Going to the grocery store can be a dreary chore, so I reframe the trip as a contest of wills between me, the wily consumer, and marketers, eager to suck me in with their coveted eye-level shelf-space, flashy packaging and dubious health claims.
I have seen marketing terms come and go. Natural, light, organic, craft, vine-ripened, and various iterations of fresh (farm fresh, fresh frozen, fresh picked, etc.) have all have grown stale with overuse. The word “artisan” is in the process of being flogged to death. When properly used the word implies a product that is individually made, perhaps a loaf of bread made by a stooped woman from the old country with knuckles gnarled from a lifetime of kneading. Now McDonald’s has co-opted this word to describe its buns. When I asked the cashier with the greasy hair and visible bra what makes the flattened bun “artisan,” she said, “How am I supposed to know? Do you want it or not?”
The grasping maw of McDonald’s marketing department has perpetrated an identity theft on the true artisans of the world.
Inventing a healthy sounding word is another strategy. Yesterday at Costco I noticed that the bag of chopped kale mixed in with other greens contained the breathless banner, “Contains 7 Superfoods!!” I had heard of the concept of a “superfood” and perhaps this designation convinced me to try kale, a marked departure from the wretched iceberg lettuce of my childhood. I discovered that I loved kale and thrilled to the idea that something healthy could taste so good. In fact, a kale salad would be my go-to meal on a deserted island – as long as I could bring along a little parmesan, bacon, currants and pine nuts.
But now I was confronted with a dizzying array of seven simultaneous superfoods. Wikipedia suggests that superfoods are “nutritionally dense” with either high amounts of fiber, vitamins, trace minerals, or cancer-defying anti-oxidants. So, if I eat seven all at once, am I doubling down on anti-oxidants or is the super-ness spread across all attributes? Would the health benefits of seven superfoods be enough to cancel out that evil canister of salted caramels I grabbed on the way out of Costco?
My bag of seven superfoods only lists eight ingredients, so there must be one outlier, and I bet it is the poppy seed dressing whose principal ingredient seems to be sugar. But how did the magnificent seven qualify in the first place? How are cut-offs established between super and merely pedestrian, and is there some international body that verifies such a term? And if a splash of a superfood is added to enhance the flavor of an everyday product, can the whole product then be called super?
I couldn’t find any answers to these reasonable questions. In this country, the word superfood is unregulated and marketers can slap this current darling on any product at will. Blueberries were among the first superfoods even though they only provide moderate levels of nutrients compared to other fruits and vegetables. A sharp-witted executive at the Blueberry Council must have received a fat bonus for this marketing coup. Now all sorts of odd-ball berries from distant realms have joined the group – Goji, Acai, Noni – with the added benefit that a superfood designation plus an exotic origin justifies a higher price.
As I spent quality time in Costco’s walk-in fridge, I realized that varieties of bagged lettuce are in a pitched battle to claim a distinct niche. To the right of my familiar bag of chopped kale were stacks of mass-produced romaine lettuce, given the oxymoronic label of “artisanal.” To the left was a bag labeled “Power Greens,” consisting of chard, kale and spinach. Was “Power Greens” a new faddish marketing term? If so, the marketers were pursuing a familiar strategy. The bag provided no definition of “power” nor any health benefit. I unclenched my ice-cold fingers, wrote down the numbers of the consumer hotlines and then headed home.
A peppy woman named Mahogany answered my first call to Sweet Kale Vegetable. She was probably trained to handle customer complaints about wilted greens rather than discussing the nuances of “superfood.” She put me on hold until she pulled up a script on her computer. “A superfood is a marketing term that describes a nutritionally dense food with supposed health benefits,” she read.
“What are the health benefits,” I asked, “and what does ‘supposed’ mean? Does that mean that the health benefits are not yet proven?”
“Well it describes a nutritious food,” she said in a quavering voice.
“Don’t you think that the concept of nutrition is inherent in the concept of food? “How is a superfood more nutritious than other foods?”
“I don’t know, it’s just what they wanted to name it.”
“Well, okay,” I said, moving in for the kill. “Would you say then that a ‘superfood’ is a meaningless marketing term?”
“Yes, that’s what it’s looking like from here,” she chirped, glad to end the discussion.
I don’t take pleasure in bullying an eager consumer representative, but I could tell that she was relieved that I was not yelling at her about some foreign object in my bag, like a yellowed toenail or frizzy hairball.
On to Power Greens. The first responder at Earthbound Organics was flummoxed by my question about the meaning of power. Instead she concentrated on the convenience of having a ready mixture of greens that was ideal for smoothies “These greens have more energy and are healthier.”
“Healthier than what?” I asked.
She began to backtrack, “Well it really depends on your diet, and of course you should consult your doctor on what is healthiest for you, but it is a nice combination for smoothies.”
I switched it up, “You know superfood is a term that is familiar to many consumers, there is even a Wikipedia entry for it. Why didn’t you call your product a superfood?”
“Well we just wanted to use a different word, and Power Greens is something different to catch your eye.”
It looks like Earthbound Organics has sounded a death knell for the superfood industry. Like a shark, ever moving on the ocean floor, their marketing department is on the search for something bright and shiny to replace the old and stale.
What will they come up with next? I am probably delusionally naïve, but is it possible that we have run out of superlatives? I suppose you could combine accolades and label a food “super-duper,” “super-power,” “mega-super,” “ultra super” or “Va-Va-Va-Voom.” But dear Lord, I hope consumers see through these contrivances.
Perhaps it is time to try a little reverse psychology, turn a negative into a positive. It worked for a Boy Named Sue, who attributed his toughness to the handicap of his name. For decades it has worked for Smucker’s Jelly, whose advertising tagline still proclaims, “With a Name Like Smucker’s, It has to be Good.”
So why not use the same strategy for the next exotic berry trying to elbow its way onto the superfood shelf? How can it differentiate itself from the established Goji, Acai and Noni berries? How about, “Loogi Berry, harvested from the fetid waters of Calcutta. With a Name like Loogi, It has to be Supergood!!!”
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