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Much Ado About Toast

20 Nov

Midway through a recent flight, my seatmate turned and asked where I live. When I answered that I live in San Francisco, she started on a rant about SF’s fixation with high-end toast. Turns out: my seatmate makes her own bread, her own preserves, etc. So my usual “pricey toast is ok because you wouldn’t really make this kind of toast at home” argument didn’t work. Instead, she proposed that everyone should produce their own food. But that perspective doesn’t take into account the realities of how most people eat. Most people aren’t milling their own grains or making their own jams. They’re buying what’s easy to find, affordable to purchase and simple to use.

This is such an interesting time in American food culture. Still, we’ve seen some big shifts in mainstream food over the past few years. You can see which trends are going mainstream by looking at grocery store shelves. What you see at places like Target or Safeway reflects what most Americans have access to. Even the largest food companies are putting out products that emphasize “fewer negatives” or “more benefits.” That shift toward “better for you” products is a pretty significant change to the way people eat every single day.

Remember when Marilyn Hagerty made internet waves with her review of Olive Garden? Lots of people laughed at her review of such an “everyday place.” But couldn’t one argue that everyday meals are the most important? They may not provide our most treasured memories, but they do make up the bulk of what we eat. I love to follow food trends and read about new restaurants, but I think it’s equally important to understand what’s happening in mainstream food culture. America’s food culture is largely defined by what goes onto people’s dining room tables, and not just what happens on chef challenge shows.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, try planning a week of meals with products you wouldn’t typically buy. More expensive, less expensive, healthier, less healthy–makes no matter. Sometimes it’s just good to shake up your frame of reference and try to imagine a different day-to-day life. Try to imagine the everyday meals of someone not like you. What would they eat? What would their priorities be? What could you learn from them?

What’s Spaghetti?

30 Oct

I got into a debate about spaghetti the other day.

You might assume I got into a debate about the right type of herbs for the sauce, or how long to cook the noodles. But no: I got into a debate about spaghetti itself. What it even is, at its most basic level.

filipinospaghetti1680

From Kawaling Pinoy

It started with a dish called Filipino Spaghetti. This dish includes hot dogs and banana ketchup, adding up to a sort of sweet, sort of savory dish. I’d never had it before, and quite liked it. But then, my dining companion and I got to talking about spaghetti. He wasn’t a fan of Filipino Spaghetti, and said he prefers “Italian spaghetti” with a richer tomato sauce and savory herbs. Which is totally fine: to each their own. Still, we started wondering what makes spaghetti, well, spaghetti. Is it about the shape of the noodle ? The way it’s served? Who makes it?

Technically, “spaghetti” refers to a type of noodle. But when we hear the phrase “spaghetti,” we have specific associations of what that dish should look like. Same goes for most foods, really. What guacamole should be, what fried rice should look like, what ketchup should taste like. These ideas come from our individual food histories: what we’ve experienced so far and what we believe to be true about different foods. Coming up with a standard definition really isn’t that simple, though. There may be traditional ways to prepare foods, but who’s to say what the “right” way is, especially when variations persist across cultures? Where’s the line between “authentic” and “variation” and “reinterpretation?”

Defining dishes has been a hot topic lately because of chefs’ new takes on traditional foods. Recently I saw a discussion about paella that was altered so much, Spaniards didn’t think it should be called “paella.” I also saw a conversation about tacos that shouldn’t be called tacos, since their fillings were so non-traditional. I’ve seen people declare certain dishes a “mockery” of regional cuisine because of ingredient tweaks or technique changes.

When does something become a mockery, rather than a twist on a classic? Where is that line between “creative interpretation” and “offensive bastardization?”

