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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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.

Burgers and Placemaking

Cold, wet, dreary. That sums up the city today. On the plus side, the shitty weather has served as inspiration when thinking about lunch. Today, that’s led to the choice of a burger and sweet potato fries. The place isn’t an example of up-scale dining, but it doesn’t give you the feeling of fast food (though in reality, it probably falls into that category). Unsurprisingly, the place is packed. What is surprising is that lack of business in the typical fast food burger place just down the way. It is partly the quality of the food that makes the difference, but it’s more than that. We’re all in the know at this place, we’re all a bit more discerning, or so we tell ourselves. As it turns out, a burger isn’t just a burger and a burger joint is more than a business. They’re part of a bigger American ideal, rich with history, symbolism, and cultural significance.

Globally, fast food generates revenue of over $570 billion (that is bigger than the economic value of most countries). In the United States, revenue was a $200 billion in 2016. The industry is expected to have an annual growth of 2.5% for the next five years. That is below the long term average to be sure, but it’s coming back from a several year slump. Hamburgers specifically account for almost 60% of sandwiches eaten. They are affordable, portable, customizable, and simply delicious. They are also the quintessential American food. Most fast food and fast casual restaurants do more than hamburgers, obviously, but at their core the burger is the heart and soul of many a restaurant. So what makes the burger special?

First and foremost, hey are made from beef, which Americans do very well. Beef is king is this country. Americans ate an average 55.6 pounds of beef in 2017, according to data from research and advisory firm Rabobank. The first European settlers emigrated from a world where land was scarce and ownership limited. North America was the opposite, where land abundance enabled colonists to develop a meat-centered diet on a scale that the Old World could neither imagine nor provide. Livestock represented wealth and provided the easiest way to convert land to profit. It is also tied to the image of the individualism of the  somewhat mythical cowboy. Beef represents a connection to a rugged past where men (and it is most often represented as men) tame the land, test themselves, and embody the spirit of American greatness. It is an imaginary space rife with contradictions and historical inaccuracies to be sure, but is nonetheless part of the cultural symbolism of the American psyche. So, beyond being tasty, beef is tied to the mystique of individualism, the promise of togetherness, and the display of success. The hamburger is a cultural icon that signifies the underlying American ideal.

Second, burgers are egalitarian. When you eat one, you can bond with a stranger, shoot the shit with a friend, or hang out on a sunny day sharing a meal with someone beautiful. Burgers evoke a sense of communion because they are, in most ways, outside the socio-politics of other cuts of meat. They are a democratizer of food in that they are hand-held, simple, and foundationally unchanging in composition and presentation. Yes, they can be made upscale, and increasingly are, but at their core burgers are accessible and understandable as a food that crosses class barriers. It’s a full meal, but adaptable enough to personalize without losing what it is at its foundation. It is the centerpiece of honest food. And so it is that burgers are a food that telegraph identity.

So with this cultural clout behind the burger, why have places like McDonald’s and Burger King struggled in recent years? To my mind it’s evolutionary – they simply haven’t adapted. They’ve scoured the data and trends, but they haven’t scratched beneath the surface.

Health and Presentation. Generally fast food has a reputation for unhealthy food, while consumer tastes in the United States continue to drift towards healthier options. While still a risk, this is not a new dynamic and the industry is already fighting back successfully. Additionally, casual dining has helped shift the playing field, having a most positive image when it comes to healthiness. It should be noted that “healthy” is a loaded word. In a 2014 study by anthropologists at the University of Kansas, perceptions of healthiness are significantly influenced by the environment in which food is ordered and served. The more “homey” a place feels or the closer its association with “traditional values”, the less likely diners are to associate it with health risks. That burger may have 2000 calories, but if it’s served by a guy who looks like the embodiment of America, the more likely people will be to forgive.

Placemaking. A bare geographic space is like a brand-new home that hasn’t been lived in yet. As people begin to inhabit these spaces, they build into it to make it representative of themselves, much like we design and set up our houses to turn them into homes. This is how a place goes from just being a location to something that has a deeper meaning to its inhabitants. We look to create into the spaces we inhabit our own little corner of what is familiar to us, so that we can call a space our own. And this holds true for restaurants, as well.

But familiarity need not mean recreating the neighborhood joint. It can just as easily reference a familiar point in time or a shared cultural concept (“we’re all ex-pats here”). The point is that place can be constructed any number of ways – it’s a matter of being creative. Customers are looking for more than just a burger, even though the burger is at the heart of everything. They’re seeking a place that makes them feel like they’re among friends, a space where that feels personal. It’s about  more than getting a bite. There is a clear rejection of dining experiences that feel like they lack personality or where the vibe screams mass production.

What all of this means is that marketing a hamburger is a hell of a lot more complex today than it was in 1950. The same can be said for coffee, pasta, or pizza. The good news is that the food is so rich with meaning that there are countless avenues to go down, provided you’re open to embracing the cultural cues that trigger a sense of belonging. That means being open to a creative and sometime unusual approach to strategy and planning.

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