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.


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.

In the Age of Emotion

When historians look back on the early years of the 21stcentury they will note a paradigm shift from the closing years of the Information Age to the dawning of a new age, The Age of Emotion.  Now, there are those that would argue that in a period defined by prolonged economic ennui ROI is the only thing that really matters and pricing is the only real consideration consumers think about – the rest is fluff.  But I disagree. Why? Because we’re not talking about trends here, which are ultimately short lived, but cultural patterns which are sustained and signal a shift in worldview.levis-store-lighting-design-4.jpg

On a fundamental level, we are more in tune with our emotional needs than at any time in recent history, or at the very least we have more time to reflect on them.  We focus increasingly on satisfying our emotional needs and pop culture both reflects and creates this. It is a cycle. One needs look no further than the multi-billion dollar self-help industry as an example. Talk shows abound focusing on the emotional displays of the masses and the advice given out in front of an audience of millions.

And this growing focus on the emotional has extended into the shopping and retail experience.  Increasingly we will see a subtle, yet profound difference in the way people relate to products, services and the world around them. Retailers increasingly focus on the nature of the in-store experience, converting the space from a place to showcase goods, to a location, a destination, a stage on which we perform.  And indeed, shopping is as much about performance as it is about consumption.  Just as fulfilling emotional needs has become the domain of brand development, it is increasingly becoming a centerpiece of the retail experience, at least for retailers focused on margins rather than volume. Rationality will take a back-seat to passion as we move from the sensible to the sensory.  While ROI is the obsession today, Return on Insights and Return on Emotional Satisfaction will be the leading factors in the years to come.

For the developed world and the world’s emerging economies, time and money equate to an increased use of brands and shopping as emotional extensions of ourselves.  Status, power, love, etc. are wrapped into the subconscious motivations for choosing one location over another.  And while we are still bargain hunters, the hunt is less about price than it is about the experience of the hunt.  Again, emotion drives the process, even when we say it doesn’t. “Experience” is emotional shorthand.

Successful companies will learn to pay more attention to how their customers react emotionally and how their brands can fulfill emotional needs.  In the Emotion Age, brands will either lead the way to customer satisfaction or be left in the dust.


Politics, Protest, and Branding

It’s not just individuals choosing to make a political statement these days. The list of brands stepping forward to voice their concerns over President Trump’s Image result for protestpolicies is growing (we can assume some will show support but I have not seen these yet). The act of creative protest is being seen by many brands as an opportunity to take a stand for what they believe in and share their identity with the world. But is a political protest the right place for brands? Is it genuine or opportunistic? And from an economic standpoint, is it wise?

As with everything like this, the answer is complex, but it comes down to internal branding, culture and employee engagement. These tech firms issued statements to reassure their own people that they care and are taking action. That internal action then flows through to an external brand perception and consumers see the brands they use and buy doing something that resonates.

In my humble opinion, brands don’t really have a choice in whether to be involved in protest now. Nearly everything is politicized in the current environment.  And as people are increasingly buying things based on what aligns with their own social values, it’s almost impossible to remain on the sidelines.

A brand can get involved in politics, but it’s a risk since people care deeply about social and political issues. Brands can make it seem like they’re taking the issue lightly. They can portray to great a sense of gravitas. That runs the risk of a brand appearing like it’s seeking attention rather than making a firm commitment to a set of values. So, when venturing into a politically-charged branding effort, campaign, etc., you’ve got to judge the climate and how the brand’s involvement will be taken, both by its most ardent supports and its detractors. Brands will get dragged into political debates, whether they like it or not, so it’s wise to get in touch with the audience, understand what matters to them, and be on the firm ground with their support. So long as it’s done from a place of authenticity, it will work.

Consumers are increasingly buying into the ethics and points of views of brands and the organizations that produce them which means there is a role for brands in political milieu. It’s wrapped up in marketing and brands with purpose. Add to this that social media has required brands to be current and conversational, and the conversation of the moment is the tectonic changes in politics, media and society.

However, not all brands should be diving into the political fray. Using something as sensitive and incendiary as the now infamous “alternative facts” comments of the administration to sell products won’t go down well in some camps. Not all brands will have permission to do so. Like it or not, history and audience affiliation shape what a brand can realistically do. If a brand belittles or trivializes something important, then that is a mistake.  But if there is a connection to the cause in some way, like Tecate’s obvious association with both Mexico and a segment of the US population that is increasingly welcoming of other cultures, then protesting the wall can amplify the protest sentiment of their target audience and build its value and connection.