Honestly, it’s sort of hard to tell. Something like Filipino Spaghetti is, in fact, authentic to a specific culture. It is an adaptation that happened over time due to local contexts and local ingredients. This is true with most foods we eat today: few look like the original dish that our ancestors would have consumed centuries ago. Earlier this year, I read a fantastic book called “The Language of Food,” which digs into the linguistic roots of popular dishes to explain how those dishes evolved over time. Most things we eat today morphed over centuries of human migration, crop changes and cultural nuances. Did you know the origins of ketchup are a fish sauce created in 17th century China? That ketchup looked and tasted nothing like our ketchup today. If a restaurant served you that take on ketchup, would you protest it wasn’t ketchup? Or should we rename our beloved tomato sauce something else, instead?

In my opinion, Filipino Spaghetti is equally spaghetti-like to something smothered in marinara. But what about when it comes to more liberal takes on traditional dishes?

And that’s where it starts to get murky. There is a difference between creativity, and disrespect. I often think that switching around ingredients shows creativity, not insult.  I’ll gladly eat your Korean BBQ tacos and your butternut squash paella. But I do think there is a line to watch about respect, about mocking an authentic dish, about claiming authenticity. Which brings us back to the original question: when is paella not paella? Is it about some proportion of ingredients that got swapped out? Is it about who makes it?

Personally, I am satisfied with someone modifying the name of a dish to express that it’s been altered. “Butternut squash paella” or “soppressata kugel” are just fine by me. But I hope that chefs always respect the origins of the cuisine they’re adapting, and that they call it an adaptation rather than trying to claim authenticity or superiority. What ruffles my personal feathers is when chefs get snobby about how they’re “improving” a dish by using different ingredients or techniques–implying that the original dish was not sufficient on its own.

It’s a gray area, to be sure, because lots of people do get offended when they see their traditional dishes “re-interpreted.” But given how much food changes over time, I think respectful creativity is a delicious addition to our menus.

Producing Meaning (Picture Prattle)

26 Jun

I walked into Trader Joe’s yesterday on a mission to buy watermelon. I walked out with a camera full of pictures, and a blog post on my mind.

It all started with some peaches.

File_009.jpegRight when we walked in, we saw a display of “Peach Pie Peaches.” We wondered what that meant. Did it mean they’re perfect for pie? That they taste like pie? Or was it simply a catchy alliterative name for a new variety? We concluded it was probably the latter, and started to walk away. Until my boyfriend noticed that the package said “heirloom flavor.”

IMG_0169.JPGAnd that’s when this post started to come together. The phrase “heirloom flavor” is a perfect example of product copy that confuses more than it clarifies. “Heirloom” technically refers to produce that comes from heritage seeds. Heirloom produce is usually considered more flavorful than other varieties, and also more “pure” since it isn’t cross-bred. But what on earth does “heirloom flavor” mean? Does it mean that the peaches taste like they could be heirloom, since they’re so flavorful? Does it mean the peaches are heirloom? Or is it simply a copywriter’s attempt to infer quality?

I tried to resolve this mystery via my good pal Google, but never sorted it out. It looks like Family Tree Farms did sell heirloom peaches at one point, but it’s unclear if the peaches at Trader Joe’s are that variety. It’s possible these specific peaches aren’t heirloom, so “heirloom flavor” was the best they could say from a legal perspective. It’s possible they used to call it heirloom but had to stop due to regulatory reasons, and now can only say the suggestive phrase “heirloom flavor.” It’s also possible that someone added “flavor” in an attempt to amplify taste appeal. In the world of food marketing, “flavor” can add or detract from perceived appeal depending on how it’s used. Think “vanilla-flavored” vs. “full-flavored” or “flavorful peaches.” Language is nuanced, my friends.

I’ve done a fair number of packaging projects, and it’s always really fascinating what ends up on a package. Package copy is largely made up of “claims,” phrases that explain a product’s key attributes and benefits. Typical claims are things like “gluten-free,” “no artificial flavors” or “provides 6g of protein.” In this case, “heirloom flavor” is a claim that effectively means nothing, since its intended meaning is so unclear.

