Marketing Food in a World of Global Identities

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

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

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

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

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

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Technicolor Malt Liquor and All-Night Fieldwork

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

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

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

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

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

We Are What We Drink

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertising Creating Positive Social Change

Advertising often gets a bad rap. It promotes over consumption, It promotes negative stereotypes. It makes us dumber. And while there’s some truth in all of this, there’s an argument to be made that advertising, in all its many forms, has also worked for the betterment of humanity. Advertising over the last two decades has created an environment where inclusive portrayals of society have actually benefited our culture, not only a company’s bottom line. 

Early in the history of advertising, the message was almost exclusively on the product. Features, benefits, and promises defined the messaging – get whiter teeth, have a greener lawn in half the time, etc. Those messages are still there, but there’s been a shift. As the battle for consumer dollars and attention have intensified, advertising has become more focused on brand. Michael Phelps pushes us to be not just a better athlete but a better human being.  Google shows us how inspirational we are through our communal search. Features and benefits don’t even factor in, as the message hones in on what it means to be caught up in this mortal coil.

Companies have shifted from delivering monologues to engaging in conversations and this dynamic has made brands more human in the process. Take Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign. Never referencing feminine hygiene, Always focuses purely on the issue of female empowerment, using the ad to begin “an epic battle” for young girls everywhere by “showing them that doing it #LikeAGirl is an awesome thing.” But Always goes beyond what a brand says about you; it’s about identifying shared goals and contributing to a higher purpose – for everyone. You care about empowering girls? Great! You can tweet the “amazing things you do” with #LikeAGirl, and “stand up for girls” confidence at Always.com. Now it’s a conversation, and that’s exactly what Always, and the other companies joining in this form of values-based advertising, are looking for. Very few people care about tampons, but equality and female empowerment? Now that’s topic people get excited about. And this isn’t just about the target audience. It’s about grandmothers, dads, everyone. It help drive a conversation that has resulted in helping break down gender-biases and shifting cultural perceptions.

Cheerios is another great example. The brand didn’t realize what it was getting itself into when it  first featured an interracial family to promote the heart-healthy cereal during the summer of 2013. A topic we take largely for granted now sparked a great deal of discussion then. The racist backlash to the ad was so intense that Cheerios disabled the comments section on their YouTube channel. And this offered the public a glimpse into the prejudice mixed race families have to contend with, sparking a national conversation. Cheerios also saw an outpouring of support from consumers applauding the commercial, and a passionate defense against the backlash with people standing up for interracial families everywhere. What began as a simple cereal commercial ended up leading to a national discussion on race relations.

When advertising focuses on empowering people and accepting groups that are less accepted, it doesn’t just reflect culture, it shapes it. When brands paint a different picture of society, they play a role in redefining what is considered mainstream. They play a role is redefining our collective worldview and thus reshape culture. This isn’t to over-inflate the role of advertising in cultural evolution. Advertising will never act as the central agent of change. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important part of the process. We consume massive amounts of advertising every day. When this content promotes an inclusive picture of society and positive cultural change, it can work as an accelerator for social progress. It’s value is not in starting the fire, but in fanning the flames.

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.

ROI and the Intersection of Exploration

When chemists at Oregon State University discovered a brilliant new blue pigment serendipitously, they were not thinking about creating art. But in a true art meets science moment, an applied visual arts major began using the blue pigments in her artwork as part of an internship in Subramanian’s laboratory. This was also her first foray into the world of chemistry. Human history is filled with examples of innovation that occurred at the juncture of art and science, whether it’s as profound as Leonardo da Vinci’s explorations of anatomy or as mundane as liquid nitrogen ice cream. The point is simple – creative inspiration, whether in product development, advertising, or any other activity, is a matter of rethinking how we look at a problem.

Driven by CEOs that want to see ROI and engagement for every cent spent versus the equally valuable but often nebulous idea of “brand impact,” campaign and branding initiatives can be particularly challenging for CMOs today. Seemingly competing world views clash in large part because we take a binary position – it’s an either/or mentality where art and science are somehow in conflict. But is that fair or is it a modern construct? Are art and science so divergent or have we slipped into a lazy pattern of thinking.

Brands that want to take advantage of the intersection of art and science can start by simply acknowledging the fact that creative and metrics are not mutually exclusive concepts. By blending these two components of the creative process (and yes, science is a creative enterprise) and giving them a common goal to work towards, we see focused innovation. We see new expressions of a common undercurrent.

Blending art and science is about collaborating in ideas generation: the inter-relationship is critical, you can’t have one thing without the other. A bunch of code or data is just a bunch of numbers without the art. A visual masterpiece that produces no action is inspired but not inspiring. Science enables us to be more creative, and creativity allows us to get the most out of our data. But consider “the multiplier effect”. If either the data or creative are bad, the idea will fail. Or worse yet, if they work alone, without the cross-pollination that happens when different ways of experiencing the world come together, then the result can be flat out detrimental. It’s not one or the other that we need, it’s both. It’s not science plus art equals results, it’s more science times art, so a zero for either means failure.

That is where the interesting ideas are – at the intersection of exploration. The future is all about ideas connecting. Those who can bridge art and science will be in demand, will be powerful. If our ideas are going to change hearts and minds, then we need to find expression that can move freely between the boundaries of art and science.

