The Return of the Politically Incorrect Food Brands

In a pandemic, sometimes it's the 'what' and not the 'why'

In mid-April of this year, PepsiCo-owned chips brand Frito-Lay debuted an in-house produced spot on prime-time American TV. The video, which aired during Good Morning America and later that day on The Voice, starts with moody, monotonous piano music playing over a black screen. Sentences in white letters pop up dramatically:

"Things are hard right now."

The text fades out elegantly and is followed by:

"The world doesn't need brands to tell us how to think or feel."

In the very next sentence, Frito-Lay goes against its own advice and proceeds to tell the world what it needs:

"The world needs brands to take action. That's what we have been focused on at Frito-Lay."

The creator of Funyuns, Ruffles and Cheetos goes on to list some of the (genuinely impressive!) charitable initiatives it has rolled out since Covid-19 started changing our world. The ad closes with the words:

"We're not changing our logo. We're not asking America to donate for us. This is not about brands. It's about people."

Frito-Lay | It’s About People

The issue I have with this message is not that Frito-Lay is looking for recognition by asking not to be recognized: That's a flex we see all too often when corporations that splash on CSR are looking for some R on their hefty I. They are forgiven. The issue, as far as I'm concerned, is that each day we stray further from God's light. God's light, in this context, being that Frito-Lay is a chips brand that I don't associate with crisis-time job creation or freely accessible Covid-19 testing facilities for the general public. I associate them with Dorito-dust on my fingers that requires more hand washing than I'm technically comfortable with—but I still go in for seconds after the wash. Because it makes me feel good.

Eating chips—or any comfort food—is a very intimate act that involves people inserting highly processed products into their body, being fully aware that they hold no nutritional value whatsoever. And yet I love doing it. Judging by Frito-Lay's post-lockdown sales figures (Lay's +32 percent, Tostitos +42 percent), I am not the only one.

When, in the wake of the global financial crisis, Simon Sinek suggested brands should start with the "why" instead of the "what," I have been cheerleading the shift toward purposeful marketing. "People don't buy what you do; people buy why you do it" was genius in 2009, and it still holds up 11 years later. But during Cannes Lions 2019, where the why trend culminated in a champagne-fueled orgy of purpose, we could already see the logical endpoint of the movement on the horizon: What began as sincere started morphing into woke-washing.

In food marketing, where I'm operating globally with the company I co-founded, the "why" has always had a shorter shelf life than in other categories. That's because decisions about which foods to consume can often be completely irrational, and this irrationality is accelerated by stress factors like—say, oh I don't know—a global pandemic. During times like these, it's the "what" that drives people: products with bright colors, strange consistencies and untraceable ingredients can exist and be successful in this space. Asking "why" opens up both the brand and the consumer to a line of questioning that might be best left unexplored.

This leaves a great opportunity-gap for brands to explore politically incorrect positioning, or at a minimum, ignore politically correct positioning. Take the upcoming relaunch of Cheese Puffs, a product so wonderfully out of touch with today's values about transparency that it is unthinkable that any self-respecting R&D department would come up with it in 2020. As Cathy Erway notices in her highly recommended Eater piece about the return of '90s snacks, Cheese Puffs deliberately look like nothing you would find growing in nature—they are the polar opposite of artisanal.

Yet Kraft Heinz is plotting a comeback for the snack because nostalgic '90s kids find comfort in eating a product that is designed to be so light that it actually tricks the brain into failing to recognize you are overeating. There has always been room for this kind of product, but the Covid-19 pandemic and the global lockdown have provided brands the opportunity to rebrand indulgence as self-care.

As all food brands did, French dairy behemoth Danone saw a spike in sales during the pantry-loading phase of the pandemic in March. But when the new reality settled in with people, the company noticed its indulgent product lines continued to outperform expectations. People, they found, were opting for familiarity and gratification.

On LinkedIn, Danone's global marketing director added: "Nutritional advice and healthier eating trends are too often overshadowing the fact that indulging (from time to time, in a reasonable and balanced way) plays its part in keeping a healthy mind. :)"

It made complete sense for the swing toward indulgence to start in food. During the lockdown, we suddenly find ourselves in a world without parties, concerts and restaurants. Food is all we have, so there is room for brands in that segment to be politically incorrect. But expect luxury brands to follow suit. They speak to the same sentiment: making people feel better.

Does that mean a hard stop for the purpose parade? I personally don't think or hope so. Purposeful marketing has brought us a lot of good. It has pushed brands toward more sustainable models. But there's something refreshing about brands that drop all pretense and are honest about the fact that all they want is to make you happy.

So thank you, Frito-Lay, for creating 2,000 jobs (with benefits!) and feeding hungry kids. But my decision to keep buying Dorito's is driven by that fleeting moment of happiness that binging a bag of Cool Ranch gives me when my wife is out with friends.

And you know what? I love you for that, too, from the bottom of my Dorito-dust colored heart.

Profile picture for user Olaf van Gerwen
Olaf van Gerwen
Olaf van Gerwen is founder and global creative director of Chuck Studios.

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