Inspiration in a Hong Kong Market

1929770_17290858361_6526_n.jpgWhile doing work on a project related to nutritional supplements in Asia I had the distinct pleasure of getting away for a day and exploring one of the many markets in Hong Kong. For anyone interested in the relationship between food and culture, these sorts of excursions are tantamount to spending a day in the Elysian Fields. The sights, smells, sounds, and general crush of life can produce sensory overload, but they are worth every second. You might think that food is just food, but in reality, food is as much a part of society as money, politics, and taxes. The growing or gathering of food, its consumption, and our attitudes about it all reflect the state of the economy, social classes, and tradition. And it serves as a great reminder of how we think about analyzing the world around us.

I would contend that we owe the widespread popular fascination with all things food-related, whether in academics, shows like Hell’s Kitchen, or the random “food porn” selfie to these most ancient bazaars and culinary settings. There is something absolutely primal to the act of eating, yes, but also to the exploration of what we eat, whether through taste, texture, sight, or any other sense. Food, like language and religion, is a foundational part of the shared human experience, and something that marketing folks often overlook.

So what is food?1929770_17290663361_4068_n.jpg It’s not as obvious as it may seem. And know that food has been a fixture in the study of culture from the beginning, I would hesitate to give a single answer. But it seems that the question of what exactly bounds food itself is an object that has been ignored or over simplified in the world of marketing and design. And yet, it is the central question that lies at the heart of debates over the ethical, cultural, aesthetic, and political debates of GMOs, vitamin-fortified staples, enhanced water, MSG, and even pink slime. Defining what makes food more of less “real” is central to how we talk about it, and for manufacturers, how they market it. Much of what you see in a market like this would be labeled as gastronomically valid, but much of it would not. With all the various competing perspectives, And what is contested between the competing communities of food practice, so to speak, revolves on the privileging of various biological, cultural and technological elements of food – preparation, harvesting, storage, presentation, and packaging all fall within competing interpretations of what is “right”. The point being that the “yuck” factor we so often attribute to one food or another has more to do with how we interpret food than it does with anything biological. Culture and context shape our understanding and acceptance (or rejection) of it.

Why do I mention it? Because it has everything to do with how we market it. 1929770_17290758361_2521_n.jpgFood is symbolically charged. It is wrapped up in deeply held beliefs that we carry with us whether we know it or not. And it’s something we need to be constantly aware of when in the field or out of it. How we experience the world matters and how we craft it into something that resonates is about touching the heart and soul.

 

 

Advertisements

Divorce

Package it, slap a label on it and sell it for $4.99 a pound. It’s as simple as that when you’re selling groceries, right? Hardly. Food, meat in particular, is tied to cultural sensibilities about production, cleanliness, family values and a host of other topics.
Meat, like Norman Rockwell images of the American farm, is myth. We’ve been conditioned to turn away from the origins of our food and respond to blood and death with repulsion. Or have we?
With wealth comes the desire to learn about where our food comes from, how it’s produced and what exactly is in it. The point is that shopping for food is an increasingly complex process as has less to do with securing calories than it does with symbols and meaning.

Snack Time

In it’s simplest definition, a snack is a small portion of food meant to hold one over between meals. In contrast, a meal is typically comprised of multiple items, has higher caloric content and is usually tied to rituals of time and location.

 Historically, snacks were prepared from ingredients commonly available in the home. This has changed considerably over time with the new norm existing today as pre-made foods that are conveniently packaged and last seemingly forever.

But snack foods are not just treats anymore. They have to become part of the larger ingredient mix along with potatoes, carrots or butter. Frito Pie is on the menu alongside the $25 dish of shrimp etouffee. This may not seem important to the producer as long as products are selling at the store. But it validates a fundamental element of consumer behavior – the end user decides how to use any product he or she purchases. The challenge for the producer is to recognize the innovative ways consumers use their products and facilitate strategies that will help keep the trend going.  This means understanding the underlying cultural processes that have allowed this transformation to take place and how to capitalize on it in order to grow sales.

Some credit to the changing role of snack foods must of course be attributed to the inventiveness of snack producers. Restaurateurs and chefs have also been and will continue to be tremendous influencers.  Consumers, rather than turning to manufacturer websites and cook books are looking to the Food Network and local chefs not just for ideas, but also for validation of their culinary choices. Even subculture icons like Lux Interior of The Cramps (a rockabilly/punk fusion band founded in the 1970s) have helped shape the use of snacks in cooking – Mr. Interior had a deep penchant for Doritos Quiche.

To be sure, the snack is the inspiration. We see evidence to support this notion starting back in the 50’s with the introduction of recipe ideas for everything from corn flakes to Cheetos. But what accounts for the resurgence of using snacks in cooking in an age dominated by “healthy” foods, “quality” ingredients and of haute cuisine in the home? And what does this mean for a marketer or product development team? The simple is answer is that by understanding the deeper issues driving the transformation of how snack foods are used, it is possible to better innovate and drive sales over time. We have identified several areas that deserve special attention.