Millennials, Motorcycles, and Marketing: The End Is Not Nigh.

CNBC ran a story yesterday on the slow demise of Harley Davidson that caught my eye. It began with the statement, “The supposed millennial penchant for ‘killing’ industries gets thrown around a lot, but it could really be happening to one American icon: the Harley-Davidson  motorcycle.” The reasoning is that in addition to a decline in sales (which are admittedly significant) and behavioral data suggest a considerable generational divide in attitudes toward heavyweight motorcycles. There’s little question that this American icon is dealing with difficult times, but there are two distinct problems with the article. The first is the fetishizing of data and the inability to interpret it in a broader context. The second is the obsession we seem to have as a society with blaming Millennials for crushing industries.

The Data Problem. Survey data suggests that the reasons for buying a bike differ fairly dramatically for older and younger generations. In response to why they buy a motorcycle, 21-34-year olds state that it’s a matter of ease of transportation, while older buys (the article doesn’t really qualify what “older” means) are buying because bikes are “cool” or as part of a hobby.  Younger buyers, so the story goes,  appear to be more motivated to consider motorcycles for practical reasons, which means it is likely they will be more interested in less expensive bikes that bring in lower margins for manufacturers. However, potential younger buyers cited the second most common reason to buy a motorcycle was that it “goes with their self-image”. That is, they’re buying them, or considering buying them because they are “cool”. So, from the outset there is a bit of a contradiction, or at least a misinterpretation, of the data and what appears to be a complete disinterest in exploring the findings with a critical eye.

First, these assessments don’t take into account that the economy into which this population into after leaving college, and the bulk of them are indeed college grads, is one of the most hostile times in U.S. History. Even with a booming stock market and labor market, this generation is mired in debt and jobs simply don’t pay what they did. Because of these tough times, they were forced to change the outlook or the norm in key areas such as ownership. Like their great grandparent who weathered the depression, their outlook and buying habits are more frugal, more pragmatic. This has affected other industries including the motorcycle industry, and as such we’ve have seen the rise of smaller more “urban-esque” style motorcycle in recent years. This presents a problem for brands like Harley-Davidson, but it is one they are addressing. The problem is, innovation and change take time, so the current decline in sales doesn’t necessarily indicate the death of the brand.

Second, there’s that point about bikes being cool. Motorcycle culture exists on the margins of mainstream culture as both a social community and a mode of transportation, and the cultural stereotype imagines all bikers to be rebels, socially as well as sexually. The motorcycle is much more than a means of transportation; it is a symbol of freedom, a life that breaks through the norms. To put it briefly, the motorcycle culture implies being one with the bike and living by the road’s unwritten rules. The degree of freedom, individuality, and adventure found in motorcycle riding and culture distinguishes it as nontraditional in contrast with cars, the bus, etc. In other words, while the technology behind a bike may have to shift to accommodate changing interpretations of technology and the economic realities of a younger generations, motorcycles still have a cultural allure that can’t be overlooked. And the Harley-Davidson brand is still the heart and soul of the motorcycle mystique.

The Millennial Problem.  Quite simple, Millennials haven’t destroyed industries any more than they’ve brought plagues of locusts. Piling up on a generation is divisive and counterproductive. American institution is declared dead, the news media like to haul the same usual suspect before the court of public opinion: the Millennial generation. But based on analysis of economists at the Federal Reserve, this idea is pure fiction.

When researchers compared the spending habits of Millennials with those of young people from past years, such as the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, they concluded that “Millennials do not appear to have preferences for consumption that differ significantly from those of earlier generations.” They also found that “Millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were young, with lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth.” So, the fact that young people are buying fewer motorcycles doesn’t prove that they don’t want them. It might mean they simply can’t afford them.

It’s typical for Millennials to bear blame for dramatic cultural and economic changes when their only crime is behaving like everybody else. For example, last year The Wall Street Journal published a report that cited young people for killing grocery stores. The data show consumers ages 25 to 34 are spending less at traditional grocers than their parents’ generation did in 1990. But here’s the rub: Americans of all ages are relying more on convenience stores, pharmacies, and superstores, for food to eat at home, and those institutions aren’t typically counted as grocers in government data. Furthermore, the same holds true for etailers, like Amazon. Also, Americans of all ages are eating out at restaurants more. The group shifting its spending toward restaurants the fastest? It’s not 20-somethings. It’s people over 50. In other words, whether it’s motorcycles, cars, groceries, or nearly anything else, the woes of these industries can’t be pinned on Millennials. Millennials have simply become scapegoats and tired tropes for unimaginative reporting.

What It All Means. Harley-Davidson’s reaction to the article from CNBC sums up everything about it quite nicely: “There’s nothing new here”. Blaming millennials for the failures of various industries, including the motorcycle industry, is rather asinine. Indeed, it might make more sense to thank them for forcing the motorcycle industry to go back to their roots of innovation, rebellion, and coolness. Manufacturers and marketers ultimately have a responsibility to work with dealers, influencers, etc. to create new riding opportunities and messages that breath life back into the industry. Brands like Harley-Davidson are making terrific bikes that people want to ride. But weak marketing communication efforts around their overall value have allowed the price-to-ride value equation to slide. Add to that a fixation on data over creativity and reflection on the cultural significance of the motorcycle and you have a tremendous problem. Millennials aren’t killing the industry. The industry, like society, is simply changing.