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.

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.

Grey Salmon and Building A Brand

A few years back, people were left reeling after ABC revealed in a piece on farmed salmon a widespread use of chemical coloring in the industry. Following the report, much of the public voiced concerns, outrage in some cases, over the chemicals used and a general feeling of deception about the practice’s existence, even though this is hardly a trade secret. Even so, the notion of farmed salmon having the color of their flesh altered in any way was disconcerting to many and there are countless websites and journals calling into question the products stemming from salmon farming specifically and aquaculture in general.

But while many consumers and consumer groups, were and are shouting for more transparency in the industry around the labelling of synthetically colored salmon, the question remains: is colored salmon actually bad for us to eat? And should we be encouraging the industry to abandon the practice in place of a chemical-free farmed salmon—one with a decidedly less appealing grey flesh? There are a couple of overarching themes that need to be explored when thinking the problem through.

Biology. So what is it that makes wild salmon pink? The chemical in question can be found in nature. Astaxanthin is a naturally occurring antioxidant, meaning that it helps to protect cells from damage and happily turns wild salmon pink. Functionally, synthetic astaxanthin used by aquaculturists is the same. The synthetic compound will have exactly the same effect in the body of the farmed fish as it does in the wild. In the wild, it is a natural process which occurs when fish consume a diet of algae and krill. The same process is mimicked with farm salmon, meaning they are receiving the same nutrients they would in nature, and their bodies metabolize astaxanthin as they would in nature.

The process, as it turns out, is about more than visual appeal. Astaxanthin is essential to the salmon natural reproductive cycle and functions as a provitamin, being converted to vitamin A. Salmon are unable to make astaxanthin themselves, needing a dietary supply for these vital functions. It just happens to have a pink pigmentation to it, which in turn impacts the salmon flesh. So the notion of “dying” is something of a myth. Ultimately, there isn’t a lot of difference between wild-caught and farmed salmon, at least for the more reputable farms, simply because farmed salmon are fed a diet that seeks to maximize the fish’s natural nutrition and mimic what they would eat in a wild scenario. Major farmers will give their fish a diet that keeps their fatty acids as similar to that of wild salmon as possible – it’s a matter of flavor and, in turn, profits.

To be sure, there are ample arguments why NOT to eat farmed salmon, all of which are open to debate. Contaminants in the water, the types of feed used, and a host of other issues are all relevant, and I’m certainly not advocating one position or another. But color is hardly one of them.

The Ick Factor. Beyond biology, there’s also the matter of how we respond to foods that don’t fit out psychological frame.And grey salmon falls into that category. A study by DSM showed that shoppers are more attracted to darker shades of salmon. And that added color can be priced higher in part because of its resemblance to wild salmon. Not dying farmed salmon would make it more affordable, but only if people would actually purchase salmon that’s not pink, which doesn’t seem likely. We have a cultural understanding of how ingredients and dishes are “supposed” to be. These reflect notions of cleanliness, nature, purity, and an array of other norms. Consequently, eating grey salmon would be reminiscent of eating blue bread – beyond the potential novelty, it simply doesn’t fit our understanding of what’s “right”. Furthermore, grey is a color often associated with decay or blandness in our society. So in addition to grey salmon falling outside our idea of what salmon “should be”, it also signals associations with unhealthiness and death. Pretty heavy, yes, but relevant if you’re farming or selling salmon for a living.

We learn from those around us what’s worth eating and what should be avoided, and those categories vary between regions. But somehow, the reminder that taste  is so very relative, and so very learned, never fails to shock. The same holds true when we think about how food should look. Ultimately, visual appeal is just as important as the tasting experience of the food. Before we even take that first bite, we’ve already judged the meal in front of you. How that food looks makes an impression, even a promise, with the viewer. Pink salmon promises delight. Grey salmon promises disappointment.

Putting Pink Into Practice. So if your goal is to sell more farmed salmon, you have to convey that its pink hue isn’t detrimental and that it keeps the buyer from freaking out. Great. Those are fairly straightforward tasks, assuming you can get people to stop long enough to listen to what your brand has to say. This holds true of nearly any product – features, benefits, and fact are all necessary to make your brand’s case. But they hardly win hearts and minds. And that requires digging a bit deeper and connecting bigger cultural truths to what you make or do.

In the case of farmed salmon, one path may be to speak to the higher moral truth of climate change and consumption. Wild-caught salmon is commonly available but under current rates of spawn and catch, it is not sustainable. The ability to make an identical version of this nutrient increases the ability of the industry to sustainably grow without depleting naturally occurring, but limited, resources. Therefore your brand stands for something bigger than fish production, it stands for a healthy, sustainable future. Adding astaxanthin using the current methods, while not perfect, helps maintain and preserve the planet and wild fish stocks. Of course, there is a simple reality that in a polarized, digital age you will always be a target. Taking a position means taking on risk. But responding to criticism strengthens a brand’s relationship with its customer base. Some negative commentary is short-lived, some is continuous and reflects a specific world view. In either case, it requires having a plan in place to diffuse the situation.

