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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

Cultural Meanings and Breakfast

It is a frigid, snowy morning. I have a loaf of bread baking in the oven, a jar of blackberry preserves at the ready, and several slices of ham waiting to go into a pan. The dog is curled up at my feet while my wife and daughters are still in bed, though I’m certain the smell of baking bread will rouse them soon enough and this weekend ritual will begin anew. This is a radical departure from what happens most days. Most days it’s a matter of grabbing what you can.

Human beings have, of course, been eating something for a morning meal forever, but it hasn’t always been so defined by the foods we associate with breakfast. Indeed, it was often whatever was left over from the night before or could be prepared with a minimal degree of effort. Historian Ian Mortimer suggests the Tudors invented modern breakfasts in the 16th century. As people increasingly came to work for an employer, rather than working for themselves on their own land, they lost control of their time, and had to work long, uninterrupted days without sustenance. A hearty breakfast allowed them to work longer days. The Industrial Revolution and the move from farms to factories formalized the idea of breakfast further. But there is more to breakfast than its function. It is wrapped up in symbolism and cultural change.

There are foods that have probably always been connected to breakfast. Oatmeal and other porridges are present early in the prehistoric record, and their invention may have changed the course of human history. Analysis of stone age tools indicate pancakes have been in the mix for eons. In fact, Otzi, the world’s oldest naturally preserved human mummy, is thought to have eaten a wheat pancake as one of his last meals.

For many, if not most Americans, the combination of bacon and eggs forms the basis for the archetypal hot breakfast. Eggs have long been a popular breakfast food, perhaps because fresh eggs were often available early in the day, but their partnership with bacon is a 20th century invention. In the 1920s, Americans typically ate fairly light breakfasts, so public relations pioneer Edward Bernays persuaded doctors to promote bacon and eggs as a healthy breakfast in order to promote sales of bacon on behalf of Beech-Nut. And so it was that the iconic breakfast combination was born. The American breakfast landscape was again altered in the latter half of the 1800s. In 1863 Dr. James Caleb Jackson invented granola. In 1894, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg accidentally created a flaked cereal when a pot of cooked wheat went stale. Kellogg tried to save the wheat by putting it through a roller. It dried in flakes and corn flakes was born. That little mistake changed our breakfast traditions forever. Cereal was  convenient. It didn’t need to be cooked and it had a relatively long shelf life. Packaging made it simple to transport and to store. It saved time and effort. It fit in with a modernizing world. The larger breakfast of bacon and eggs didn’t disappear, but it was largely relegated to the weekend when time was less of a pressing factor.

And it is this shift to the weekend that is important because breakfast has become less of a way the family starts the day, and more an ideal, a representation of a life most people haven’t the luxury to take on.  Quite simply no one has time to sit down to the table and eat, let alone to cook breakfast. There are buses to catch, cars to get started, errands to run before work. There is the early-morning trip to the gym, the walking of the dog, the flight to catch. Breakfast  has become either a necessity we deal with or, and this is to my mind the interesting part, a celebration. It might be a celebration of “slow living” or bringing the family together on the weekend, but the deeper underlying element is that the meaning of breakfast changes. It is something to be savored at specific points in time.

Breakfast is now a liminal space between the chaotic pace of the weekday and the equally chaotic pace of the weekend. And that has a huge impact on the food we prepare and how we prepare them. The Saturday or Sunday breakfast is a clear space, a point of calm. The morning roles we perform throughout the week (parent, teenager, etc.) are dropped and replaced with something more egalitarian, in many cases. Rather than breakfast symbolizing the start to a busy day where actions and behaviors are strictly kept in order to get specific things done, everyone is involved in the “performance” of breakfast and the duties are less strict. Alternatively, the celebratory breakfast sees us take on roles specific to the moment – dad the baker, mom the storyteller, boyfriends become expressions of romantic fiction made real as they prepare the perfect avocado toast, etc. The point is that breakfast provides a time for us to explore alternative identities that are fleeting and therefore precious. The act of making becomes as important as the food itself.

