Potato, Potahto

21 Oct

Last week a friend sent me a press release from the United States Potato Board that announced their recent report on increasing potato consumption among Millennials. I then saw the report covered across the media, from Vox to The Hairpin. Every time the story was covered, the Board’s report was at least a little mocked. I’ll admit I laughed a bit too when I first opened the link – because somehow, talking about potatoes is a tad funny. But listen, friends and media: the Potato Board is just doing its job. You probably wouldn’t laugh if the same press release was about a chocolate company.

It makes very good sense that the Potato Board would want a chart about the types of meals Millennials make

I took a closer read through the Board’s research this weekend and their approach is textbook brand strategy. This Nielsen research summary of the work explains what Millennial consumers eat, their attitudes toward food, and how potatoes fit into that context. It’s exactly the kind of information I would gather to understand what’s going on in a certain product category. I do reports like this all the time to help companies figure out what people want, what their brand can do, and how to make the two intersect in a meaningful way.

I don’t have any agricultural boards as clients – but man, I wish I did. Agricultural groups have the same top concern as any big name brand: they need consumers to want their product. Whether it’s potatoes or pajamas or paint, it’s important to understand what consumers are interested in and how they think about a specific product category. In this case, it just happens to be a broader category of agriculture rather than a brand name. And since Millennials are the next big generation in terms of spending, of course the Potato Board wants to reach us. It just makes good business sense.

In my last post, I mentioned a book called The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue. I hadn’t planned on talking about it again so soon, but it fits really well with this potato example. In the book, author David Sax talks about many different kinds of food trends and food marketing – including produce marketing. Yes, carrot growers worked to reposition baby carrots as snack foods. Yes, apple farmers brand their apples to make them more premium. And yes, potato boards work to get people my age wanting more potatoes. It’s not just something out of a “Portlandia” skit about a celery hypeman – this is really how food marketing can work.

I leave you with this brilliant meme, which came to me via the same friend actually, sending some encouragement as I tackled a hard task. Somehow, this picture still makes me smile, every single time.

Potatoes, I believe in you. You can win over Millennials. You can do the thing!

Worth Its Salt

7 Oct

Ever had a bacon cupcake? How about salted caramel ice cream? Salty-sweet desserts are making their way to menus all over the country. According to food and beverage firm CCD Innovation, only 0.4% of US restaurants offered salty-sweet desserts in 2010. That number is now up to 3.1% of US restaurants. While that’s certainly not a majority, the boost is meaningful. Salty-sweet has captured the US palate – and our imagination, too. American taste buds are growing up, as we seek more sophisticated tastes and complex flavors. The salty-sweet combination may have scientific justification, too. As the CEO of Vosges Haut-Chocolat explained it to NPR: “when you add salt, it creates a cycle of continuing craving.”

I’ve been reading a fascinating book about food trends called The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes, but Fed Up with Fondue. In his book, David Sax takes us through several of North America’s recent crazes, from cupcakes to kale. Sax talks to people who work in trend forecasting, food marketing and product development to help us understand how foods go from just another foodstuff to almost mythical status. He interviews food truck owners, restaurant owners, meat farmers, apple growers-  you name it. As I read NPR’s article about the growth of salty-sweet, I remembered a part of Sax’s book where he talks to innovation expert Barb Stuckey. Speaking about kale, Stuckey points out that foods have to go mainstream to truly have a place in American food culture. It’s not just about high-end restaurants experimenting with new ingredients or gourmet companies putting out expensive niche products. As Stuckey puts it, “slowly but surely, the kale salad will make its way to TGI Friday’s menu, then McDonald’s, Kraft, and, eventually, as a Dorito’s flavor.”

My favorite cupcake at Molly's Cupcakes (locations in Chicago, NYC and Iowa). Photo from Flickr, via the Chocolate Peanut Butter Gallery

My favorite cupcake at Molly’s Cupcakes (locations in Chicago, NYC and Iowa). Photo from Flickr, via the Chocolate Peanut Butter Gallery

A food goes from niche to mainstream when it manifests across price points, formats and locations. To truly cement its place in the US dessert psyche, the salty-sweet phenomenon has to trickle down from high-end ice cream sandwiches and pricey bacon chocolate to casual restaurant chains and mass packaged goods companies.  This trickle is already happening: the NPR article notes that TGIF has been offering a salted caramel cake since 2012.