And the clearer your brand’s cause, the easier it is for that plan to come together. The point is simple — dig deeper, whether you’re selling salmon or flea medicine. Uncovering cultural patterns of meaning leads to better branding, better campaigns, and better marketing.

Love, Rot, and Cheese: Culture and Marketing Artisanal Foods

Let’s talk about cheese. Cheese is at its most basic level carefully rotted milk. Beyond the milk itself, it is, like beer, an ancient domestication of microbial activities for human consumption. We work in concert with communities of bacteria, molds, and fungi, eating the sugars, proteins, and fats in the milk to produce the hundreds of different kinds of cheeses. It is symbiotic, sustained funk. It isn’t sexy, but it is the biological reality.

But cheese is more than biology. It is poetry and passion. It is the embodiment local identity as well as a testament to the power of mass production. That said, after an evening of exploring locally-produced charcuterie with my daughters, my thoughts drift to artisanal cheeses, not the stuff produced in sterile factories. Making and marketing artisanal cheese is a dance in how we as humans blur the lines between nature and culture, urban and rural, production and consumption. It is the product of human skill working in concert with the natural agencies of bacteria, yeasts, and molds to transform a fluid made by cows, sheep, and goats (and no doubt other milk-producing creatures I’m simply unaware of).

Cheesemakers are increasingly interested in the microbial inhabitants of local environments and the unique communities that shape a place and its cheeses. Microbial terroir emphasizes the importance of the unique geography of a place, using the qualities of specific, local microbes to craft an identity for a brand of cheese. While the microbial similarities of cheeses from different regions are often more striking than their differences, identifying cheeses through the flavors produced by their bacteria allows consumers to get to know the microbes in our lives, and through those microbes, establish a sense of connectedness and regional pride.

Beyond the unique flavors produced by virtue of location, the lifestyle is part of the appeal to consumers of artisanal cheese. The ethics and politics of locally produced foods of American farmstead or imported raw-milk cheeses are all symbols of a privileged kind of eating, but with their own challenges and their own complex cultural contexts – like all things, cheese is political. For producers, the single most relevant issue is how to create a product that is economically viable while staying true to their beliefs. There’s a very small profit margin in cheese or most other “craft” foods. No one goes into these professions to get rich. But that is, for many consumers, the draw.  Its production is about passion and commitment to the local community. In essence, all foods have social lives. But with an increased sense of local or regional identity, the antithesis of post-war industrial sameness, artisanal cheeses are becoming less an expression of privilege and wealth, and more an expression of community involvement. Uncovering the many complex practices and decisions of artisanal cheesemakers and cultivating a sense of place, shows that food is a means of building of cultural identity. And all of this matters because it extends beyond cheese to locally produced foods.

Shatto is a small family-owned and operated dairy farm located just north of the Kansas City. With approximately 350 dairy cows, they have established a strong regional following. As their website points outs, “Our family has been farming here for more than 100 years and began a dairy farm more than 80 years ago. In June 2003 our family began processing our own milk on the farm.” Two things stand out with Shatto. First, the milk has a consistent and specific taste because the herd is small and the food it eats reflects the local grasses and alfalfa. Second, Shatto is about the product, not just the profits. The messaging and the access consumers have to the dairy farm (including the small bottling plant) represent a strong sense of belonging to regional culture. The romance sells to be sure, stirring up pastoral images of a simple, rural life. It appeals to people because it is the rural counterpart to independent restaurant, locally distilled spirits, even regional start-ups. But the labor behind it sells it as well. It’s hard work, which appeals to the cultural underpinnings of the Midwestern work ethic. The things that have helped drive Shatto’s success hold true for makers of artisanal cheeses.

Handcrafted foods, whether cheese or Duroc pork, bring the practices of food production “back to the future,” reintroducing techniques that have been marginalized and largely eliminated during the modernization of industrial food production. Through artisanal cheese and other foods, producers and consumers challenge these industrial imperatives, leading to diverse and exuberant elements to our diet. For producers and the people who market their products, understanding the deeper personal and cultural connections we have with our food is central to success.

Beer, Brands, and Identity

Drinking alcohol seems to be one of the few things humans nearly everywhere do. Beer in particular has long been a part of human history and people have enjoyed raising a pint with friends since well before, well, pints were a thing. By 4000 BC the Sumerians were fermenting a form of bread to make a fermented pulp which had a “divine drink” By 3000 BC the Babylonians had up to 20 different types of beer. Beer is the foundation of civilization. But how do we go about choosing what to drink and where? What senses are drawn on to decipher what flows from that stein of beer? And does it matter if that beer is delivered in bottles, cans, or some other vessel?

