Meat of the Matter: When 'new' is really, really old

When I first started in this business, and by that I mean the art of packaging smart-a** opinions as "reasoned commentary," marketers' biggest challenge was analyzing the motivations of all the multi-millions of Baby Boomers.

Why? So they could capitalize on that population's aspirations to justify combining consumption with consciousness — buying "good for the Earth" products that were, in reality, merely good for me.

Guess what? Forty years later, the only thing that's changed is the demographic segment under scrutiny. Now, it's the Millennials who must be understood, because companies need to sell them indulgent products dressed up as statements of principle.

I don't blame the corporate hucksters who've been following that script since VJ Day. There's nothing more American than feeding your customers' delusions about protecting the environment by choosing a certain brand of gasoline, or feeding their fantasies of finding a soulmate by drinking the right kind of beer.

But if nothing else, a little history does put into perspective the breathless pronouncements about the likes and dislikes of the Millennial Generation.

Online Food Searching

For example: A recent news release generated by Foster Farms announced that, "Consumer attitudes toward comfort food continue to change as perceptions become more about purpose than emotion."

Really? Yes indeed, the marketing MBAs behind the article insist. And the evidence for this continual change (where have we heard that phrase before?) is that hot, new data-mining option: Pinterest.

"According to analysis of Pinterest user data and a national survey, consumers save about 54,000 comfort food pins each day, a 140% increase from the year before.'

Now, in isolation those numbers may sound impressive, but let's keep some sanity here: 54K is seventeen ten thousandths of one percent of the U.S. population — which means those Pinterest pins skyrocketed by exactly one ten thousandth of one percent of the population.

So what have we learned from analyzing that tiny sliver of people? In addition to being highly selective about comfort food ingredients — more on that in a moment — Millennials have some specific preferences:

  • 50% seek inspiration for recipes from social media, compared with 34% of older generations
  • 24% look for online video recipes, compared with 15% of Gen Xers
  • 41% share foods they cook on social media at least a few times a week, compared with 24% of non-Millennials

Got it. The generational cohort that grew up with online technology now relies on it . . . for everything!

Nevertheless, all that data analysis informs us that online comfort food searches increasingly include veggies. "The new definition of comfort food centers around healthier recipes, less processed and more fresh foods, ingredient quality, simplicity in cooking and buying local ingredients," the release stated.

Food marketers have apparently taken notice of this development, and thus comfort foods are seeing "better-for-you upgrades." As a recap of the Pinterest survey by noted — and I quote — that means "vegetables as replacements for unhealthy ingredients," such as using lettuce instead of bread, substituting zucchini for pasta, using mushrooms instead of pizza dough (huh?) and replacing rice with shredded cauliflower.

Okay, I'm not on Pinterest every day to verify those proclamations, but other than a handwritten menu at the Locavore's Lounge Vegan Eatery, I've yet to see an actual food label boasting "Now with Less Rice, More Cauliflower!"

In fact, the article acknowledged that consumers still describe comfort foods with terms such as "loaded," "smothered" and "gooey."

And here's's takeaway from that factoid the geniuses trolling Pinterest discovered: "Manufacturers can adopt similar language as the past when marketing the products they position as comfort foods, rather than focusing only on better-for-you ingredient changes."

In other words, continue to tell consumers what they want to hear, rather than what they need to know.

Here's my question: If vegetables are now the new comfort food, how come virtually every vegetarian entrée on the market is merely an alternative version of the products they're attempting to replace?

From vegetarian lasagna to cashew cheese to breaded seitan nuggets ready to microwave, veggie comfort foods are engineered to do exactly what the originals have so successfully done: Provide the flavor, enjoyment and satisfaction we get from eating our favorites foods.

Only wrapped up in trendy "good-for-you" marketing copy that's as old as advertising itself.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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