As Sax’s book makes clear, not every food trend can or should become a full-fledged part of our eating culture. Though salty-sweet desserts sure seem like they’re here to stay, other trends that Sax talks about were less successful. Sometimes consumers lose interest, sometimes there’s backlash, and sometimes the flavors just don’t work for the majority of American palates. There are always people working behind the scenes to bring us the “next big thing.” There’s always going to be a new superfood and a new trendy dessert – the more interesting part is seeing which ones take root, and which ones disappear quicker than you can say “cronut.”

If you want a preview of David’s compelling writing style and thoughtful research, check out his recent piece on the “Bacon Boom.”

And since I love to bake salty-sweet treats in my own kitchen, here are some great recipes I’ve made in the past:

What I want to make next:

My first-ever batch of homemade salted caramel - but definitely not my last. Recipe from Two Peas and their Pod

My first-ever batch of homemade salted caramel – but definitely not my last. Recipe from Two Peas and their Pod

Things Aren’t What They Seem

28 Sep

This week a video made the rounds that purported to show a beagle trained as an airline lost and found dog. The adorable beagle would smell items left on KLM planes, then trot around Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to sniff out the rightful owners. The video was posted all over my newsfeed, on major news sites, and across the aggregators I use to collect stories from around the web. It was labeled with headlines about how cute the dog was, how impressive its training was, etc.

Until people realized the video wasn’t quite real. In fact, it was simply a promotional video for KLM’s new lost & found task force. The video’s canine star was just an actor, helping KLM tell a story of commitment and care. A metaphor, of sorts.

Soon, all those sites that had shared the video with praise for its star added revisions to their stories explaining that this was just an ad. And while many sites took the “too good to be true” correction route, other sites threw blame at KLM, calling the video a “hoax” or a “lie.” My favorite came from Seattle’s Fox syndicate, which wrote that KLM “admits” that the beagle is not really a part of its lost and found team.

This is from the Fox Seattle syndicate's website

From the Fox Seattle syndicate’s website

Here’s the thing: this video is an ad. We see unbelievable ads all the time, from talking babies to singing snowmen. We suspend reality for ads, when we see them in an ad context. But when a video goes “viral” – out of context – we forget to do a reality check. And simultaneously, since the video isn’t explicitly framed for us as an ad, the line between what’s real, what’s staged, what’s promotional gets murkier and harder for us to perceive.

Zilla used Photoshop to insert her figure into pictures of Thailand’s beaches

Yes, it’s a bummer KLM doesn’t use a dog as its lost and found chief of staff: after all, a beagle sniffing out lost items is pretty darn cute. But calling the ad a “hoax” seems dramatic. Compare the beagle video to the story of a Zilla van den Born, a Dutch student who did an “experiment” where she told her family and friends she was taking a trip to Southeast Asia. And then instead of actually going, she simply edited photos to make it look like she went. She hid out for over 6 weeks, emailing her family updates and posting to social media about her adventures. At the end of her “trip,” she revealed that she’d never even left Amsterdam. She claimed her project was in the name of social experimentation, showing how easy it is to distort our reality on social media and lay claim to a life that isn’t representative of our real worlds. But what about all her loved ones who thought she was really on a trip? Don’t you think they felt a little duped?

And what about the video that surfaced later this week, where online daters wore fake fat suits on first dates to see how the other person would react? The experimenters wanted to see how people would respond when their date showed up and was heavier than in his or her profile pictures. But why does that get to be called an “experiment” while the beagle video is a dupe? The people on those dates were actually lied to twice: first when they showed up to someone in a fat suit, and then when they found out it was actually just an “experiment” and not a real date. Is that an experiment only because it’s in the name of “learning” and not an ad?