Claims work alongside the product name and branding to tell the product’s story at shelf. So, many companies choose to plaster their packages with as many claims as they can, hoping to touch on every topic their target consumer might care about. I’ve written claims before, and I’ve also tested them in focus groups. I will tell you for a fact that consumers don’t read most of what’s on a package. And yet, companies continue to use as many claims as they can.

Here is an example from a more classic type of packaged good: cookies. Look at how the Goldfish brand has spread different kinds of messaging all over its package, from texture cues to health benefits. Once you start paying attention, you’ll notice that almost every packaged good you buy is telling a story with claims. Next time you’re out buying snacks, take a closer look at the package copy – and then let me know what you think!

Goldfish 2.png

Candy for Lunch

14 Jun
Goo Goo

Old ad campaigns on display at the Goo Goo Cluster store

On a recent trip to Nashville, I stopped at the Goo Goo Cluster store to buy myself a treat. The store doubles as Goo Goo’s “history museum,” and an old ad caught my eye. “A nourishing lunch for a nickel,” it said.

I had to giggle. After all: Goo Goo Clusters are candy, a mix of chocolate, caramel, nuts and marshmallow. Delicious? Yes. Nourishing? I wouldn’t say so.

And yet, Goo Goo advertised their candy as a “nourishing lunch” well throughout the 20s and 30s. That slogan wouldn’t work today, for reasons that go far beyond ad regulations. The old ads position Goo Goo on this idea of sustainment, a filling meal that keeps you feeling good throughout the day. That might have worked back in the day, but today’s consumers have different perceptions of what’s healthy, and what’s “acceptable” as a meal. In today’s society, consumers simply wouldn’t accept the notion of a candy bar as a “sustaining” lunch.

The Goo Goo ad made me think about perceptions of health and sustenance, and how they shift over time. Words like “healthy” and “nourishing” sound like they should have concrete definitions – but their meaning evolves along with consumer understanding and beliefs. Just take a look at what’s happening with grains: in the last decade we’ve shifted from idolizing the low-carb Atkins diet, to idolizing whole grains, then ancient grains… and now 17% of U.S. adults actively avoid gluten altogether.

Today’s consumers root their food “truths” in a different story than we’ve seen before. There is significant pressure for big food brands to clean their ingredient decks, offer “healthier” options and enable smarter choices. We’re seeing a lot of big CPG brands struggle, while smaller “challenger” brands swoop in to meet evolving consumer needs. Smaller brands swoop in because they can – they’re nimble, with a strong sense of purpose that’s focused on meeting today’s perceptions of health and nutrition. Rather than trying to reverse old products into a health-focused strategy, they’re planning for today’s needs from the start.

Over time, Goo Goo started calling their product candy instead of lunch. That’s the right way to go for products that can’t fit into modern perceptions. But for a lot of big brands, there are in-betweens: taking out artificial flavors, adding trendy nutrients, creating new products with health benefits. Where there’s a consumer need, there’s a way. And as consumer conceptions of wellness continue to shift, classic packaged goods brands will need to keep an eye ahead of the tide. Simply knowing what today’s consumer thinks about health and wellness won’t suffice – because by the time you’ve reacted, public opinion may change.

This post was originally published on my company’s blog – check it out on the Sterling Brands site

Putting Words in Your Mouth

15 May

side by sideThese two pictures have a lot in common: both were taken at airports, both are retail displays, both display the same type of product. And yet, there’s something critically different. The left photo describes KIND Bars as “sweet treats,” while the right describes Clif Bars as “healthy snacks.”

Fundamentally, these are similar products. They’re both essentially trail mix bars, with ingredients like nuts, fruits and chocolate. Both manufacturers market their bars as healthy snacks, touting functional ingredients that add protein, antioxidants, etc. But when they’re given such explicit descriptions, suddenly the bars seem to serve different roles. KIND bars become an indulgence, while Clif Bars maintain a healthy halo.

