational choices. They are gifts that create an obligation to reciprocate in some way. Through the gift, the givers yield up part of themselves and imbue the product with a certain power that helps maintain the relationship. The gift is therefore not merely a product but also has cultural and social properties. In other words, the shopper and the consumer are doing much more with products than fulfilling the need for which the product was designed. The product becomes a tool for maintaining relationships. What that means for a marketer is that when we design a shopping experience, we need to dig deeper than the product. We need to address the underlying social and cultural patterns in people’s lives.

Speaking in Broad Terms
All of this means that when we are develop a new means by which we target shoppers, we need to remember to speak to both ends of the continuum and remember that shopping is both a functional and a symbolic act. Shoppers and shopping break into two categories. On one end is the purely functional element and on the other is the structural/symbolic element. Shopping for nuts and bolts clearly falls on the functional end, but not necessarily the tools with which they are used. Understanding and talking to both ends of the continuum leads to a broader audience and that leads to increased sales and brand recognition. Which is, when all is said and done, the ultimate goal.


By Gavin

Has Ethnography Become Just Another Word?

Ethnography: Just Another Word?

Research methods are inevitably watered down over time.  Distinguishing qualified practitioners from people who simply say they practice a method of insight gathering can be difficult. And indeed, all that really matters to most businesses, rightfully I might add, is the ability to produce insights that have a positive impact on the bottom line. Ethnography is just such a practice and while it is a relatively hot commodity it begs the question, has ethnography become a word with little or no meaning? Has it lost a sense of grounding as it has taken on a variety of different meaning depending on who is talking about it and in what context? How is it best used? And by whom? And who makes that determination, the buyer or the practitioner?

The “What” of Ethnography

Generally speaking, academics and research practitioners in the private sector would agree that ethnography in today’s world is about differing types of observation. With few exceptions, they would agree that participant observation, interviewing, and inductive logic are part of the ethnographic toolkit. Ethnography is as much a way of understanding the world as it is a specific set of methodological tools, putting culture and context at the heart of any investigation.

The “what” is fairly well established. Unfortunately, the “how” is less well defined and consequently ethnography increasingly becomes a muddied conglomeration of opinions rather than something people can develop clear language around. Ethnography can mean simply “hanging out with people,” to conducting in-depth interviews in someone’s home, to lurking around online to videography. Participant observation, for example, is subject to a wide range of interpretations and is as likely to involve only an hour with participants as it is to involve several days. This of course leads to arguments among practitioners which are meaningful and important, but are generally irrelevant to most people trying to decide on the ethnographer or ethnographic research team to hire.

Redefining What We Do

So what are ethnographers and the people who love them to do? Step one may be as simple as worrying less about the term and talking about results; “We uncover insights that result in breakthrough ideas and product. That makes you money and elevates your brand.” I am not advocating a wholesale shift away from the word ethnography, but I am advocating discussing why it’s relevant before we talk about what “it” is. Think of it as if you were building a house. You may want to know about the tools your builder is using, but your first concerns are about the quality of work and the results of his prior building engagements. Your builder may be the best builder in the world, but if his focus is on discussing his hammers rather than your building, then you probably won’t bother hiring him. Similarly, ethnographers tend to spend too much time at the outset talking about ethnography and not enough time talking about problem solving.

Second, when the tool kit comes up, we need to be clear about what exactly is in it. We owe it to ourselves and to our clients to define exactly what we mean by ethnography each time we talk about it. We can start by outlining and classifying the different elements of or types of ethnography  we are practicing:

  • Drive-by Observation – rapid observation and intercept interviewing with people on the street.
  • Silent Observation – pure observation with little or no interaction with participants. People may not know they are being observed/studied.
  • Questioning Observation – accompanied activities where the researcher observes and interviews the participant(s).
  • Semiotic Interviews – interviewing based on how people construct symbolic relationships. This can involve story telling, tasks and conversations around defined cultural patterns.
  • Participant-Driven Observation – participants become observers of their own behavior and the behavior of others. They develop insights which are then communicated to the research team.
  • Participant Observation – a pure anthropological approach when the researcher lives with people and learns about them through extended experience. This requires the most training and time, but yields the greatest insights.

While my personal inclination as an anthropologist is to hang on to “ethnography” people are moving away from it and focusing on what we produce, not how we produce it. Those clients who are already on board don’t need explanations. The organizations to whom we’re selling our ideas need to know what we deliver before they need to know  how we deliver it.


By Gavin

Snack Foods and the Changing Culinary Chic

In it’s simplest definition, a snack is a small portion of food meant to hold one over between meals. In contrast, a meal is typically comprised of multiple items, has higher caloric content and is usually tied to rituals of time and location.