We know that the online world isn’t as it seems. We can pin whatever we want on Pinterest, to the point that Pinterest’s marketing team accidentally congratulated single women on their engagements because they posted so many wedding-related pins. We can skew our newsfeeds to the best parts of our lives, but leave out the nights where we feel lonely, scared, or sad. But we have to remember that the online world is just that: a place where we’ve built out our lives as we want to see them, and as we want others to perceive them. When something floats around the Internet, it always deserves a reality check, whether it’s a cute beagle or a man in a fat suit.

In case you missed it – here is KLM’s adorable beagle “employee”:

For the People, By The People

9 Sep

We like to think that we have refined taste, whether we’re talking food, hobbies, or art. But if you actually track what average people do on a day-to-day basis, you’re more likely to see them watching reality TV and eating Cheerios than going to the opera and cooking foie gras.

Back in the 90s, a Russian artist pair called Komar and Melamid wanted to explore what the average, everyday man was looking for in art. They realized that the tastes of the art elite were likely a poor indicator of what most people would want to see in a painting. Playing off the prevalence of opinion polls and market research in consumer culture, the artists hired a polling firm to help dissect what people living in different countries find visually appealing. Through a series of polls and focus groups, the artists were able to chart out what different kinds of people preferred in their paintings. For example, in the US, 44% of people said blue was their preferred color. 88% of Americans preferred to see a landscape in their paintings. Respondents liked seeing people, and wanted the painting to be as realistic as possible. Results were surprisingly consistent across countries and demographics, with some variations here or there.

The whole project had an edge of social commentary, as the artists were making a point about making decisions based on polls, about average taste, and about consumerism in general. Once Komar and Melamid had their data in hand, they set out to make what they called the “Most Wanted” and “Least Wanted” paintings. They incorporated the colors, styles and subjects that floated to the tops or bottoms of the polls. The resulting American painting is a landscape in soft colors with a portrait of George Washington in the mix. The “Least Wanted” painting, on the other hand, is tiny and full of harsh edges and geometric shapes.

America’s “Most Wanted” painting, according to the artists’ poll.

The “Least Wanted” painting for Americans. Quite different!

Komar and Melamid also created paintings for the other countries, then released all of the paintings along with the actual data on what people liked. They held a series of town halls and roundtables about the paintings, too. Some were with “average citizens,” and some were with people from the art world. The art world rejected the “Most Wanted” paintings, unsurprisingly. But what’s even more interesting is that “average citizens” didn’t immediately relate to them, either. When asked outright what their dream painting would be, most people had much more imaginative answers than what you see in the “Most Wanted” painting. So how do we explain the gap between what people came up with as their “dream painting” and what people replied to in the polls?

Well, for starters, asking someone an open-ended question is much different than giving people a list of possible replies. Second, few people would probably come up with the idea of a blue-tinted landscape painting as their dream painting, even if it is what they find most pleasing, overall. Asking people about which individual elements they prefer, and making something composite that speaks to their emotions, are two different things. But whether or not these paintings are really the most or least wanted, or somewhere in between, Komar and Melamid’s project raised a lot of interesting questions about art, its purpose, and its target. Should there be different approaches to making art for the masses, and art for the elite? Should art for the masses even exist?

I’m curious how this project would differ if the artists did it today. Would there be references to technology? Would people still prefer historical figures, or would they want to see more modern celebrities? Would most people still say that painting just needs to be nice to look at, versus having an explicit goal?

You can check out all the data from their project here, and the resulting paintings here. Which painting best represents what you think you want from art?

A Tale of Two Cakes

4 Sep

It was the summer of 2008 and I was on a bus to Burgos, Spain. I’d taken many trips around Spain during my semester in Madrid, but this particular trip was special: I was going to visit my friend Natalia’s hometown. She’d wanted me to visit for months, and we’d finally found a weekend that worked for both of us. Natalia was one of my closest Spanish friends during my time abroad and she was thrilled to show me around, introduce me to her family and friends and teach me all about Burgos’ centuries of history.

The minute we got to Natalia’s family home, her mom insisted on feeding us. Sure, Burgos had a lot of historical sites and beautiful vistas. But first… Won’t you just have a slice of cake?