These displays weren’t actually side-by-side; I happened to notice them a few days apart in San Francisco and Cleveland. But, let’s pretend they were next to each other. If I was trying to find a healthy snack in the sea of airport junk food, would I grab from the left, or the right? You can imagine the scenario where someone is making an impulse buy, and sees the two products with their respective signs. Let’s assume they know very little about either brand, and the signage helps them navigate their decision. Clif Bars would seem like a healthy choice, while KIND Bars would seem like a sweet pick-me-up. People buying the Clif Bar may pat themselves on the back for a “good” choice, while the KIND Bar buyers probably still pat themselves on the back for buying the KIND Bar instead of a candy bar.

health.pngThese displays are effectively positioning the products. They’re telling us how to categorize the options in our heads. They’re overruling whatever is written on the actual packaging, by framing the bars for us before we even go to pick them up. Take a look at how KIND describes its bars on the brand’s website. A far cry from indulgence, right? I’m sure the brand wouldn’t be happy to find its bars labeled as a sweet treat at the Cleveland airport.

When we shop, the retail environment is full of visual cues intended to influence what we buy. But while most grocery stores label their aisles with straightforward category names (deli, canned goods, etc.), these airport retailers have taken it a step further, classifying products by their perceived role. It’s a tad unfair to the product manufacturers, to be sure. I don’t think it’s necessarily unfair to consumers, because we should be making our own choices before we buy, regardless of what signs or packaging tell us. But if I were the KIND account manager responsible for airport retail – I’d reach out to that Cleveland store and fix this display situation, ASAP.

When Suggestion Engines Get It Wrong

3 Apr

What do Cheez-It crackers and eyeliner have in common?

adjacencies

From a friend’s Amazon shopping page

Very little, you’d think. And yet, a friend recently posted this picture to Facebook. As she tried to buy eyeliner on Amazon, the “frequently bought together” algorithm suggested she add Cheez-Its to her cart. All for the excellent price of $6.77!

Made you laugh, right? Because these two products are so unrelated, this “suggestion” seems totally off-base. But if you think about your in-store shopping habits and translate that to the internet- it starts to make more sense.

Physical retailers often merchandise associated items near each other. A classic case of this “adjacency” strategy is putting peanut butter and jelly on the same shelf. Next-level adjacency strategy is used to “suggest” items you might want to add into your cart more spontaneously. For example, Trader Joe’s sells packaged olives next to its wine display, because they want you to trigger your interest in buying olives to go with your drinks. Another adjacency strategy comes via promotional displays: for example, a s’mores bundle promotion I wrote about a few years ago.

When you’re shopping online, physical merchandising and browsing are replaced by dropdown menus, filters and algorithms. These algorithms try to connect your current behaviors, past behaviors, and what other people “like you” are doing. Algorithms are supposed to be helpful, but they can’t always distinguish between patterns, and purpose. When the algorithm notices a trend, it takes advantage of that information. And so, while the Amazon algorithm “knows” that a lot of people apparently buy eyeliner and crackers at the same time, it doesn’t know why. The connection it’s making isn’t completely logical, and the product it suggested to my friend  didn’t make sense within the context of her shopping purpose. She was shopping for makeup- not food. So seeing food pop up on the side felt nonsensical and out of place.

But wait: there’s one more physical shopping “truth” we need to consider. You may think about makeup as a discrete category, but you’re also very likely to buy it while shopping for other things. Think back to your last physical trip to a big box retailer like Target- what ended up in your cart? I always marvel at the seeming “randomness” of what goes into my cart at places like that, everything from flour to soap to greeting cards. But unless you’re on a very mission-driven shopping trip, or at a specialty store, you’re likely shopping for more than 1 thing at a time. And once you walk out of Target, your cart may very well contain the seemingly unlikely duo of makeup and food.

So what we’re seeing here is a clash between our physical shopping behaviors, and our online shopping behaviors. When we shop online, we’re often in “research mode,” looking for helpful information. We expect websites to know our frame of mind, and cultivate a relevant experience for us. We expect to see helpful reviews and product information about the category we’re focused on, not a different category we may start shopping for later.