The rethinking of what breakfast means in this particular context ultimately has an impact on the ingredients we choose to cook with. As we allow ourselves to slow down and drift into moment largely outside of time, our ingredients can become more indulgent, more refined, or more experimental. We buy organic bacon from the local farm and break out the Irish butter that sells for $8 a pound. We crack open a box of Fruity Pebbles (an unhealthy product we might refrain from during the week) and add them to our waffle mix simple because it’s fun. We make huevos con chorizo to go with the bread our Swedish friend taught us to make. There is a purity to this, a sense of personal transformation, even it’s only for an hour out of the week. From a marketing perspective, this opens up a world of creative opportunities.

But is there a level of relevance beyond breakfast? Of course there is. Culture isn’t static, it is subject to change. That means your product and your brand are reflections of that cultural and symbolic give and take. In marketing and advertising, reaching the deeper elements of meaning play a key role in determining the success or failure of any campaign, strategy, or innovation. Through proper, thoughtful deployment of verbal, visual, and performative elements, companies can strengthen their reach to their customers by expressing the deeper elements of what a product, an action, an activity mean. The catch is recognizing there’s another layer of meaning just below the surface. What people tell you they believe isn’t necessarily a reflection of the “truth”, but rather a series of “truths” that are shaped by context and time. Regardless of whether you’re brand makes organic oats or auto parts, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there synergy between what you’re trying to convey and the underlying system of signs,  symbols, and actions that govern interpretation by the consumer?
  • What elements of culture influence the way different combination of images and words are perceived?
  • Are there stories and archetypes that can be directly associated with your product of brand?
  • Are the different symbols and signs used in your communications coherent?
  • Have you considered how deep metaphors could influence the way your idea is perceived and acted upon?
  • Do you foresee any clashes in meaning between what you seek to project and what your audience may perceive?
  • Can customers associate your visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile stimuli with your product or service?

Sending the wrong signals can be destructive to your brand. It negates whatever intent you may have. But getting those signals right gives you a leg up over your competition. It drives innovation, creativity, and more effective strategies.

And with all of that, it’s time to pull the bread out of the oven, rouse the family, and celebrate the day.

Yellowstone’s Wolves and Reintroducing a Brand

Two decades ago, Yellowstone National Park was suffering. It was the victim of defoliation, erosion, and an unbalanced ecosystem. But in 1995, everything changed. That was the year wolves were reintroduced to the park.

Prior to the return of wolves, deer, elk, and bison populations had increased substantially, resulting in overgrazing, particularly of willows and other vegetation important to soil and riverbank structure. This left the landscape vulnerable to erosion. Without wolves, the entire ecosystem of the park suffered.

When wolves were brought back to the park, they changed their prey’s behavior patterns. The herbivores started to avoid areas like valleys and gorges where they could be easily hunted by predators. And those areas began to regenerate. Species such as birds, beavers, mice, and bears returned. Plant life once again thrived along the riverbanks and erosion decreased significantly. Perhaps most remarkable, the stabilization of the riverbanks actually made the rivers and streams change course. The entire landscape of the park transformed.

Brands aren’t that dissimilar. They exist as part of a broader ecosystem and when they are removed, that ecosystem changes. Now, to be fair, “ecosystem” is admittedly an industry buzz word that’s been around for years, including the branding world. Most focus on the integration of social media, digital marketing, and consumer data. And they usually employ traditional means of brand communication. Every brand is part of a larger, interconnected cultural system. Not just the culture of the people inside the company, but its partners, customers, non-customers, and even competitors. It has history, mythology, functions, and forms. Every action results in a reaction.  

So, when a brand is reintroduced or reinvented, it does so in the context of a deeply interconnected set of variables. When ta brand is reintroduced or reinvented, it change the system. The burden of a brand revivalist, then, is to rewrite and reshape not only the brand itself, but the ecosystem in which it operates. No matter what the reason is for your brand relaunch, this means it needs to be specific and backed up by a concrete plan. The first step in the process is understanding where it fits in the ecosystem, what role it plays, and then deciding which aspects of the brand need to be retooled.  This, of course, requires a thorough evaluation of the core brand identity across all of its various components.

The second and perhaps more important step is to fully understand how the brand shapes the broader cultural patterns that impact its consumers/customer/users. Most situations involving a brand relaunch are going to be long-term affairs, and the planning stages need to be informed not only so the reintroduction itself will have maximum impact, but also so that it positively effects the system of which it is part, both sort and long-term.