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Tarta de Queso de Burgos (Natalia’s mom’s version)

That cake was sweet, with a nutty finish. It was the kind of cake that inspires people to have a sweet tooth. Easy to eat, and easy to eat a lot in one sitting. Natalia called it “tarta queso,” or cheesecake, but it wasn’t quite like the cheesecake we have in the U.S. It had a golden, brûléed top and a custardy middle. Natalia’s mom explained that it was made with Queso de Burgos, a local fresh cheese. I made a mental note of that, and took another slice.

What a wonderful weekend in Burgos. We toured a local monastery, spent time with Natalia’s childhood friends, explored the ruins of Burgos’ 9th Century castle, ambled along the river. I happened to be there during the town’s annual festival, so we also got to see traditions that stretch back centuries. Natalia’s family treated me with the sweetest, greatest kind of hospitality you could imagine. When it came time to return to Madrid, I was sad to go. Natalia’s mom sent me off with the last slice of that scrumptious cake.

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A look at the volleyball scene

A couple months earlier, I’d had the chance to visit some dear friends in France. These were friends I’d made while studying in France and they told me I had to come visit since I was so much closer than usual. Of course I agreed, and I bought tickets to visit during the area’s annual Volleyball Tournament. The Tournament takes over a campground near Amboise, and participants set up tents all over the site. They play volleyball during the day and essentially host giant parties at night. In other words, it’s a fabulous time. I stayed in a tent with my friends, cheered them on as they played volleyball, participated in singalongs, and brushed off my French after months of thinking in Spanish. I also got to see my host family from my study abroad program.  They swung by to grab me from the volleyball tournament and took me around town for nostalgia’s sake, then brought me to their house for a delicious meal. I can’t remember much about what we ate – but I do remember the cake my former host mom served at the end. It was moist, flavorful, punctuated by bits of fruit. It was the perfect dose of sweetness, balanced by a rich base. I’m sure I asked for another slice.

I’ve long thought about both those cakes. Back in 2008 I wasn’t as much of a baker, and I didn’t think to ask for the recipes. But those cakes have stayed in my thoughts over the years. You know when foods just stick out in your memory, and you really want another bite? Part of it is how delicious those foods were, but I know part of it is nostalgia, too. Those days in Burgos with Natalia were some of my best from the entire 6 months I spent in Spain – her enthusiasm in showing me around, her family’s hospitality, the fun of exploring her hometown. And seeing my friends and host family again in France just made me so incredibly happy – that same sense of hospitality, the genuine interest in making sure I enjoyed myself, the joy of being with people who are just so good, so deep down.

I recently asked Natalia for the cake recipe and finally tried my hand at it earlier this week. My version was certainly delicious, but I think Natalia’s mom’s cake was better. I couldn’t find Queso de Burgos here so I substituted in cream cheese, which lent the right texture, but not quite the same flavor. Perhaps I’ll need to try it again with a variety of queso fresco that has a closer taste profile to Queso de Burgos. Here’s a recipe I found on the web that looks really similar to the one Natalia sent me, if you’re interested.

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My take on the Beaumes de Venise muscat cake

As for the cake I had in France- I’ve yet to ask for that recipe, though I still could. But I did see this recipe for a Beaumes-de-Venise cake on a friend’s cooking blog a couple years ago, and decided it seemed similar to that cake I’d had back in France. So I made it last year, for my birthday potluck. Rejoice! I don’t know if it was exactly the same, but it definitely hit the right texture and the right balance of heartiness paired with sweet, plump fruit.

Even if I manage to perfect these recipes, eating them in SF will never be the same as eating them with the people who made them for me the first time. Hopefully someday I can return their hospitality, and I’ll start the visit by cutting them a nice, big slice of cake. Perhaps that’d be the perfect time to share the yellow cake my mom makes us for every birthday? Or maybe a thick slice of gooey butter cake?

Just for fun: here are some photos of my trips to Burgos and the Amboise Volleyball Tournament.

