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Where’s It From?

3 Sep

Imagine you’re at a specialty chocolate store, looking for something new. As you scan the shelves, how do you decide what to buy? Do you get the first thing that catches your eye, or analyze every little detail on every single package? Do you pick based on something straightforward like flavor, or dig for quality cues like origin?

Gut decisions aside, most purchases are framed by clues that help us predict whether we’re making the “right” choice. We scan packaging for indicators that this is just the right thing for our tastes and needs. We look at reviews for validation that other people liked this product. We create our own little systems of qualifiers that we think define a “good” purchase.

I’ve long been intrigued by the role that origin plays in purchase decisions. We fundamentally believe that certain products are better when they come from certain places. Usually that’s because of some sort of legacy—think Belgian chocolate, Italian pasta, Argentinian leather. But origin isn’t enough to ensure quality. Just because Belgium has awesome chocolate doesn’t mean all of its chocolate is superior. Same goes for other types of origin stories, like local businesses or products based on family recipes. These traits don’t guarantee quality—but from a marketing perspective, they do imply it.

And naturally, marketers lean in. But at this point, origin stories are so commonplace, they’re getting cliche. When you poke around the grocery store, you’ll find all kinds of products with an origin story right on the package, from handcrafted tequila to mass-produced beer. Maybe that’s something else to blame on millennials: research tends to conclude that millennials crave “authenticity.” That means a lot of brands targeted to millennials are positioning themselves on authenticity. Which often gets us to a very ironic, non-authentic place.

It’s particularly interesting when it comes to food. People tend to say taste is their top criteria for food and drinks—but you can’t always try before you buy. So really, we’re making assumptions about taste based on other cues. And when we’re stumped in the aisle or fighting choice overload, stories about origin or production method can sound pretty darn good.

A few years ago, I did brand strategy work for a wine company that wanted to evaluate expansion opportunities. It was a peculiar situation, because growth depended on finding more grapes—and that meant sourcing beyond their traditional region. That sounds like a classic manufacturing issue, but it had broader implications for this specific brand: they’d have to stop using their current “appellation.” Appellations declare a wine’s place of origin, and they’re protected by law. You can invent a place of origin for popcorn all you want but….you can’t market your way into a wine appellation.

So we had to help this company figure out how consumer perceptions would change if they ditched their current appellation. The results were pretty fascinating. When we showed people hypothetical wine labels in focus groups, they always ranked “sourced” wine as more appealing, no matter its place of origin. It didn’t matter if the label said the wine came from France, Italy, California, Napa…the mere act of putting a location on the label made it sound more appealing. It didn’t matter that wine from any of those places could actually be quite terrible. We’ve been trained to interpret specificity as a quality indicator, for better or for worse.

Personally, I’m getting tired of origin stories. As a marketer, I know they can work. But as a consumer, it’s all getting rather cliche. Many brands are essentially inventing a backstory, hoping it will sell—inauthentic authenticity, basically. Which is risky territory for a brand to tread, and annoying territory for consumers to navigate.

I’m curious to see if there will be an eventual backlash against all of this coined “authenticity.” Maybe Generation Z will decide they’re sick of stories, and only want mass-produced merchandise. Maybe they’ll get so sick of interpreting every little detail on a package, they’ll start a trend of minimalist packaging with no brand information whatsoever. Maybe they’ll decide that it’s actually better to buy from countries that don’t have legacies for specific products, because their methods are more innovative.

Then again: the first protected vineyard zone was introduced in the 18th century. So maybe it’s not millennials’ fault, after all.

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But I Don’t Like That

11 Jun

Do you ever look at the personalized recommendations you get online and wonder where the algorithm went wrong? Maybe Netflix suggested movies you think you’d never watch, or Pandora suggested a playlist that feels totally off the rails. And you think to yourself: but I don’t like that kind of thing. Why would they suggest this?

Well…there’s usually a reason. But sometimes you can’t spot it. Websites and apps suggest content based on previous actions. Sometimes they mess up and use the wrong signals to assume interest. Maybe you watched Bring It On to wax nostalgic with a junior high friend, but don’t actually want to see other movies from that time period or genre.

But what if sometimes you’re the one who’s wrong?

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Tom Vanderbilt called You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice. Vanderbilt sets out to explain how we develop our tastes, how psychology affects preference and how the modern age of never-ending-content and recommendation engines could change all of that. He cites an impressively broad mix of experts, from developers to academic researchers to philosophers.

One of the core claims is that we know less about our tastes than we think we do. We want to believe there’s logic to what we like, but can’t truly explain all of our preferences. That’s because too many factors play into our choices, from social norms to preconceived biases to generalizations. For example: maybe you love Justin Bieber, but you’d never say so in public because you think people might judge you. Or maybe you hate opera but pretend to like it, because you think that makes you sound cultured.

Turns out, we sort of stink at describing why we like what we like. But data is the great revealer. Companies like Spotify and Netflix know what you actually like based on your consumption patterns. You may say you love foreign films, but you’ve only watched one in the last five years. Meanwhile, you swear you hate chick flicks, but watch five a week. You can say whatever you want to your friends…but Netflix knows what’s up.

Sometimes, you’re explicitly trying to save face or establish expertise. But sometimes you don’t even realize the gap between what you say you like, and what you actually like. Sophisticated data programs can spot patterns we can’t discern on our own. Netflix has a classifications system that’s way more granular than typical genres, finding detailed connections between the types of things you tend to watch, and what you might want to see next. So even if you don’t always spot a connection between what you think you like, and what they recommend—it’s probably there. Try listening to one of Spotify’s curated playlists without looking at the screen. You’ll find you like songs that fall into genres you think you hate, and you hate songs that fall into genres you think you like. You’re actually more likely to find content that suits your tastes when you ignore the labels.

Vanderbilt’s book was on my mind as I read this article about Pippa Middleton’s wedding. I almost didn’t click, because the headline talked about her wedding dress—and I didn’t think I cared. But then I figured, why not? Dresses are pretty and it’s fun to learn about them. Clicccck.

I’m glad I took the bait, because the article was more commentary than couture. It talked about how the NYT decided on its coverage for Pippa’s wedding. This paragraph made me laugh pretty hard:

NYTimes coverage

People dissed the NYT for their wedding coverage, those wedding articles actually performed really well. Of course, it’s possible there were different audiences clicking the wedding content and complaining about it. But that’s not very likely, given how media works these days. It’s just that people didn’t want to believe they were interested in wedding content. They wanted to believe they had higher class tastes than wedding fodder…even as they secretly clicked to learn more.

Creepy? Yes, of course. But also pretty helpful, in my opinion. Wouldn’t you rather have data help you find things you’ll like, rather than wading through things you hate?

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.

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