Mistakes Common to Food/Bev Marketers (other industries can also take note!)

Food is essential. People often claim they can’t live without their smartphone, or their favorite sweatshirt, or their car. And while their quality of life may be greatly reduced, they’ll live. Food is another matter. We need it. In modern times, it is more a question of choice than necessity. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams famously and humorously wrote

“The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?”

And that is the major goal of food marketing: To get a prospective customer to choose their product over another.

And mistakes are often made.

And I’ve noticed a pattern to these mistakes. They can be categorized into seven broad points.

1. Failing to account for evolutionary triggers.

Fun fact: Food is much older than the internet.

In fact, it’s older than automobiles, clothing, government, and even human beings. And as such, the means people use to determine food that they want or need is much older than the human brain. We use more of our reptile (brain stem) and mammal-derived (limbic, temporal) brain matter than our cognitive, human brain-matter (pre-frontal cortex) to make decisions regarding food.

Why is the produce the first thing you see in a grocery store? Why is it misted? Why are the apples and grapes put before the bananas? Evolution. Humans gathered red and purple (apple and grape-colored) fruits because they were likely less toxic to mammals than yellow (banana) and white fruits. They also gathered at dawn and dusk to avoid predators, meaning fruits would have dew on them, like the misters at the grocery store. We make decisions about food based on our desires to be safe and well-fed. Food marketing should account for this before any other information. If it doesn’t cater to a person’s inner monkey, it won’t matter if it caters to their inner-professor.

2. Treating food like other industries.

Fun fact: You can’t drive a tangerine.

So why market tangerines like they are cars? Symmetry. Small, precise fonts. Appeals to logic. These all make great sense if you’re making a billboard to emphasize the airbags of a Chevy hatchback. But food is old, never forget that. There’s a reason so many fast-casual chains have begun using loopy, asymmetrical and informal font on their labels. Food is supposed to be somewhat imperfect. A plant that hasn’t been nibbled on by an insect or passing critter is likely poisonous. Additionally, food is messy. Food is fun. Font, description text, and other marketing content should reflect that. After all, would you rather have a juicy apple or a clean apple?

3. Poor balance of ethos, pathos, logos.

Fun fact: The chocolate industry uses slavery, including child slavery. Oh wait, that’s not fun at all; just a fact.

So why don’t the more expensive, but far more ethical, fair-trade chocolates sell more? Indeed, why hasn’t the invisible hand of the market favored candy NOT violating human rights laws?

Largely poor marketing.

People make food decisions based more on ethos (emotional appeals) more than anything else. It’s why hamburgers generally sell better than celery, because it FEELS better on a sensory level to have a lot of powerful and satiating flavors than a single, diminished one. Pathos is the next best (appeal to authority) and its why Wheaties was so successful at using athletes to sell their cereal. Logos (appeal to reason) is a strong argument, but must, in food at least, be supplemented by the other two.

Free-trade chocolate appeals heavily to the reasonable appeal to buy their product to reduce mistreatment of fellow human beings.

It hasn’t been working.

A heavily-emotional ad campaign with a spokesperson with some semblance of celebrity or renown? That would be much more effective. All industries need a balance of ethos, pathos, and logos. Food just happens to need a heavier focus on the former two.

4. Changing the formula without a full disclosure.

Fun fact: New Coke was a big flop, but not because the change was announced. It was a flop because it sucked.

I see this one all the time. A yogurt goes from sugar cane to corn syrup. A protein powder uses a Xylitol in lieu of Arabitol. A steakhouse changes their fajita cuts from tip to flank. And people get mad .

It sounds better to not point out a change for fear of a backlash. But here’s the thing: People taste. You didn’t read that wrong, it’s a two-word sentence. Human beings can tell the difference between things with their senses, it’s literally what senses are for. Changing something without a full disclosure can alienate long-time customers and generate a much bigger backlash than not showing a little transparency.

5. Not accounting for the other senses.

Fun fact: Jerry Seinfeld was right about airline food.

And turns out, the science has a lot to say about that: Your sense of smell accounts for 70 percent of what you probably think is your sense of taste. Airline food is bland not because of the food, but the recycled air on airplanes. So while taste is obviously king when it comes to marketing food, the other senses should certainly be co-pilots, not passengers.

As I’ve mentioned in my blog, sensory experience of food is nuanced and multifaceted. It’s not just the taste of the sandwich, it’s the crunching sound of the bread, the texture of the outer and inner layers against the pressure receptors in your teeth and jaw, the aroma of the garlic aioli, and the vibrant colors of all the ingredients complementing one another in a pleasing diagonally cut sandwich resting on an attractive yellow plate.

Don’t put all your eggs in one sensory basket. As Sales Genius Elmer Wheeler once said, “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.”

6. Treating restaurants and fast food like food dispensaries OR holy shrines.

Fun fact: Olive Garden is not contractually obligated to treat you like family.

But in all seriousness, this one goes two ways. There are restaurants that showcase the food, and only the food. This isn’t bad marketing so much as more could be done with it to render it more effective. After all, there’s a word for food without any additional experience: Groceries. The other end of the spectrum is worse: Highlighting the experience with little to no focus on the food itself.

There are a million buzzwords and modifiers that make food and restaurants more appealing: Authentic, best, crisp, delicious, even-bodied, fresh, “green”, homemade, icy, jazzy, knockout, local, memorable, nutritious, oven-ready, picked today, quaint, rare, seasonal, tasteful, unctuous,velvety, wholesome, xanthous, yummy, and zero-waste. And these are just are just me showing off that I know the alphabet! But when all the focus is on either the food or the establishment, and not both, something is missing from the equation. The synergy (sorry for using such a buzzword) between the ambience/experience and the food is really the whole point of a restaurant, and as such should be the whole point of the marketing. Restaurant not open because Covid? Use the same marketing. Sell the experience even if the experience is currently unattainable.

7. Confusing branding and advertising.

Fun fact: Branding means “to burn with hot iron.”

Bonus fun fact: when you burn something with hot iron, it stays there a long time.

Branding with food, more than any other industry, should be a long-term decision. Ten years is short in the food industry. Look at Pepsi. Their brand is “new/youthful” “summer” and “choice-oriented.” As opposed to Coke’s “traditional” “Christmas” and “classic”. Coke was founded in 1886. Pepsi in 1898. And this is STILL how they are competing with one another. That’s how important and long-term branding is.

Don’t conflate advertising and branding. They fall under the same umbrella, but a food’s brand should be like a Rorschach test. What 3 words are automatically conjured in people’s minds when they hear about your company? From there, all other forms of advertising spring. You would likely never sell surfboards as “old fashioned” and it’s unlikely you’d ever sell homemade cookies as “state-of-the-art” for a reason. Carefully construct your brand around association and use it as a baseline for other promotional materials.

This is somewhat negated if your food is B2B, where branding is really more a foot in the door. But for B2C advertising, branding takes precedence and is very difficult to reverse or change once you’ve got one.

So when it comes to food, take your time, test your market, and establish that all-important identity…that brand. Now you’ve got a foundation you can build other marketing content on. It’ll narrow your scope a bit, but give you more structure in the short and long term.

Fun fact: This article was fun to write and I hope if was as much fun for you to read. Now get out there and sell some food.