Such A Facade

28 Aug

20140826_174507As I strolled San Francisco last week I passed a giant building under construction. The building takes up almost an entire block with a uniform facade painted an odd shade of brown. To its right is another new building, this one gray, but with an equally bland facade. My first question was what the buildings were going to be used for. My second was why they made the buildings so uniform and boring. It’s not just about aesthetics: research shows that when a street has large, uniform facades, people walk through the street much quicker, and enjoy the walk much less. Streets with smaller facades and more functions per block inspire people to linger, gather and enjoy the scene.

I learned of this phenomenon in a wonderful book called Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. As the title suggests, the book talks about different ways that urban design can impact quality of life and emotional well-being. The book is full of interesting nuggets, from research on the proper distance between your house and your bus stop, to an entire section on piazzas. This facade research stood out to me, though, because it’s such a common trait of modern architecture. Think of all the blocks now dominated by gigantic, big box stores that stretch and stretch and stretch. Think of all the huge apartment buildings that take up entire blocks. Think of the cold, empty spaces that you encounter as you walk through a modern city.

551764_865618047362_70379446_nMuch of the research on facades comes from Jan Gehl, a Danish urban design consultant and architect. Her studies show that people find it much more uplifting to walk through streets with variety in their facades. Compare the picture above to this other picture from San Francisco, this time from the Castro neighborhood. Which street would you rather walk down? Which would you rather explore? Where would you rather sit and talk to your friends?

Studies like Gehl’s can really impact how cities shape their world. For example, Denmark now regulates where banks open their new branches, to make sure they don’t affect a main city street that thrives off a flurry of activity and movement. New York City has limited the amount of ground floor space for new stores on the Upper West Side, ensuring that streets maintain a variety of shapes, openings and varieties. Vancouver regulates its big box stores to make sure that their design fits with how the city wants its inhabitants to experience their surroundings.

As our cities continue to evolve, we’ll need to keep an eye on the way that our architectural and design choices can impact the quality of lives. Bigger isn’t always better. Taller isn’t always smarter. And even as big box retail and chain restaurants continue to grow, we must think of ways to make big business act small.

Look Into A Mirror

19 Aug

In consumer research, we often use a technique called ethnographies. Ethnographies are essentially in-home interviews, and they’re just as it sounds: we go to people’s houses, and talk to them in their “natural habitat.” We ask questions about their lives, their hobbies, their relationships. We dig into their perceptions of specific brands and types of products. For a beer interview, for example, we’d ask all about the types of beer they like, when they drink it, where they buy it, etc. We use these interviews to help clients better understand their consumer targets – their lives, their interests, their concerns. It’s a rich way to gather insights, and a fascinating one, too.

One of the best parts of in-home interviews is that there’s a lot of showing, on top of the telling. We always ask for a house tour. Every part of the house is fair game, from bedrooms to bathrooms. If it’s a food or beverage-focused project, we go through their cabinets and their fridge, taking note of what they eat, how they store it, how they serve it. Though sometimes respondents feel a bit embarrassed to show us their messy lives, that’s sort of the point: few of us have homes that are as organized and beautiful as what we see in magazines, and to truly understand “real people,” we have to see life at its realest.

I recently was thinking about what would happen if a researcher entered my own apartment and did an in-home interview about me. How would she describe my perspective on life? My thoughts on relationships? The way I organize my living space and belonging? I looked around my apartment, trying to size up what my room says about me. My bedroom is full of mementos and curios. Books, pictures, souvenirs, art. There are a couple pieces of World’s Fair memorabilia floating around. A tray gifted to me by one of my favorite college professors. A ceramic bowl that my brother made me. Artwork I bought on a bridge in Prague. And then, of course, the overflow storage, organized with a steel bookshelf and fabric cubes. Would the researcher comment on my love of travel, perhaps? On the multitude of pictures of family and friends? My collection of foreign language dictionaries and thesauruses? On the sheer quantity of things “on display” in my room?

I like to think that the researcher would scribble notes down about my outgoing spirit, my inquisitive mind, my breadth of hobbies. I’d hope they say that I seem to have it together. I’d hope they’d say I’m a savvy consumer who makes rational choices. I’d hope they’d say I’m interesting.

If a researcher entered your home: what would she think? What would she deem important to you? How would she describe your perspective on your life? What do you think would go in the report?

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