In the end the best brands, those we feel a deep connection to, are those that stand for something. They are the ones that people are attracted to (or avoid). They have meaning in the broader cultural dialogue. For better or for worse, brands are stepping up and become symbols that drive beliefs – and actions. People seek out brands who fight for the things they care about. Getting it right and capturing your share of cultural relevance is simply the way of things in a politically charged world.


Love, Passion, and Attachment

Brand love is a rich concept in the field of consumer behavior. If the consumers love a brand, then sales volume of the brand will increase, as brand love gets transformed into brand loyalty. So, marketers should formulate appropriate strategy so that the brand has a strong emotional appeal and target customers fall in love with the brand. This matters because post-consumption satisfaction is likely to lead to emotional attachment with a brand over time with multiple interactions with love.jpgthe brand. It implies that cumulative satisfaction over a period tends to lead to an emotional bonding between consumer and brand. Satisfaction with the brand positively influences the feeling of love towards the brand. Individual romanticism and brand love, the romantic individual is highly emotional and seeks pleasure. So, brand love is also an attitude towards the brand, creating that sense of brand love we so desire. Brand love is highly affective in nature. As such, favorable brand experiences lead to love towards a brand over time. Favorable brand experience positively influences brand love. Individual romanticism and brand experience, romanticism enriches the experience-seeking process surrounding any act of consumption through subjective personal introspection. But is love enough?

Increasingly, you hear people talking about brand attachment, which has three central elements:

  1. Affection: (connection to the external face of the brand)
  2. Connection: (the brand’s alignment with my values)
  3. Passion: (desire for something specific within the brand)

When these three emotions are in play, it is highly likely that there is attachment. It may be an indirect influence on the brand, but it is a strong influence. More than brand loyalty, brand attachment almost becomes a part of you.

Whatever it is that attracts you to a brand to begin with most likely has to do with the way marketing and advertising have served up the content about that brand. It’s the first date, so to speak, when the brand catches your eye and makes you take notice.  This is the point in which you are then brought into what “virtuous circle of brand attachment.” There are three specific phases for the brand, which follow along this path. From each of these, it leads to the other:

Advertising & Marketing to –> Brand Attachment to –> Financial Performance

So, if I am so attached to a brand, let’s say Basil Hayden bourbon, then it follows that by my buying it repeatedly, their financial performance improves. Multiply that by millions of customers, and your bottom line is happily shored up by engaged, repeat customers.

The good thing for brands and companies is that people with strong brand attachments influence other people around them. So, in this sense, there are advocates that develop from their strong brand attachments. These fans or followers of the brand are not only becoming fans or followers to stay, they are also bringing their friends along, increasing the brand’s customer base. They are true brand evangelists, meaning their connection goes beyond brand loyalty. It builds a sense of devotion. It builds passion. The benefit to the brand is that these loyalists are more motivated to devote their time to trying to bring others into the fold. They defend the brand, degrade alternative brands, and devote more time to the brand through brand through engagement is social media.
The message is simple. Find out what your customers’ passions, connections and affections are. Target your marketing efforts with that in mind, and see how they follow by becoming attached to your brand – not just showing loyalty, but true attachment.



Doing Away With Disciplines?

When it comes to explaining what business ethnographers do the first hurdle we often face entails adequately describing the disciplinary substance of anthropological and sociological practice to business professionals not necessarily versed in any aspects of social science. Ethnography is a buzz word in most business circles, but it is more than that to those of us who have spent our professional lives in the field. Before a company, a product development team, anyone will read or listen to what we put before them, they need to understand what it is we do.  One of the first steps in the process of reconciling what we do in the context of the team is to determine what boundaries we set for ourselves within the nature of the work itself and how that translates into the business environment.  The prospective researcher must examine the nature of the boundaries between and across disciplines and determine where he or she fits into these definitional categories.