Historically, snacks were prepared from ingredients commonly available in the home. This has changed considerably over time with the new norm existing today as pre-made foods that are conveniently packaged and last seemingly forever.

But snack foods are not just treats anymore. They have to become part of the larger ingredient mix along with potatoes, carrots or butter. Frito Pie is on the menu alongside the $25 dish of shrimp etouffee. This may not seem important to the producer as long as products are selling at the store. But it validates a fundamental element of consumer behavior – the end user decides how to use any product he or she purchases. The challenge for the producer is to recognize the innovative ways consumers use their products and facilitate strategies that will help keep the trend going.  This means understanding the underlying cultural processes that have allowed this transformation to take place and how to capitalize on it in order to grow sales.

Some credit to the changing role of snack foods must of course be attributed to the inventiveness of snack producers. Restaurateurs and chefs have also been and will continue to be tremendous influencers.  Consumers, rather than turning to manufacturer websites and cook books are looking to the Food Network and local chefs not just for ideas, but also for validation of their culinary choices. Even subculture icons like Lux Interior of The Cramps (a rockabilly/punk fusion band founded in the 1970s) have helped shape the use of snacks in cooking – Mr. Interior had a deep penchant for Doritos Quiche.

To be sure, the snack is the inspiration. We see evidence to support this notion starting back in the 50’s with the introduction of recipe ideas for everything from corn flakes to Cheetos. But what accounts for the resurgence of using snacks in cooking in an age dominated by “healthy” foods, “quality” ingredients and of haute cuisine in the home? And what does this mean for a marketer or product development team? The simple is answer is that by understanding the deeper issues driving the transformation of how snack foods are used, it is possible to better innovate and drive sales over time. We have identified several areas that deserve special attention.

Snacks as Symbols

Meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture through various practices, phenomena and activities that serve as systems. Rituals associated with food represent a deeply ingrained structure by which meaning is propagated within a culture. In other words, a potato chip is more than food; it is representative of childhood memories, concepts of being a good or bad parent, regional affiliation and other symbolically charged concepts.

The brand itself is equally symbolically charged. This explains why a generic brand of corn flakes to top your tuna casserole may not be “good enough.” Only Kellogg’s communicates that the cook cares enough about the people eating. This also explains, in part, the reluctance of many to buy store-branded products (although other factors come into play as we see, for example, in times of economic crisis).

Flavor is less the issue than the need to create a dish that fits within the symbolic framework in which it is constructed and consumed. The implication is that it recipe ideas aren’t enough. These ideas must be tied to richer symbols. Package design, shelf positioning, etc. must all reflect greater symbolic structures and lead to the construction of new and unique traditions that work within the existing framework.

The Invention of Tradition

Traditions exist to preserve a wide range of commonly held ideas, practices and methods used by distinct populations. Food joins other elements like music, folklore and clothing to create culture. Beliefs or customs are taught by one generation to the next and actions are reinforced over time. The preservation of culture, however, becomes much more difficult in a postmodern world.

Through the emergence of tribal subcultures along with the ease and means to communicate and cross-pollinate we see many using brands as badges of affiliation. In practice, people are “inventing” tradition by endowing products with rich symbolic meaning. Product, therefore, becomes a means by which people artificially establish a past and validate identity in the present. Mom may have never actually made Frito Pie, but it helps the consumer maintain a sense of identity to believe that she could have.

Food as Novelty and Play

Finally, using snack foods as ingredients speaks to the very basic need to invent and play. Snack foods used in a way different from their “intended purpose” is novel. At a psychological level, novelty speaks to four basic principle elements:

  1. Thrill Seeking: the pursuit of activities and objects that are exciting, unusual and potentially dangerous.
  2. Experience Seeking: the pursuit of unfamiliar and complex environmental stimuli, as through cooking.
  3. Disinhibition: Sensation-seeking through engagement with other people; searching for opportunities to lose inhibitions by engaging in variety in food, sex, alcohol, etc.
  4. Boredom Susceptibility: the tendency to be easily bored by familiar or repetitive situations or people, or by routine work.

Beyond the sensory benefits of novelty, there is the need to use experimentation as a means of establishing cultural capital. Snack foods have become a means by which people not only attain psychological stimulation but also display to friends and loved ones that they are inventive and interesting.


It may be interesting, but what does it all mean? Simply put, it means that whoever can tap into these unconscious motivations, symbols, and practices can increase sales, grow customer loyalty and develop brands that are synonymous with enjoyment. We often interpret our products through a self-limiting, narrow focus. Understanding snack foods from the vantage point of “ingredient” opens a new series of delivery systems, product possibilities and messaging strategies.  After all, the customer will always decide how to use your product.