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The Island of Misfit Foods

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Over the holidays, my partner Jim heard a story likely to disturb the sleep of a lot of food marketers:

A friend of mine told me that his New Year’s celebration included a trip to the grocery store with his two kids (8 and 10) so that each could pick out their own once-a-year box of sugary cereal. He told me that, although each of them had a different strategy for how to ration the box to make it last as long as possible, both wound up picking Lucky Charms as their annual treat. When he finished his story, the two of us dads reminisced about the good old days when our parents gave us Lucky Charms for breakfast every morning. My friend’s kids will grow up never once considering that Lucky Charms is a meal. To them, it’s a dessert, a treat.

I know, I know, we live in Portlandia, where happy, free-running, self-actualized chickens eat only sustainable, organic feed. How seriously should any self-respecting mass marketer take one anecdote of such cultural extremism? But the funny thing is, Jim told me this story on the day I returned from a trip to the heartland, where I had met with the CMO of a major, iconic American food brand, whose products, once a staple of my healthy Midwestern upbringing, are now sold exclusively as treats—small indulgences to celebrate moments worth rewarding.

I sense an accelerating trend toward marketing products that were once offered as foods as if they are now treats. It is a way of sidestepping health concerns, based on the idea that most people don’t really want to eat better, but they do want permission to eat what they already like and feel that it’s okay to reward themselves with treats and small indulgences from time to time.

Marketing some foods as treats seems perfectly natural. M&M’s has had spectacular success with a campaign that, at least in its early years, was all about our relationship with treats. In most of the early spots, Red and Yellow want to be the center of attention, but when they succeed in attracting attention, people want to eat them, so they have to run away. From a story point of view, that’s a perfect metaphor for our relationships with treats: We are attracted to things that are bad for us.

M&M’s could capitalize on this story because their product form seems to suggest an answer to the story problem: moderation. M&M’s are such innocent-looking, bite-sized bits of chocolate that they seem to embody moderation, something the M&M’s characters can’t quite master. Unable to moderate their own desires, Red and Yellow face dire consequences and provide a hilarious negative example for the audience.

Over the past 16 years, the M&M’s characters have remained popular with audiences of all ages, while the brand has largely escaped criticism as the obesity crisis engulfed much of the food business like a tsunami. Clearly, you can tell a story about small indulgences, about food brands as occasional treats. The line between food and treat, however, is now shifting so fast that, as more and more former food brands straggle ashore onto Treat Island, there just won’t be room for all of them. How many products can you think of that were perfectly acceptable foods when you were a kid that are now considered indulgent treats? Marketers will struggle to differentiate their products when all the brands on the island are telling essentially the same story.

Of course, not every food brand is marketed as a treat. In the early part of the last decade, Cheerios—with its heart-healthy message and a side panel that literally asked, “Who are you eating them for?”—practically sold itself as medicine. General Mills successfully extended that food halo to Honey Nut Cheerios, which is understandable from a story point of view, even if nutritionists aren’t all on board. But Frosted Cheerios and Chocolate Cheerios were actually both in the running when Jim’s friend took his kids to pick out their annual treats.

Our story assessment of this trend suggests a couple of principles:

  • Foods with genuine treat credentials are positioned to do well (Oreo, Krispy Kreme, M&M’s, Haagen Dazs), but the island doesn’t seem to be getting significantly bigger just because a lot of brands are crowding on. SO…
  • It will be increasingly important to have a distinctive and authentic story to tell about your particular role in the drama of Treat Island. Think, for example, about the difference in story energy between Oreo and just about every other cookie.

There is a strong tipping-point dynamic to the way story evolves in the food business. A brand without a firmly grounded story can be cruising along, comfortably selling a slightly better-for-you version of a venerable food product, and wake up one day stranded on the island without the skills and resources it needs to survive.

If you know a food brand that has built a good life for itself on Treat Island, I would love to hear the story.

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