Snacks as Symbols

Meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture through various practices, phenomena and activities that serve as systems. Rituals associated with food represent a deeply ingrained structure by which meaning is propagated within a culture. In other words, a potato chip is more than food; it is representative of childhood memories, concepts of being a good or bad parent, regional affiliation and other symbolically charged concepts.

The brand itself is equally symbolically charged. This explains why a generic brand of corn flakes to top your tuna casserole may not be “good enough.” Only Kellogg’s communicates that the cook cares enough about the people eating. This also explains, in part, the reluctance of many to buy store-branded products (although other factors come into play as we see, for example, in times of economic crisis).

Flavor is less the issue than the need to create a dish that fits within the symbolic framework in which it is constructed and consumed. The implication is that it recipe ideas aren’t enough. These ideas must be tied to richer symbols. Package design, shelf positioning, etc. must all reflect greater symbolic structures and lead to the construction of new and unique traditions that work within the existing framework.

The Invention of Tradition

Traditions exist to preserve a wide range of commonly held ideas, practices and methods used by distinct populations. Food joins other elements like music, folklore and clothing to create culture. Beliefs or customs are taught by one generation to the next and actions are reinforced over time. The preservation of culture, however, becomes much more difficult in a postmodern world.

Through the emergence of tribal subcultures along with the ease and means to communicate and cross-pollinate we see many using brands as badges of affiliation. In practice, people are “inventing” tradition by endowing products with rich symbolic meaning. Product, therefore, becomes a means by which people artificially establish a past and validate identity in the present. Mom may have never actually made Frito Pie, but it helps the consumer maintain a sense of identity to believe that she could have.

Food as Novelty and Play

Finally, using snack foods as ingredients speaks to the very basic need to invent and play. Snack foods used in a way different from their “intended purpose” is novel. At a psychological level, novelty speaks to four basic principle elements:

  1. Thrill Seeking: the pursuit of activities and objects that are exciting, unusual and potentially dangerous.
  2. Experience Seeking: the pursuit of unfamiliar and complex environmental stimuli, as through cooking.
  3. Disinhibition: Sensation-seeking through engagement with other people; searching for opportunities to lose inhibitions by engaging in variety in food, sex, alcohol, etc.
  4. Boredom Susceptibility: the tendency to be easily bored by familiar or repetitive situations or people, or by routine work.

Beyond the sensory benefits of novelty, there is the need to use experimentation as a means of establishing cultural capital. Snack foods have become a means by which people not only attain psychological stimulation but also display to friends and loved ones that they are inventive and interesting.

Implications

It may be interesting, but what does it all mean? Simply put, it means that whoever can tap into these unconscious motivations, symbols, and practices can increase sales, grow customer loyalty and develop brands that are synonymous with enjoyment. We often interpret our products through a self-limiting, narrow focus. Understanding snack foods from the vantage point of “ingredient” opens a new series of delivery systems, product possibilities and messaging strategies.

After all, the customer will always decide how to use your product.

 

 

 

 

 

Translating culture and opening markets

Success translates well into narrative. Who hasn’t heard those wonderful stories of marketing campaigns gone astray when introduced into a global setting? Remember when Puffs tissue started marketing their tissues in Germany and it didn’t do so well because “Puff” means “brothel” in German?  Or when Bacardi launched a fruit drink named Pavian in France it translated into slang as “chick,” but when they promoted it in Germany the same word meant “Baboon?”

We’ve all heard of these mistakes and we all get a chuckle, but the business ramifications of not doing your cultural homework are tremendous. And this goes well beyond something as superficial as a mistranslation.  We are prone to imposing our way of seeing the world on others, but what we may see in the developed world as universal may be significantly different in developing countries. Culture shapes how we use, interpret and shop for goods and what US shoppers may see as simply, say, buying chicken for dinner may mean much more in another part of the world. In other words, retailers and manufacturers need to understand what matters and why it matters according to different cultural perceptions.

Returning to our example of purchasing chicken at the grocery in the US, take concepts of cleanliness and food safety. As a population that has had easy access to meat for longer than most of us can remember, our concerns revolve around the promotion of “health” as a means of reducing fat in the diet. Increasingly, we make decisions based on the sanitary conditions of the farms where chickens are raised and the ethical treatment of the animals.  We increasingly associate “healthy” with being “green” (another wonderfully loaded and vague word). That has led to a push for reduced packaging as proof of sustainability and healthy living.

Now, take China. In a place where access to meat was – until fairly recently – limited, chicken is associated with status and upward mobility.  In the past, the source of the meat itself was often suspect because you may have purchased it in less than uniform locations.  Consequently, what we would see as excessive packaging is understood differently – the factory setting implies progress, wealth and modernity, which in turn imply good “health.”  Meat is something you want to show off to your friends and family because it is associated with status, which is associated with good health. Add to that the fact that people in much of world (unlike the US) have traditionally seen the chicken as something other than a pure commodity.  Indeed, there are many poems written about chickens (He Crows the Morning by Hsieh Ling-Yun or The Most Noble Fowl by Mohammad Ibn Sina). The result is that if you position chicken in the developing world as you might in the US, as a low-fat, easy to prepare alternative source of protein, it won’t correspond to the local worldview and your brand won’t gain traction.  You will invest a lot of money and may get very little in return. And China is only one example; expand this to the BRIC nations or the Middle East.

