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.


Cultural Analysis: or why traditional marketing is for idiots

What anthropologists do is study context and culture.  We study meaning.  We study the interconnectedness between humans, their environments, their institutions, etc.  And yet, somehow conducted a two hour interview has become the standard. I have watched ethnography be co-opted by any lack-whit with access to the internet, a reasonably good smile and an ability to translate the facile into the language of his/her handlers, namely people looking for a quick, cheap, easy answer to a problem they more often than not constructed after glancing at Wired (note I said “glancing,” not “reading”).  “I do my own taxes so now I am an accountant.  Let me do your taxes, too.”  Brilliant.  The catch is that for anyone wanting to actually learn about the people they sell thing to, there is an alternative to anthro-lite.  But part of that recognition begins in understanding that anthropologists and the outcomes of our field work are not about psychographic, demographics or anything quite so limited.  We begin with culture and look for the linkages between actions, meaning and people.  The individual doesn’t mean much when context isn’t factored in.

We begin with cultural analysis.  This means that the kinds of questions we ask of data in most traditional research doesn’t apply. And so the answers are different as well.  By focusing on the sociocultural rather than a construct/demographic dreamed up in a boardroom one afternoon we uncover the symbolic meanings, practices, a situations around people’s lives.  The system is the unit of inquiry, rather than interpersonal emotions and individual psychological processes.  We are all culturally saturated beings and it is in understanding the interplay between people in context that we gain real insights.  Think of a series of hubs and spokes. Traditional research typically looks at the hubs in isolation. A cultural analysis seeks to identify the hubs, the spokes and why they are configured the way they are.  It looks beyond the obvious and explores a much, much broad web of meaning.  Let’s put it into focus, shall we?

Consider something as simple as mouth wash.  Taste is only one element.  We look for the symbolic cultural meanings, categories, creations, contradictions, and practices that govern people’s actions. And so the questions build.  What is clean? How is a clean mouth different from a clean floor?  What can you clean your mouth with? What makes it different from cleaning the floor? What symbolic associations are made with the mouth?  With the dentist? Can your mouth be clean but still produce bad breath? Are there different types of bad breath?  Is mouthwash something you hide? What does it mean to be a good, clean person?

Thinking in these terms starts, hopefully, to move the conversation away from just another form of the survey and turn it into something both meaningful and powerful.  But anyone can do it, right?  Well, yes and no.  I will not go so far as to say the researcher needs advanced degrees in anthropology or sociology (though it does help), but they do need to understand the social theories and analytical tools used to make sense of what, in the broadest context, is going on.  They need to embrace a worldview that understands the relative unimportance of statistics to innovation and the fact that individuals are, beyond the level of the organism, fictions.  Simply having the gift for gab doesn’t cut it.  In addition, there are, I am sad to inform, people who are simply better at it than others.  I have a friend who works for NASA doing extremely complex math in order to put fast moving objects on other fast moving objects in space.  Try as I might, I will simply never have the intellectual capacity or mathematical streak that Andy has – I will simply never be able to do what he does. Similarly, I will never have the capacity to paint that my brother has.  And yet, every jackass with a video camera is now an ethnographer.  Pissy as that may sound, it isn’t meant to be overly hostile.  No, it is meant to convey that there are people in the world through a mix of training, practice and natural inclination tend to see things in terms of patterns, symbols and shared cultural experiences.

Ultimately, cultural analysis is a different way of thinking and seeing the world. It is not just another explanation for what has been turned into another buzz word, namely ethnography.  This is precisely it’s value and power.