Marketing and what we put in our mouths

13 09 2014

I work in marketing. The Betty Crocker example at the beginning of this video was used by myself only the other day as an example of how “knowing your market” can make a huge difference to a product’s success.

“Kate Cooper” the marketing consultant is in fact an actress, but the information in the talk she gives is real, and the audience had no idea what they were in for. So their reactions and facial expressions are also real.

The third marketing tool – the “killer” secret weapon – is also very real. It’s not true for just food, but food is one product we should all make active choices about to a much higher degree than we do.

If you need more persuasion… read the novel Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. She defines the trilogy not as Science Fiction (“talking squids in outer space”) but Speculative Fiction (“a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth”).

eTalks – The Secrets of Food Marketing – YouTube.

The message isn’t that eating meat is inherently a bad thing. It is that the powerful desire for making money (a totally artificial human construct) coupled with the wilful gullibility of the general population lead to some pretty horrific results. A theme taken up and run with in Atwood’s trilogy.

I use the website goodreads.com to track the books I read and learn of books I might like to read. I have read several books relating to the history of a single narrow subject. For example Salt and Cotton. Goodreads therefore suggested I might like a similar book, related to Twinkies. It seems the author was shocked to read that several of the ingredients (at least the ones the manufacturer is forced to divulge by law on the label) begin life as various mineral rocks or even petrochemicals. I have a natural aversion to highly processed foods for just this reason, though do freely admit the lure of Salt Sugar Fat can be a powerful one.

Goodreads.com - Twinkie, Deconstructed

As a high school student in the UK, I took an elective course on “pollution”. The first case study was about Alcan (now part of Rio Tinto) and their Aluminium mines in my now adopted country of Canada. No shocking surprise there. Pollution was rife (this is ~1980), with images of huge lurid, toxic tailing ponds. And this was before the Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley disaster! If you doubt the impact of even the most “sensitive” mining operation, try a google search of images of Highland Valley Copper. And they’re one of the best managed operations – particularly with respect to reclamation. Owned by Teck, if you cared. I hadn’t seen fluids that bright since messing with Copper Sulphate in high school!

The second example was colourants and brighteners in frozen peas. Naturally “blanched” frozen peas just “don’t look right”, whereas peas soaked in chemicals look “how people expect”… like they do on the (plastic) packaging. This was an early wake-up call to me as a teenager. It also helped me look at pollution in a different light. Much of it was wilfully accepted as “normal”. The UK and the EU have had reasonably broad food labelling in place for many years now (I’ll pass over how the French managed to get frogs defined as “fish” to allow their farmers to claim fishery subsidies for their odd food tastes.). The regulation of additives is way more stringent than here in Canada (where I am still horrified to find lurid blue sweets and “energy drinks” with dubious substances being consumed by future diabetic kids). But it’s still far from perfect.

We eat 2.5kg of food additives a year, on average. And it’s totally OK, because the manufacturers are now forced to tell us… but we buy it anyway. Wilful ignorance. I was once taught that a market gets the suppliers it deserves… in the same way as a democracy gets the government it deserves. If you want cheap food… you’ll get it. Just don’t expect high quality.

I recently read about a Chipotle fast food restaurant in the US being closed down when the staff all walked out demanding a “fair wage”. The author of the piece pointed out what the food prices would need to be to support those higher wages. And in a job market where the positions could be filled for even LESS than Chipotle were currently paying, the protest seemed ill advised at best. Pointless at worst. The US (and let’s be fair – the West in general) has come to expect easy access to cheap consumer goods – including food. Few, if any, questions asked. If we cared more about working conditions and food quality… we wouldn’t complain about the price necessary to provide that. These things need to be in equilibrium.

The same teacher also took us for Organic Chemistry lessons. When learning about nickel as a catalyst for various chemical reactions, he calmly mentioned that when he was a youngster, it wasn’t uncommon to find bits of the metal in your margarine. It was, after all, a manufactured chemical product. The metals were used to allow the various hydrogenated bonds to form and allow the liquid oils to form more of the fatty consistency we choose to put on our bread. It’s not actually a petro-chemical as some would have you believe, but pretty much any animal or plant oil can be used as a starting point. Again – best not to ask too many questions…

Wikipedia: Margarine

As an adult, I now work for Océ, part of Canon, and involved in digital printing and the graphic arts. Océ though used to make food dye – as long ago as 1865 in fact. Specifically the types of yellow dye you add to the pale creamy white (think: lard) factory-manufactured chemicals formed by metal catalysts, in order to make it look more, er, natural! Like butter substitutes “should” look.

Sleep well tonight, won’t you? And when you pour your cereal in your bowl tomorrow, forget reading the newspaper. Read the box! It really will be educational.





It’s not all Hash Pipes and Hand-grenades

29 11 2012

Tuesday was a day well spent.

