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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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.

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.

Dwelling on Yogurt

Happy accidents have defined much of the human experience. The wheel, the discovery of metallurgy, the idea of fermenting olives (essentially little, bitter stones until cracked and left to cure). The development of the culinary experience in particular is riddled with these accidents and moments of inspiration. Yogurt is one such  archetypal food. While some speculate that it, along with beer, originated in Mesopotamia, the birthplace of agricultural civilization, there is no definitive way to know where yogurt began. But whoever first uncovered this metamorphosis over 7,000 years ago could scarcely have conceived of its subsequent and lasting impact.

At its core, yogurt is an innovation that elegantly deals with the universal issue of preserving a highly perishable food. In addition to food preservation, it just so happens that the process of fermentation also releases and creates constituents that make milk more digestible, nutritive, health-supporting and, in my humble opinion, delicious. 

There are countless ways of making yogurt, each recipe being different from for every other. Every maker’s technique will differ, every region has its own unique microbes. What’s more, the diversity of roles that plays in the hearts of people across the planet and the ways in which it is integrated into regional cuisines is truly astonishing. Yogurt is more than fermented dairy, it is a window into peoples’ lives.

It is this that makes yogurt so much more than the sum of all its  culinary and health benefits. The most crucial facet of yogurt is that it prolongs and deepens the relationship we have with our food. It connects us to our ancestors and allows us to become conduits between them and our descendants. And that’s what ultimately matters to people most — how they connect with your product, your innovation, or your brand.