Disrupting Is Dead. It's Time to Start Nourishing

In search of marketing's bliss point

We're often told in advertising to listen to our consumers. And while that's allowed us to sit in endless M&M-fueled focus groups and forced us to plow through piles of data over the years, there's something we're missing. What our consumers say is one thing, how they behave another, but the way our bodies assimilate and metabolize products is a really interesting metaphor for how we assimilate brands. 

In physical metabolism, the body breaks down the food and beverages it consumes into the nutrients it needs, and the nutrients it doesn't, and it sends them to the respective parts of the body that deal with both. "Good" nutrients go to muscles and organs like the heart, lungs, bones and other life-supporting functions, while the "bad" stuff is, well, discarded elsewhere in places we don't mention on nice websites like this. 

If we're treating our bodies well and sticking to a reasonable caloric input of good stuff combined with some exercise and some sleep (unless you work in advertising—ironic), we should be reasonably healthy. 

Our bodies are sophisticated organisms. They know just what to do with what we consume.

Same thing with brands. Our consumers are sophisticated enough to know what they need and what's unnecessary. What's relevant and what's frivolous. What should be listened to and preserved, versus what should be discarded. And sadly, most of the advertising we see—at last count, up to 5,000 messages per day—is discarded (it's that same unmentionable word from above). The broadcast networks aren't dying because of advertising; they're dying because of bad and irrelevant advertising. 

Problem for marketers is obvious—in a world where people say they don't want brands "interrupting" their lives, how do we sell our stuff?—but the solution far less so. That said, I'd challenge the assertion that people don't want brands in their lives, or in their social feeds, or even to be "marketed to," and borrow a quote from Howard Gossage, one of advertising's most legendary copywriters, who said, "People don't read ads. They read what interests them—and sometimes that's an ad." 

Consider the launch and subsequent fall of MTV. The brilliance of the original concept was not just 24 hours of music videos, which at the time was the only place you could view such content, but also that the network put such a premium on their viewers' experience that they actually hand-picked the ads that would run on air, and discarded ads their viewers wouldn't find interesting or appropriate. Once they said goodbye to that, and said hello to trashy superficial shows, well, their relevance disappeared somewhere around Seaside Heights, New Jersey. How far they've fallen.

Now consider the Super Bowl. Well over half of the viewers are watching for the ads, and those 50 million-plus people expect it to be a showcase for the year's best advertising. 

And you're telling me that people hate ads? 

Look, it's not what we're doing, but how we're doing it. Clearly if people are feeling interrupted or their lives are being disrupted, that's not a good thing. But as evidenced by both the MTV and Super Bowl examples, if we give people what they want, not only do they not feel interrupted, they're actually willing to pay you for it, with their time, attention and dollars.

All of which brings me to a little thing called the bliss point.

In food preparation, the bliss point is the amount of key ingredients that optimizes deliciousness. This from Wikipedia:

The bliss point for salt, sugar or fat is a range within which perception is that there is neither too much nor too little, but the "just right" amount of saltiness, sweetness or richness. The human body has evolved to favor foods delivering these tastes: The brain responds with a "reward" in the form of a jolt of endorphins, remembers what we did to get that reward, and makes us want to do it again, an effect run by dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Combinations of sugar, fat and salt act synergistically, and are more rewarding than any one alone. In food product optimization, the goal is to include two or three of these nutrients at their bliss point.

Now I don't know about you, but that's precisely what I want the effect of my marketing to be. I direct consumers to a product, their brains give them a reward for consuming it, they remember what they did to get the reward, and they want to do it again. 

Unfortunately, however, most food and beverage marketers today are operating on one of two really out-of-date principles: They're disrupting their consumers' lives, interrupting them with new and mostly practical information served in an abrupt and jarring way, overdoing the ingredients so there's way too much of one or all of them. Or else they're relying so heavily on big data to guide their message and channel strategy that the marketing message is flavorless and bland. They're so busy optimizing the message that they forget to optimize deliciousness. Which is precisely what consumers desire (again: Super Bowl).

The best brands—the best marketers—are finding different and better ways to deliver a healthier brand metabolism to allow their consumers to find their bliss point. 

Some examples:

Luna Bar

Luna makes energy bars for women not just to satisfy their hunger, but also to encourage confidence and power. The "Someday Is Now" campaign encourages them to chase their goals and not wait another second. Their other prominent tagline is "Join the Storm," to convey a sense of team among Luna consumers.

Wegman's

Most people hate going to the grocery store. Everyone loves going to Wegman's. The store has consistently ranked No. 1 in customer service reviews for many years, and those who shop there have evolved into a family of sorts. People write love letters to get Wegman's in their towns. They have Wegman's cater their weddings. One group made a f*cking musical about Wegman's. It's beautiful chaos. 

Ben & Jerry's

While many companies are hesitant to get political, Ben & Jerry's dives right in. The brand is very open about topics like climate change, GMOs and social justice. So when you eat Ben & Jerry's, you feel like you're a part of something bigger. And often, proceeds of your purchase go toward these causes. 