Annies SaltinesWhen I tried to replicate my friend’s experience on my own account, I saw a lot of makeup suggestions- and then a suggestion for Annie’s Saltines. Which likely means that people do use online shopping to “stock up” on their essentials across category. And yet, from a merchandising perspective, we expect more from our online retailers. If they have our data, we want them to use it well. For these websites to properly influence our behavior, they need to take into account differences in our mindset as we go through the ecommerce journey- and not just suggest that “eyeliner + Cheez-Its = the perfect assortment”.

Food Is Not Content (and neither is your life)

13 Mar
milkshake-600x450

From People.com

Remember those crazy complicated, towering milkshakes that made the Internet rounds earlier this year? Available in flavors like Cotton Candy, they included so many add-ins and add-ons that they literally rose above their glasses, in a seeming feat of structural engineering. They blew up on sites like Buzzfeed and were shared all over social media as people ogled the wonder that is a super tall, super crazy milkshake. Lines formed outside their source, NYC’s Black Tap, as people clamored for their chance to try one of these milkshakes themselves.

And, of course, to get a picture doing so.

This same story has played out dozens of times. Whether it’s croissant/muffin hybrids dubbed “cruffins” or croissant/donut hybrids dubbed “cronuts”- we keep seeing food-focused media frenzies. The word gets out, lines form, people get their hands on the treasured treat- and then the onslaught of social media posts begins.

city bakery

An example of a time I chased down a certain bakery and it lived up to the hype. And yes, this picture got lots of likes. (City Bakery, NYC)

Of course, my post title isn’t entirely true. Food CAN be content. I personally have a baking blog, so clearly I think food is worthy of clicks and discussion. And I am totally one to chase the latest food trends, even if it means going out of my way to find a renowned bakery or restaurant. But, when foods become trendy, you tend to see photos glorifying the creations for their structure, their combination of flavors, their sheer creativity. You don’t see many posts talking about the food itself, though. That isn’t super hard for me to believe: I’ve been to the home of the aforementioned Cruffin and seen people spend more time photographing their food than eating it. But after the milkshake frenzy, I got curious what people had to say about the milkshakes themselves. So I Yelped the restaurant. Some rave reviews, but many posters conceded that the milkshakes looked better than they tasted. Once you got past how cool it looked, you realized it was actually pretty hard to eat and perhaps too complicated to taste great. It was more about the “WOW” picture than the “WOW!” flavor. But while their Yelp reviews told the truth, I’d bet you their Facebook shots simply said the “WOW!” part without the fine print on taste.

Now, I’m not trying to diss Black Tap: I haven’t been and can’t speak for its shakes myself. I’m simply using this as an example of a broader trend: accepting an experience as valuable because of what it shows others, rather than what it gives YOU. I’m noticing a trend toward thinking of our lives as “content.” When you start doing things to get the perfect photo for Facebook, and not because you really want to- that starts to cross a murky line. When you get excited to try a food trend so you can show everyone you had it- even though the food tasted terrible- you start to put real life enjoyment behind social media envy. When you tell your kid to smile, even though they’re crying, so you can get the right shot for Facebook- what does that mean about us as humankind?

It’s one thing to capture great moments or great meals or great friends. All things I love to do. It’s another thing entirely to put how your life looks, above how it feels. To plan your moments or meals around what you want others to see. I think we’re still learning how these mindsets shift our behaviors, and I certainly haven’t figured it all out. Whether we seek the perfect beach shot or the perfect milkshake, it’s easy to get caught up thinking our lives are content. And the more we think about how our life looks to others, we’re probably forgetting how our lives feel to ourselves.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking “oh this would look great on Facebook.” And I take a step back, put my camera away, and refuse to let myself post it. Extreme? Maybe. But it’s effective to knock myself back into the moment, and into judging whether I’m actually enjoying the experience- or caught up wanting to show others how awesome it “looks.”

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