While not actually being the easiest alcoholic beverage to produce (that distinction most likely goes to wine or mead), beer is considered to be a staple of many a diet. Over the course of human history the choices were largely dictated by the means of production – you drank the local brew because of availability, or, once mass production had nearly crush the independent brewery you drank what you were told to drink between episodes of Gun Smoke and the ball game. But today people have an incredibly wide range of choices available to them. Particularly, there has been an explosion in the number of “craft beers.” Within the U.S., the craft beer industry has grown considerably over the last decade, accounting for over 24% of all beers sales in 2017. So what’s the driving our choices and how can we apply those same principles to other food products?

Physicality

A central element in driving beer choice is “sensorial’, meaning it has qualities, whether the product itself or its packaging, that provokes our tastes and catches our eye. In other words, it stands out from the rest of the pack because it tantalizes our senses. Craft beer does this, in part, with considerably higher quality ingredients being used in the brewing process. Recipes are more elaborate and produce distinct flavors. Craft drinkers know they’re looking for something identifiable rather than something that appeals to the masses. Domestic beers is “watered down”, “flavorless”, “bland”. Craft beer, on the other hand, engages more of the senses. Enter the label, the bottle, the website. They serve to establish a particular flavor, lifestyle, to situate the product within a given community context. The packaging and display of the beer enhance the sensory experience, giving it a life of its own, a sense of identity. So beer is more than the taste, it’s the presentation, as well.

Making It MeanIngful

Food has symbolic meanings based on association with other meaningful experiences. An example of the symbolic meanings including food references can be found in many of our common expressions. Bread is a good example of the symbolism found in foods. When people sit together with friends at a meal they are said to break bread with one another. This expression symbolizes a setting where friends come together in a warm, inviting and jovial manner to eat. Bread has been called the staff of life – and as I alluded to before, bread is, in one sense, liquid bread. As much as taste and design impact the decisions we make about our beer, creating a sense of meaning is perhaps just as powerful. Food and drink, but especially beer, provide you with more than a taste experience. They are endowed with mystery, nostalgia, a sense of purpose. They provide the drinker with a sense of purpose.

Brand identity (and personal identity to a large degree) can be formed by the beers a brewery chooses to produce in relation to their definition of craftwork. Anchor Steam puts its history and dedication to the craft front and center in their identity through the connection to San Francisco and the tradition of “steam brewing”, as well as intentionally remaining relatively small. Boulevard Brewing out of Kansas City encourages their brewers in creative freedom, while Green Brewery creates all their beer while only using organic ingredientsAnd then there are those beers that are meant to inspire and encourage connection to a place. They create a sense of cultural connection by establishing a sense of imagined community. Most notably in the use of events by craft breweries to overlap the imagined communities of their own brewery with those of other businesses or breweries. Brooklyn Brewery ties one to a somewhat imagined sense of cultural unity with other Brooklyn Brewery drinkers. Lifting a bottle of Free State Ad Astra Ale connects people to Kansas and a bond between people over space and time.

And then there are those beers that are meant to inspire and encourage connection to a place. They create a sense of cultural connection by establishing a sense of imagined community. Most notably in the use of events by craft breweries to overlap the imagined communities of their own brewery with those of other businesses or breweries. Brooklyn Brewery ties one to a somewhat imagined sense of cultural unity with other Brooklyn Brewery drinkers. Lifting a bottle of Free State Ad Astra Ale connects people to Kansas and a bond between people over space and time.

But beyond the logo, the messaging, etc., many, if not most, of these breweries act. They have deep connections with their communities and facilitate a sense of betterment. Blue Brewery, for example, works closely with local charity organizations by giving them the proceeds from their monthly art shows. Free State helps support local organic farmers. Sun King sponsors events throughout the Indianapolis area, donating time and money to the efforts. They are all visible and engaged, helping establish themselves as anchors in the process of place-making.

Beyond Beer

So can it be done beyond beer? Do these same qualities apply to beef? Or milk? These are typically consumed away from the larger community, either alone, with family, or friends. They still fit into the complex symbolic exchange of sharing food, but they aren’t necessarily the types of food or drink you consume at a party, for instance. I would be inclined to say yes.
Personal and cultural connection to a place has a tremendous impact on the decisions we make about what we buy. Unless, of course, we’re talking about commodities. Whether that connection is to a direct cultural experience or to imagined community (e.g. a point in time, say, the late 1800s), the more connection you have to the product, the more likely you are to embrace it, to share it with likeminded individuals. If you’re from Maine, maple syrup has meaning. But if you’re from Maine, beef has meaning, too – it’s just that said beef may mean something representative of a bygone era to you. Regardless, the notion of craft factors in by establishing a strong set of feelings.