Annie's

Before organic was cool, Annie's was all over it. Since its start, the brand has focused on the health of our planet and our bodies. The company is also adamant about supporting farmers and lifting up the food community at large. When you choose Annie's, you feel like you're making a helpful and smart purchase. 

Without knowing it, those brands are using an approach we at Garrand Moehlenkamp call our "Nourishing Approach."

Allow me to explain.

Two years ago, after 30 years in business doing all types of work across all different categories, we sat in our offices in beautiful Portland, Maine, and pondered the future. What lay ahead? How were we going to differentiate ourselves from other agencies? What made us and our offering unique? What were we most excited and passionate about? What could we draw on and build on to prepare for a future in a very different landscape than where we'd been?

The brilliant Tim Williams helped us uncover our "Why," which turned out to be a true passion for food and beverage brands (our office is located in a former bread factory, so duh), rooted in the fact that over the course of our careers, we'd worked in or at or on all manner of them. Collectively, both personally and professionally, we all knew about the emotional power of what we drink and eat.

We also made a significant investment in proprietary qual/quant research to validate some of our hypotheses about this. And the consumers we spoke to more than validated it; they were effusive about the fact that what we eat and drink shapes our identities, communities, well-being, rituals, adventures, relationships and more.

We learned that in most situations which take place around the consumption of food or beverages, there is emotion attached to it… 

• "Wanna get a cup of coffee?" isn't an invitation to join me for a scalding hot mug of bean-infused water. It's an invitation to talk, to share. 

• "Let's grab a beer." Different beverage, different ingredients, but same thing. 

• "Let's meet for lunch." An opportunity to connect, or reconnect, to get something accomplished, or simply to listen. 

• "Will you join us for dinner Sunday?" Be part of our community, part of our family. If you've ever been an in-law for the first time, or gone to your college roommate's house for a break, you know this feeling.

In a world of mass distraction, we know the power that food and beverages have to reconnect us to the present and to each other—the centerpiece at our table of life. 

But even when you're eating by yourself, there's emotion attached to the selection and consumption of most food and beverage brands. Don't believe me? Try walking down the cereal aisle of the grocery store and not feel the tug of Lucky Charms. Do the same in the cookie aisle and pretend you don't hear the Oreos calling your name. Choosing between Campbell's and Progresso in the soup aisle? That's easy—only one of them is "Mm mm good." Meanwhile, in other aisles, some of the new natural and organic brands help you feel better about the choices you're making. 

But choice cuts both ways. Never before have consumers had more options for what to bring to the table. In the '90s, grocery stores carried roughly 7,000 different products. Today, it's upwards of 50,000. All of which causes anxiety, confusion and a sense of overwhelmsion (OK, we made that last word up, but you get the point).

As such, and in order to stand out, brands must grow beyond their traditional roles. They must provide meaning and connection to people who hunger and thirst for both. Because contrary to what the old adage says, the way to the heart isn't through the stomach—the way to people's stomachs is through their hearts.

Yet many food brands still tout rational product attributes, searching for new and disruptive ways to speak to an old value equation. Because that value equation has changed. As Forbes has reported, where not too long ago the brand value of food comprised just three things (taste + price + convenience), the new brand value of food is far more complex (flavor adventures + uniqueness + authenticity + innovation + portion size + nutrition + packaging + conscious capitalism + transparency + price + convenience). Today, there is no value without values.

That's why we believe in an approach that does more than just disrupt with product news; it promotes true connections that, in turn, help brands grow and endure. We believe in nourishing the brands that nourish people's lives.

And sure, "nourishing" can be healthy. It can be organic and local, keto and paleo. But nourishing can also be nostalgic. Familiar. Connecting. Yummy (and P.S., it doesn't need to be pricey).

"Nourishing" by definition is more than just physical; it's also mental and emotional. The bliss point is multi-dimensional. Mind, body and spirit, we dig all kinds of nourishing - and all kinds of nourishing brands.

Among the brands we're working with to bring the Nourishing Approach to life are…

Wyman's Fruits

Having helped Wyman's craft their brand strategy—"We're on a mission to help the world eat more fruit"—the new website we just created for them tells the story of how this 145-year-old family-owned company is nourishing the lives of its employees, the communities in which the fruit is grown, their consumers, and even the very land on which the wild blueberries are grown.

Blue Harbor Tuna

Owned by Starkist, Blue Harbor Tuna provides a significant and sustainable difference from most tuna, not just in how it looks but how it's caught and how it's being brought to market. We worked with our client partners to create a new—and unarguably more nourishing—category called "clean tuna" and are now telling the story via a "Harbor Tour," sharing the experience of a real-life fishmonger who believes fervently in the brand.

General Mills

The sustainability efforts of this company are well-documented, but this summer they invited us to help guide them into what may be one of their largest initiatives ever in this space, bringing to life the importance of nourishing the very soil on our planet.

All of which affirms this statement we've plastered on the walls in our office, and reminds us every day of the importance of what we do: The best brands feed more than your face.

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Matt Stiker
Matt Stiker is president of Garrand Moehlenkamp.