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
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.