The understanding of what anthropological fieldwork, specifically ethnography, means and is capable of becomes further blurred when the clients and employers attempt to make some sort of distinction between the researchers of various social science disciplines that may be involved in the research process (in this case a corporate environment), all of whom may be engaged in some capacity in an anthropologically-oriented project.  Added to this is the fact that employers have similar categorical constructs for other disciplines.  For example, psychology has a vague definition attributed to it by non-psychologists and often all of its subdivisions are compressed under a single, umbrella classification. The problem lies in communicating an understanding of the research capabilities to the multitude of others who will need to either turn the data into products, services, etc., or those with the power to supply funding for research and application.  The solution lies in developing multidisciplinary teams with a range of perspectives that can generate ideas and methods capable of addressing an assortment of client perspectives.  It also means developing teams with a keen interest in learning new skills, new ways of looking at the world, an appreciation for different methodological perspectives, and an ability to turn the abstract into the concrete – in short, the ability to make money.

While it varies from company to company and client to client, the boundaries that define anthropology as a select discipline frequently break down in the business setting.  There are no academic review boards, few disciplinarily-specific journals, and essentially no departments based on established traditions or theoretical leanings.  Departments within an organization are typically functional and/or reflect a general need for information. There is little time for the nuances and peculiarities of individual disciplines, and no time for theoretical models – results are measured in terms that reflect the bottom line.  While we certainly have an impact on the nature of how business is conducted, in the final analysis the client or employer is responsible for creating profits, products, and services.  Just as it is unrealistic to assume that the bulk of anthropologists will ever learn the subtle differences between the various technical strata of electrical engineering, it is unrealistic to assume the consumers of our work will ever come to understand or care that deeply about the methodological and epistemological boundaries between social science disciplines.

Within the group of people tasked with performing certain functions or research projects for a company, disciplinary boundaries mean just as little, though for somewhat different reasons.  At the crux of the matter is determining whether the various members of a research team are understood as “insert discipline X here” or as part of a single organism trying to get a job done. For the other members of the research team, the boundaries and the constructs we create have little relevance and can hinder the process of getting the necessary work done. I would contend that a large part of this desired retention of boundaries can be related fear often associated with moving into the unknown and the desire to hold onto something old, something that defines us as us and not part of the new world of which we become a part when entering the business environment.  In a disciplinarily enclosed space it may be easier to maintain boundaries and conclude that while other disciplines may in fact be informed by similar theories and techniques, there is typically less need to mix as freely as is the case in the business environment; maintaining disciplinary purity is, in fact cherished in academia.  In the business environment shedding disciplinary titles is often encouraged, if not demanded outright. For a multidisciplinary approach to be successful the various team members must understand what the other members of the team do in terms of research, how they do it, why they do what they do, and also how they think, insofar as it is possible, and how those skills may overlap to produce something unique to that setting.

While anthropology has a long history of work outside the academic setting, its involvement as a daily part of the business process is fairly recent. There are of course exceptions to the rule, but until recently anthropologists were seen as the “new” thing.  The longer a discipline or methodological perspective is part of the commercial world, the less likely it is for boundaries to be maintained.  This is not to say that those boundaries will be completely lost.  Of course they will not.  The moniker of anthropologist lends understanding about how and why we approach projects, problems, and data as we do.  However, the boundaries will probably continue to blur and social scientists of all stripes in the business environment will be more readily defined in terms of the their final products rather than their disciplinary groundings.  Are we creating “hybrid” disciplines as a result of multidisciplinary work?  The answer is most probably yes.  Of course, this is neither an indictment of nor a call for hybridity.  It is simply a recognition that the tenets of business are frequently such that maintaining disciplinary continuity becomes overwhelmingly a reflection of the both individual researcher’s desire to maintain a separate, bounded identity, and the ability of the team of which he or she is a part to recognize that person as a fully integrated part of the “tribe” rather than as an outsider.

Of course there are times when it is best to keep a single disciplinary approach or set of monodisciplines, just as there are times when it makes sense to build teams of fieldworkers and other times to go it alone.  Anthropology’s greatest contribution to business is the introduction of the culture construct as a means of identifying shared human experience and the ways that culture impacts consumption, use, and product development.  Expertise is expertise and maintaining disciplinary control may help maintain focus both for the specific research and the various members of the team.

The question still remains as to what makes a project multidisciplinary as opposed to being comprised of several monodisciplines.  There will, of course, be instances where the work is singularly monodisciplinary; a test meant to determine the ergonomics of a new shovel design may have little need for a multiple disciplinary perspective.   More complex problems typically involve a number of people, however, and require doing more than simply handing the results off to the client once the work is done.  This is a significant boon if all of the members of a team feel they have a voice and are willing to incorporate multiple perspectives into their understandings of the project.  If this does not occur, the result is a fractured mix of varying opinions vying for dominance in the final report and list of recommendations.  A multidisciplinary project can be defined through how methodologies are built, how the knowledge is shared.