I spent it with two colleagues at a marketing seminar in Vancouver. “The Art of Marketing”. I know, I know… “yawn” right?! The MC was Ron Tite, who sounded like he should have a career doing voice-overs for Futurama or something. Far too hyped and loud for that time in the morning.

The first speaker was David Usher. I vaguely knew him to be a singer. Turns out he fronted a band called “Moist” (Fnaar, fnaar) back in the day. He’s still a recording artist, but has now started to indulge his interests in technology. Most of the women in the audience seemed to be particularly attentive I noticed. He gave a little talk about how his band found “the rhythm” of the show every time they went on stage. A slightly different tempo at each performance. Wouldn’t it be great, they mused, if the audience could set the rhythm? Enter Arduino, a heart monitor and a drum machine. He asked for a volunteer and rejecting the high hands of several hundred females in the  audience of 2,000, he stepped off the stage and cruised for the perfect victim. In the end, he selected one young lady because she averted her eyes from his gaze.

David Usher… and John

Under ever so slight duress, she followed him up on stage and held the device as instructed in both hands. The unmistakable thump of a heart beat began… except it sounded like a drum, not the sound we’re conditioned to hear from watching hospital TV series’. Usher commented on how fit she must be as it was a very slow rate. Once he casually draped his hand on her shoulder though the rate sharply increased, the audience laughed and she went a delicate shade of crimson. It rose higher when he jokingly started to massage her shoulders.

John the guitarist valiantly attempted to strum to the rate, and as predicted the soothing tones slowed down her pulse. Usher sang a few improv lines to the rhythm of her heart, and the demonstration was done.

Usher spoke eloquently about the hard slog and grit needed to produce creativity, but that he believed it was possible for anyone. Then came the classic quote which echoed through the rest of the day: “It’s not all hash pipes and hand-grenades” . Plainly this was not premeditated, and he said something along the lines of “not sure where that came from”. He then gave a generous Q&A session. One lady said she was herself a recording artist and asked for suggestions on how to “break out”. “Do it for the love of the music” was the not entirely helpful response.

After the break, Tite called Flora Ware – the young lady who’d asked the question – up to the stage and offered her the opportunity to sing A Capella to the 2,000 strong  audience. Without hesitation she accepted and belted out a note perfect rendition of a jazz ballad to loud applause.

Mitch Joel was next up, and gave an interesting session about how to better engage the customer and have “sex with data”. He gave lots of great innovative examples including Amazon’s PriceCheck, Kickstarter crowd funding and Chipotle’s Coldplay-murdering Willie Nelson food video. He asserts that the “three screen” era (TV, PC, phone) is passing, as we enter a single screen era.

This video about Samsung’s new Smart Window technology was shown as an example of what’s just around the corner…

More people in the world, it seems, have access to mobile phones than either mains electricity or even safe drinking water.

Randi Zuckerberg (Mark – of Facebook fame – is her brother) was very smiley… and totally forgettable.

Biz Stone came next and was entertaining even if he seemed a little, er, medicated. That or exceedingly laid back. Which is possible given he co-founded Twitter. To the early complaint that “Twitter isn’t useful”, his co-founder Evan Williams is purported to have replied “Well neither is ice-cream! Shall we ban it and all joy?”

Lastly, we had Scott Stratten. From Toronto. But we won’t hold that against him. He said he used to be in HR until he realised he hated people. Then he moved into marketing… where it was OK to hate people. He came perilously close to being a stand-up comedian, but managed to keep a curb on his anti-QR Code rant, and instead gave some hilarious examples of how NOT to use it.

  • Like in aeroplane magazines… when you can’t use the internet
  • Or in emails to mobile phones… when the camera is on the opposite side to the screen you’re reading it on
  • Or in web pages… when the QR code sends you to the same web page
  • Or pulled behind an aeroplane, so you need to run down the street trying to scan it from the sky
  • Or on a dog tag in case the hound gets lost… but without a phone number! (Remember what you use to scan a QR code? Yup – a phone!)

Or my favourite… on the back of a bus! Readable only from a moving vehicle! And note what it gives you access to – Atlanta Medical Center ER. No irony at all…

Update: OK – so I found a really good image showing the bus I was talking about. Unfortunately, since I wrote the post late at night, I had forgotten to do the usual and add the source location. My bad. I was tired. I had added a link to encourage people who were interested to visit their site and read more, but had forgotten to mention it in words.

Anyway, the site owner seems to have an issue with people actually seeing their content, despite it being on a public website, easily locatable via google images, blah, blah, and put up a snotty replacement image instead. OK. A little rude (they’re probably Lancastrian 🙂 ) but OK. The image had words about stealing their bandwidth. OK… but it seemed to miss the point that even THAT image needed downloading from their site.

C’est la vie dear reader… there’s nowt as queer as folk.