Of course, this is only one example, but the idea cuts across all categories. Don’t believe it? Tropicana initially failed when pushing orange juice in South America because it was pushed as a breakfast drink, which in South America it is frequently not – our beloved breakfast icon is something for the afternoon, a treat and a snack.  Papa John’s, on the other hand, is doing wonderfully in Egypt by maintaining it’s “American” mystique while incorporating toppings and product names that reflect local tastes.

Understanding what it means to shop on a global, national and local level is central to developing successful new products, sales channels and marketing campaigns. That means going beyond the product or retail environment and asking bigger questions:

Question: How does shopping convey status and wealth?

Answer: Pabst Blue Ribbon is a premium brand in China and signifies wealth because it has been positioned as a classic American Lager rather than a hipster yard beer. In China, it conveys a sense of worldliness, refinement and cultivated taste.

Question: What cultural norms shape how people interact with you brand and your store? Answer: Victoria’s Secret can’t be promoted in Riyadh or Bangalore the way it is in London.  Attitudes outside the West about sexuality, exposure of the human body and gender roles are radically different, shaping everything from marketing content to store displays.

And this could go on and on.  So what does it mean for marketing your brand in the developing world (in fact, what does it mean for marketing your brand in Alabama vs. LA)? It means that before you decide to launch or even reposition a brand or product around the world you need to spend some time digging and learning why people live the way they do and how your brand can fit into that complex system of practices and beliefs.  It isn’t enough to make sure the language is translated correctly or the color pallet makes sense. You have to come to understand the population the way you understand your neighbor. That’s where you find new opportunities and that’s where you find growth, both in terms of brand equity and the bottom line.

Why Training Matters for Good Ethnography

Ethnography is a powerful tool, but it’s being so watered down as to become nearly meaningless in many cases. What ethnographers do, or should do, is uncover meaning and complexity. There is, frankly, a lot of crap being produced by so-called ethnographers. Being able to conduct a good interview does not make a person an ethnographer anymore than being able to balance a checkbook makes someone a mathematician. It comes down to being able to talk about depth of knowledge and make connections that others overlook.  Not everyone is a painter and we accept that. Not everyone is an ethnographer. While it may come across as arrogant, that is not the intention. The point is to say that what we learn from training and experience has value and while the goal in the current economic climate is to be good, fast and cheap (something that can, in fact, be attained), it is ultimately none of these things if the end work is not grounded in solid methodology or training. This isn’t to say one needs a PhD in anthropology from the Harvard or the University of Chicago, but it is to say that simply calling yourself an ethnographer doesn’t make it so.

And to be fair, there are times that it is possible to be, or at least appear, too academic. It is a criticism well deserved. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the output and thinking depth of academics, but in a business context it’s difficult make the transition. They are not trained to think in business terms — they simply don’t speak the native tongue. Some are tossing that perspective out the window as much out of necessity as anything else. Some anthropologists, both in and out of academia, I think, are afraid of losing their “anthropologist” identity. That can be a tremendously threatening thing. Anthropologists started as rogue methodologists in many ways, developing theories and barrowing methods in order to get to a deeper truth. They no doubt need to return to that in all areas of anthropology, but especially on the applied side. People like Boas were looking for understanding the human condition in the broadest sense. By 1960 it was about defining the discipline.

But returning to the original point, a solid academic grounding in behavioral and cultural theory is imperative to doing the job well, whether it’s in helping create a marketing plan or designing a new product. Simply taking into account what people tell you in an interview is misleading and often dangerous. For example, if participants tell you that they make a point of eating dinner every night as a family, it would be easy to take that information and build a marketing plan or product around that statement. The catch is it doesn’t address the unsaid. How much clutter is on the dining room table? What discarded boxes are in the garbage? What is the weekly schedule of activities? Are the kids there when the fieldwork takes place at 6:00 p.m.?

At a deeper level, the underpinnings of meaning are lost. What are the various meanings of “family” in a given context. How is dinner time used to establish or co-create meaning? What is the symbolic role of food? How does ritual factor into purchase and preparation choices? How does that carry over in the store?  These are the host of observational data points that are frequently overlooked by researchers who lack a theoretical grounding. Now imagine what it means to lose that depth of understanding when designing something as complex and expensive as a new type of car. If you get it wrong, you may well waste millions going down a rabbit hole. Regardless of the product, service or message you are designing it makes a great deal of sense to have a research team that can get at these issues and translate them into meaningful insights. Business anthropology represents the synthesis of academic anthropology with the professional practice of marketing and design. It seeks to understand what it means to be human, the diversity of human practices and values, and then turn these practices and values into tangible experiences. Getting it right means getting the right people.