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Image: fatfaceskincare.com

Imagine stepping into a time machine and speaking with our 1976 selves, and the disbelief that would greet our tales of a future where unlikely upstarts, as opposed to reliable titans, are winning over consumers, where raw, unfiltered personality surpasses carefully groomed branding, and where big names have to rewrite their playbooks in attempts to stave off encroachment by rebels who resonate better with the masses. Sound like politics? I’m talking about food.

Although the tides have been turning in the consumables world for a few years already, food marketers in 2016 find themselves in a similar situation as campaign managers struggling to figure out how to position their candidates for an electorate with dramatically different perspectives than generations prior. Instead of pulling a lever in a curtained booth, our “constituents” are voting with their wallets at grocery stores and restaurants. The scramble to connect with authenticity is just as real in either case.

We’ve all heard for some time now that Big Food is faltering, losing consumer trust and not adjusting fast enough to the new realities of shoppers’ expectations. First, of course, that relates to foodstuffs themselves — the actual Product in the five Ps of the classic marketing mix. Do consumers today want convenient but nutritionally suspect packaged foods from the center of the store? Is there a place for artificial colors and preservatives anymore? Manufacturers seeing worrisome figures in their IRI reports have been tinkering with the formulas of classic products in hopes that a few changes to the ingredient list will keep their boxed and jarred category captains from becoming obsolete. And the virtual explosion of kale on restaurant menus is a sign that chains are trying desperately to appear relevant as out-of-home dining patterns are being shaken up like never before.

But then there are the other critical Ps: positioning and promotion. That’s where we as communication professionals are challenged to take the foods our clients or employers give us to work with — no matter what’s on the ingredient list — and figure out how to make them relatable to audiences. As with politics, there are plenty of missteps and surprising breakthroughs from which to learn.

I’ve been reminded of this over the last few weeks, as various food e-newsletters to which I subscribe were full of ads for KFC’s new Nashville Hot Chicken. Curious, I clicked through to see how this industrialized version of a regional specialty was being touted. “Authentically Nashville! Also authentically hot. Also authentically chicken.” While I assume the copy was intentionally trying to be humorous, it was also a bit ironic. Just like people who tell you they are cool really aren’t, products that have to tell you they are authentic surely aren’t. Some of the press coverage of KFC’s launch corroborates that.

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Source: time.com

In a Time magazine article about this spicy poultry trend, The Hot Chicken Cookbook author Timothy Davis was quoted as saying, “Hot chicken is taking off, and while I’m proud of the food going elsewhere, I want the story of it [to] go with it.” How true that is, for cayenne-encrusted chicken and for a host of other foods. If the dish becomes so far removed from its source and its simplicity, it has lost most of what made it a phenomenon in the first place. (I won’t even begin to imagine what Col. Harland Sanders would think of his company, in which the K once proudly stood for Kentucky, basing its new fortunes on a recipe from Tennessee.)

By contrast, two better examples of connecting with consumers via eyebrow-raising poultry “reinventions” come from the opposite end of the dining spectrum. A-list white tablecloth chefs Ludo Lefebvre and Thomas Keller in recent years have won new audiences for their personal versions of inexpensive, simple-but-sensational fried and roasted chicken (at Ludo Truck and Ad Hoc, respectively). Experiments with down-scaling by fine dining chefs are becoming more commonplace, partially a legacy of the recession and partially because diners’ habits are changing. In the cases of Keller and Lefebvre, their experiments succeeded wildly because they came with a believable story of earnestness. They weren’t trying to wink at trendy consumers and say, “I’m so famous that I can make something simple into something gourmet.” Rather, they tapped their roots, created approachable dishes and rang the cash register with a much larger public fan base — a successful marriage of product and positioning.

Going back to a political metaphor, just as when Ted Cruz used “New York values” as an impugnment against Donald Trump, foods’ origin stories can connote a lot about how trustworthy and relatable they are. A recent victim of this hubris in the food world is the Chipotle restaurant chain. For years they cast aspersions at their quick-service competitors for using ingredients that were from “big agriculture” and therefore, perhaps less wholesome. Chipotle built itself a tall pedestal from which to proclaim its support of sustainable sourcing practices — until those practices proved flawed and rampant media coverage of food-borne illness brought the brand back down to reality.

Knowing when to play the “local” vs. “locale” card is important. At PadillaCRT, we represent a variety of food and beverage marketing boards, and sometimes the sense of place that we aim to convey is the sense of consistency on the grocer’s shelf. Locally grown may not be an asset when the nearby growing season for a particular fruit or vegetable is limited. For consumers and restaurateurs to have a reliable year-round supply of a particular product, sometimes it must be shipped in from elsewhere, and that’s not necessarily an undesirable thing from a quality control standpoint (see also: Chipotle).

Locale is also the stronger of the messages when it’s an inherent part of the product’s mystique. For example, if you’ve never tasted a wine from the Rioja region of Spain, part of what you’re initially buying is its connection to a vibrant culture and cuisine, without yet sipping to discover such nuances as acidity and tannins. In these cases, locally produced is obviously not the message that resonates best with consumers. The net is, we food communicators are keeping on our toes more than ever to ensure what we say about our products is on the currently acceptable scale of the mass vs. the personal. We can’t rest on old notions that certain products or brands inevitably mean a certain thing to consumers, lest we find ourselves in a Clinton/Sanders-esque challenge to be the most authentic food candidate.

This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s, March 2016 – Food & Beverage Issue.