As stated, the length and scope of the project typically means more time in preparing for the research itself.  Multidisciplinary teams must work together to shape the numerous sub-goals within the project and determine how these sub-goals are best interwoven to produce a unified vision.  From the outset this implies that all the members of the team work openly to provide input on how data will be gathered, shared, and discussed.  The first step is to determine who will lead what phases of the research, how the lead may change through time, and how the final output will be crafted and displayed. Involvement from beginning to end (and with an implied extension into the product and/or service as it moves through its lifecycle) must be complete insofar as each voice must feel it is being heard and suggestions are openly assessed and probed by the group as a whole.  As the project moves from one phase into another, for example, from exploratory research through concept development through usability testing through marketing, each team member needs to reinvest him or herself in the project and provide input from their distinct perspectives.

What Insights Come From Your Toilet? Good Ones.

I am in Las Vegas this week as a judge for the OMA Awards. One would think my eyes and ears would be riveted to signs and displays. Outside the Global Shop Expo, I should be focusing my anthropological heart and mind on gambling, the spatial layout of the resort/casinos, the press of human life as in decends into unabashed hedonism.  And in many ways these are indeed the places my mind has indeed gone to, but they are not the primary places.  No, after half a day at the Sands and the other half at the Bellagio, my mind goes to toilets and bathrooms.

The flush toilet is recognized in the West as an icon of modernity. It is 
often the first thing that pops to mind when thinking about the bathroom, 
but the thing we discuss the least ­ it is often hidden within larger bathrooms and is the last object we want to display when we give the tour of 
the home. Even with the lack of willingness to talk about toileting, we take 
the toilet as a symbol of our civilized nature. Toilets, like basins and 
baths, are often in attractive colors or designs. We tend to believe that 
our toileting habits are the best, as are our toilets, and that they reflect 
progress, hygienic superiority and the civilizing nature of our world-view. 
But interestingly, in the 1930s only 30% of American houses had indoor flush 
toilets. In the economic boom following WWII a fully-fitted bathroom, then 
later multiple bathrooms, became standard even in modest American homes.

Sometimes aspiring families in poor countries or countries enamored with 
the image of the West will install a porcelain pedestal in their home to 
demonstrate modernity, status and progress. The toilet gives them the upper hand in terms of social capital. They may even install the toilet even if 
there is no piped water connected to make it work or a sewer system in which 
to deposit “the goods.”

Here in Las Vegas, they are symbols of opulence and leisure. Materials, colors and even sounds are orchestrated with the precision and artistry of Mozart. And it is not just Las Vegas – there is a men’s room in Hong Kong that is something of a tourist attraction because of its striking view of the city. The point is that bathrooms, toilets and plumbing are more than they perhaps seem.

In all cases, excreta must be completely disassociated from the individual generating them. They should be invisible (even unscented where possible) and above all anonymous. The system of flush toilets we use lead to communal sewers and make the separation of the individual the waste not only possible, but mandatory. Toilets provide a strange, powerful link to a 
shared identity where everyone not only poops, but that poop becomes part of 
the collective identity, both physical and metaphysical.

So why does any of this matter? It matters because we often stop looking when we seek out insights about the uncomfortable or the mundane. Ask a person about their toileting habits and the answers will be half truths. Ethnography is often thought of in terms of interviewing with a brief home tour, but toileting provides an example as to why asking people about their preferred product benefits doesn’t work. You have to expand the realm of inquiry and the means by which you collect data. If you want to understand people’s “shit” you have to visit public bathrooms, talk to the kids, etc. Similarly, if you want to understand the motivations behind buying a car, or a beer, or anything else, you have to expand the scope of inquiry to tease out those pieces of information that would normally go overlooked.  In part, it’s because people don’t know what they don’t know, but it’s also because we often take our own cultural practices for granted. With something as simple as bathroom behavior, it’s easy for us to get lost in our own worldview and stop searching. Digging deeper reminds us that the mundane is often more complex than it seems. Understanding that complexity means understanding new sources of revenue, innovation and branding potential.