“We are simply not winning the war. And it is a war.”
Todd Putman, a former chief of marketing for Coca Cola North America, minced no words as he strolled across the stage at the 2014 Childhood Obesity Bay Area (COBA) conference. As the event’s afternoon keynote speaker, Putman commanded the attention of several hundred rapt – if not dubious – physicians, health educators, students, food entrepreneurs, and parents. All in attendance agreed with Putman about the monumental struggle at hand for the health of America’s children. Whether each listener would characterize the proliferation of metabolic disorder and its repercussive afflictions as a “war” was a question of personal interpretation. Yet, even the most tenderhearted audience members would not shy away from bellicose language on one point: Putman and his kind were the enemy. Or, at least Putman used to be.
Putman was invited to conclude the day’s proceedings because he no longer shills sugar water for our generation’s Philip Morris. The weight of “karmic debt” compelled Putman to employ his talents promoting healthier products. Putman has most recently stewarded substantial multi-year compound annual growth in carrot sales as chief marketing officer of Bolthouse Farms. And his speech focused on how he had gotten more kids (and adults) to eat beta carotene-rich produce.
Putman, Bolthouse CEO Jeff Dunn (another former Coke executive), and their team launched a series of cheeky, creative, and visceral campaigns to build more of a persona around their company (“Juiced By A Bunch of Carrot Farmers”), baby carrots (“Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food”) and other produce (“The Food Porn Index”). They also developed innovative flavors and packaging to make carrots more attractive to palates attuned to the gustatory wallop of junk food.
As Putman described the fascinating ways in which Bolthouse had increased sales, one could plainly see the energy rising amongst much of the audience. Putman was handing over the keys to the castle: tried-and-true tactics for compelling at-risk eaters to make better food purchases. (Another great example of this school of marketing: “Broccoli vs. Kale.”)
But those tactics also alarmed a cadre of health education purists who bridled at Putman’s fundamental thesis: decisions are driven by emotions and urges; emotions and urges are shaped by marketing; and marketing sells products. In other words, Putman succeeded at Coke by stealthily (nay…at times, quite conspicuously) kneading his audience’s subconscious minds, and was succeeding again by taking a similar tack at Bolthouse. As Putman put it:
When is the last time you saw anything rational in a soda ad? There’s nothing rational in it. Why? They don’t have anything rational to say or sell. They do emotional. On the other hand, we (in the healthy food industry) have rational, and we (market) rational, and it doesn’t work!
An Inconvenient Truth
The American grocery store is a cornucopia of choice: the average store contains over 40,000 unique items. As the modern food system has evolved a panoply of shelf stable, sumptuously packaged, imperiously contrived, and ultra-low priced “foodstuffs,” it has become incumbent on each food company to tell people why they should buy a specific product. The reality of this situation is elegantly captured in one of the simplest tropes of economic thought: the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Unless all food companies were to collectively and unanimously agree[i] to stop marketing their wares, any one company must actively market its product, knowing full well that passive abstention (even in conscientious protest of often corrupt competition) will result in a loss in the game.[ii]
And, for better or worse, the exchange of money for goods is a sort of game. Someone making a purchase perceives value in a good. The game for a marketer lies in getting people to perceive value.
The best marketers – even the understated ones – know that value takes many forms, and that the most powerful forms are emotional. Seemingly rational elements of marketing – “fewer calories”; “no GMOs” – are actually appeals to emotion and a sense of aspirational identity. One textbook marketing practice is to establish different “consumer[iii] segments,” demarked by different lifestyles and desires. To a professional marketer, a person seeking low-calorie products may be a middle-aged man compelled to lose weight by physician’s counsel and memories of a trim youthful figure (fear of death; disappointment; vanity; desire for control). A person looking to avoid GMO’s might be a young college student striving to make a political statement through her purchase behavior (assertion of identity; fear of an uncertain future; desire for impact). Underlying these “consumer segments” are shared emotions, impulses, buzz words, signals, hot buttons…the clay plied in a clever marketer’s hands. And once an emotional chord is struck, it can reverberate for a very, very long time. Thus why marketers size up a consumer with a presumptuous metric called “customer lifetime value.”