The feelings of both freedom and enslavement that mass production engenders appear to have been particularly invigorated in the wake of the economic crisis in the past several years. As opting out isn’t on the table for most, adapting within the system, personalization and localization, and efforts at self-sufficiency abound. That includes how we think about food. We’ve seen the explosion of trends such as the maker movement, the sharing economy and the associated decline in markets such as new car purchases, artisanal or slow-food cooking, and the success of marketplaces such Etsy, where at least if one isn’t quite ready for “doing handmade”, it’s easy to support the passion economy and gain something one-of-a-kind; revealing tensions towards mass production’s global reach and grip. It also creates a connection to something tangible. So too is it with how we construct meaning around our food. The more we can create a sense of connection and humanity with our food and drink, the more likely we are to create devotees.

Culturally speaking, in essence, what one eats defines who one is and is not. Eating is a daily reaffirmation of one’s cultural identity. Many people affiliate the foods from their culture, their childhood with warm, good feelings and memories. The food is part of who we are and become. It ties us to our families and holds a special worth to a person. Foods from our culture, from our family often become the comfort foods we seek as adults in times of frustration and stress. Be it beer, beef, or bread, tying what we consume to our personal identity and cultural context drives adoption.

Eating Bugs and Marketing Challenges

The first time I cooked fish with the heads on, my daughters were not amused. Being landlocked, American children they were unaccustomed to coming face to face (quite literally) with their food. With a little nudging, they got over their revulsion fairly quickly and dug in. But when I recently suggested trying meal worms, the resistance was significantly more pronounced.

Two billion people around the world consume insects regularly, from Central America, to Africa, to Asia. But eating insects isn’t exactly mainstream in America. It’s on the culinary fringes. For several centuries in the Western gastronomic world, the notion of eating bugs was seen as something you keep toddlers from doing, as a dire last resort when faced with starvation, or as a form of dietary display (think lolly pops with a grasshopper inside). But consuming insects may be making its way into the dining habits of the US, slow as it may be. The shift owes its emergence to several different trends: the high-protein diets favored by bodybuilders and athletes, the popularity of things like the paleo diet, and the belief that American millennials are more adventurous in their approach to food. Even so, the growth of a bug-laden diet is slow in the making.

But why hasn’t insect-eating become a part of this culture sooner? For many, probably the majority, the idea of eating insects, grubs, etc. is a challenging notion.  I think visual context has a fair amount to do with it. Bugs have negative cultural associations in the West. They’re often associated with decay, evil, or a lack of cleanliness. They represent something outside the purview of culture, something primitive and uncivilized. And so we reject them at a glance. We’ve seen the same thing we offal and unusual cuts of meat over time, as the process of butchery becomes less obvious and less “desirable” cuts find their way out of the meat counter. Bugs, like kidneys and brains, are too foreign, too close visually to the realities of food production, and so we get squeamish.

But there is a shift underway as people reclaim dietary exploration and turning the exotic into the norm. Sweetbreads are returning to the menu (at least in upscale restaurants and gastropubs) and butcher shops are on the rise. Which is in large part why cricket flour, which is made by milling whole crickets into a coarse or fine powder, is serving as a gateway ingredient to full-fledged bug-eating. It is a transitional meat, carefully ushering us into a more open approach to bug consumption. But no matter how physically different cricket flour is to the actual insect, there is still a cultural bias against bug consumption preventing cricket flour from going mainstream. So what is to be done?

I think there are two central players in the bug business. The first, pivotal players in fighting the existing cultural bias are chefs since they have the capacity to further jumpstart the ingredient’s popularity and navigate how it is used. Over the last few decades they’ve transformed “trash fish” to favorites on the menu, turned BBQ into fine dining, and made garbage-to-plate foods approachable, if not loved. With the transformation of the celebrity chef into something of a cultural explorer, people are being introduced to foods in a friendly way – there’s simply less shock when we see it on a screen being eaten by someone we find entertaining and informed.

The second are cultural influencers in a broader sense. That seems obvious, but the point isn’t to focus on things like programmatic spends. Rather, it’s a matter of defining an array of people who are helping drive legitimate cultural shifts rather than trends. Most young people are much more accepting of the idea of unfamiliar ingredients than their parents. In fact, it’s become kind of a cool thing to do. And having a much broader range of information and entertainment sources, they also have a broader range of influencers and entry points to exposure.

There has already been a noticeable shift in how people are viewing insect-based products. Three years ago, if you wanted to cook with insects, you had to find a specialty store or go to a pet store to buy reptile feeder crickets. Today a whole industry has begun to evolve to meet the rising demand for sustainable insect protein. Indeed, the demand has been higher than anticipated over the past two years as the normalization of cricket-based products continues. The trick will be to normalize it rather than reverting to novelty status.