One of Coca Cola’s most successful historic marketing efforts – the “Share a Smile” campaign – evoked the most aspirational emotion of all: happiness. (Boldly, Coke now hosts a webpage called “What Is Happiness?”) To many under the spell of that simple motto, a can of Coca Cola represents a respite from the strains of daily life; an effervescent escapism; a modest treat; a reward for hard work; a way to connect with others; or whatever else people conjure up when they smile, or even think of smiling. And, for many satisfied consumers, getting all of those rewards from a shiny red can that costs less than a buck represents a great value. Marketing goal achieved.
Kids, in particular, value marketing associations. Thus why sales of Disney-branded fruits and vegetables tripled in 2013.
Heads In The Sand
Food choices are shaped by many factors besides cost. Another deserved set of topics of focus at COBA was early-life family eating practices and dietary habits formed in youth. Even Putman highlighted the importance of childhood imprint years when he said, “the things that we do to kids’ palates early on have a monstrous effect on what they eat and buy later on.” (Thus why Bolthouse is “working to get fruits and veggies a seat at the cool kids’ table.”)
It is marketing to kids during imprint years that has contributed heavily to today’s epidemics. We know all too well that the barrage of mawkish mascot advertisements during several decades of Saturday morning cartoons helped shape millions of addictions to saccharine cereals (“They’re grrrrrreat!”) and titillating toaster strudels (my childhood weakness). I believe it is because of this history that some proponents of healthier eating oppose the marketing of any food to kids.
The most prominent no-marketing champion I’ve encountered is the legendary Marion Nestle. On two occasions, I’ve tried to learn whether she thinks food producers can play a role in getting people to make better choices. During a speech she gave at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, I submitted a question asking her opinion on which food companies – even those that lightly process their product – are helping remedy the various diet-related health crises in America. Her answer to the audience: “None. I don’t think anyone should eat any processed food at all, and I can’t name a single company.”[iv] Her answer brusquely disregarded companies that got people more to eat salad by packing chopped vegetables into pre-made salad mix; processors that compelled people through clever marketing to trade potato chips for seasoned, nutrient-packed nuts; and entrepreneurs that persuaded people to pay more for sustainably-raised meat by making a tasty, aesthetically-pleasing packaged jerky out of it. Nestle’s answer further troubled me, inasmuch as any young people in the audience who wanted to work for – or establish – a values-driven food company were likely left very confused and discouraged.
I had occasion to speak one-on-one with Nestle at another event a few months later, and asked a more specific question: did she think that clever and innovative ways of marketing produce to kids were justified if they helped develop kids’ palates for healthy food? Her answer to me was no, she didn’t think food should be marketed to kids, ever. Her belief was that it costs a food company too much money to market broadly, and that it is financially unsustainable for a low-margin produce company to keep up marketing in perpetuity.
Nestle’s categorical dismissal of financially sustainable marketing struck me as overly pessimistic. We live in an era of low-cost viral videos, social media marketing, demographic-oriented media channels, and increasing awareness of the importance of healthy eating. Where was the room for hope? Or a recognition of cost-effective tactics that work?
While I have immense respect for Nestle’s body of work[v], it struck me that she was trying to wish away the realities of the current system rather than offer up case studies of those succeeding within a set of rules that any one player can’t quickly change. To someone who has worked in the food business and recognizes the Prisoner’s Dilemma at play, Nestle comes across as someone who has made perfect the enemy of good.
Is All Marketing Vulgar?
I understand Nestle’s – and others’ – inherent distrust of food companies. Bolthouse, for all its success getting kids to eat more baby carrots, has also been buoyed by sales of sugar-rich bottled smoothies that have lost much healthful content during processing. Is getting a kid to pick a bag of carrots instead a side of french fries a “win” in the fight against metabolic disorder? Yes. Is a fruit and veggie smoothie better than a soda? Somewhat (although water would be better yet). But the stubborn truth remains that getting the average kid to pick those products likely depends – heavily – upon effective marketing.
The major issue with food marketing is the ease with which any company can mislead, if not outright deceive, potential customers. A shrewd reader of recent food news has likely seen the POM Wonderful vs. Coca Cola lawsuit in the headlines. The courts – culminating with the U.S. Supreme Court – found that Coke had not violated any laws by marketing a Minute Maid “Pomegranate Blueberry Juice Blend” that contained a mere 0.3% pomegranate juice and 0.2% blueberry juice by volume. Yet, even if Coke didn’t break the law, certainly they broke our trust. And we’ll read labels more carefully the next time, or avoid Minute Maid altogether.
In my opinion, the “line” on marketing should be drawn by three parties: government, consumers, and the leaders of companies themselves. The government continues to establish and review marketing laws in both the legislative and judicial branches. Consumers continue to bring class-action lawsuits and publicly shame companies that breach our collective standards. We must continue to play referee, and call a foul when we see one. In the Internet age, this is increasingly easy to do. Stirring up public indignation is often only a few keystrokes and clicks away.
And, importantly, we need to openly laud companies and organizations that practice truthful, clever, and savvy marketing that brings healthy products (particularly unprocessed produce) into more American households. It is only by commending moralistic actors that we can show a path of promise to aspiring change agents in the food system. Even if you don’t like the game, it behooves us all to celebrate the players whose play we admire. When Bolthouse says it wants to partner with customers to be “agents of social change” and put produce front and center in the national conversation about food, and then does so through campaigns like the Food Porn Index, we should stand up and applaud their success. By offering up carrots (pun intended) as well as sticks, we incentivize better corporate conduct.
An Alternative Marketing Model for Produce
One of the most promising innovations in healthy food marketing occurred long ago, but isn’t oft discussed. Collective marketing boards represent disparate crop growers and processors to the public, and are typically financed by a pennies-per-pound-sold tax on growers’ sales. They’ve been around for a long time, and Putman shared a heartening statistic during his talk: out of 68 different U.S.-based collective marketing boards Putman had researched, all 68 had conducted marketing campaigns that had shown a positive return on investment. And in industries like almonds and avocados, collective marketing boards have been wildly successful in selling more product.
The result has been positive for growers and citizens. Is this the type of marketing that we should castigate as well? Or should we be encouraging young marketing talent to take the reins at such organizations? Who knows how much more fresh produce we could sell if emotionally creative professionals working with collective marketing boards were winning advertising awards over the career stiffs at Kraft?
The excellent new documentary Fed Up points out that, for a time, the government mandated that each cigarette TV ad be followed by an anti-smoking ad.[i] Until junk food ads are banned (I won’t hold my breath), what if we demand flashy one-to-one ads for spinach and lentils to offset each junk food spot? If a produce company is willing to step up and market on Saturday morning, should we dissuade them? Or empower them?
What Are We To Think?
Those of us who would like to drive positive change (public health; environmental impact; social equity; you name it) in the food system should learn from the fact that effective marketing and emotional appeals work. Marketing builds markets. As my onetime employer and successful healthy food entrepreneur Stewart Resnick has said, “You must build demand ahead of supply.” Marketing – if practiced with both virtue and inventiveness – is not necessarily a tawdry practice. It’s a necessary plank of psychological attraction. If the war is to be won, we almost certainly must accept emotive appeals as a fact, and develop vigorous tactics to employ them.
More baby carrots, anyone?
[i] Government could also ban all food marketing by fiat, but, in my opinion, this is impracticable. Even setting tighter standards on nutrition label content has been a massive political battle, one heavily shaped by lobbyist dollars from megalithic food enterprises. And those enterprises have a stalwart interest in perpetuating the system that put them on top.
[ii] And it’s a game with a big payoff: more than half of all food dollars spent in the U.S. are on meals at home, a.k.a. groceries.
[iii] The very word “consumer” connotes, to me, an inexhaustible, gnash-jawed automaton that just needs to be coaxed in the proper direction by the shiniest dangling lure.
[iv] Quotation approximated from my notes. I could not find audio, video, or a transcript of the event on the Internet.
[v] Nestle’s book Food Politics is, in my opinion, one of the most important works in the American food system reform movement. Nestle has also been a prolific and dauntless “public shamer” of food companies who practice sleazy marketing to kids.
[vi] Before cigarette ads were banned from TV altogether in 1971.