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Everybody Speaks Food: Culinary language and the fastest way to a consumer’s heart

Creating and managing brand value TM


Interbrand | Pg. 1

Everybody Speaks Food: Culinary language and the fastest way to a consumer’s heart

by Rachel Bernard

Food has always been the spice of life – and a powerful motivator for conquering geographic, cultural, and, yes, linguistic barriers. West African kingdoms of antiquity rose at the crossroads of the spice trade, as Arabs, Africans and Europeans encountered each other’s taste buds. When Christopher Columbus sailed from Europe in 1492, his benefactors were seeking a faster route to Asia’s spice trade. By now English has borrowed, stolen or lovingly adopted thousands of words from other languages, a significant number of which refer to food. To break bread together we have to share language. In that sense, food is a truly global language. Because we all speak food, there is far more freedom when it comes to naming food brands than almost any other category. It‘s our desire for a common culinary language that allows us to suspend one of the cardinal rules of naming, “all names should be easy to read, write, spell and pronounce.” We are

braver and more willing to accept a different approach if we know we will be rewarded with something tasty. Take Umami (旨味), a loanword from Japanese meaning “good flavor.” Umami began its journey into our consciousness when scientists officially added “savory” as a sixth taste to the traditional five most commonly understood by the Western palate: sweet, salty, sour, spicy and bitter. But umami did not fully take hold in our lexicon until last year when Kikkoman launched its own campaign around the term – a salient example of brands helping mediate our experiences, and perhaps even change our taste buds.

To break bread together we have to share language. In that sense, food is a truly global language.

While we may expect such language lessons from an authentically international brand like Kikkoman, our appetite for language is evident in some of the most mass-market brands – see Chipotle (cheepote-lay). While the name Chipotle poses genuine pronunciation challenges for an English speaker, the brand’s authentic offerings and flavorful fare proved to be a strong motivator for easing us over our pronunciation learning curve. When Vegemite changed its recipe and launched the refresh under the promotional name of Vegemite 2.0, traction did not ensue. While the name clearly delivered on the communication objectives of “upgrade,” it didn’t deliver on taste. Despite its best intentions, the campaign flopped because of its singularly unappetizing name. While we may be able to abandon the rule that names must be easy to pronounce in the food category, we can never abandon


Everybody Speaks Food: Culinary language and the fastest way to a consumer’s heart

the simple fact that names have to appeal to our sense of taste. Imagine if Gatorade launched a new brand for an energy bar. A name like Octane, while it strongly conveys energy, could never work. The mere suggestion of something toxic sets off an alarm in our brain to avoid that food as a matter of life or death. Another biological trait that marketers and namers use to our advantage is our omnivorous nature. Humans seek diversity when it comes to food. It may be what drives us to seek out food from other cultures. And it’s also what draws us to food with different colors, shapes and textures. In grocery aisles where food products are comprised of very similar ingredients, marketing has a huge role to play in creating a sense of diversity and differentiation. For example, the ingredient lists for Lucky Charms and Alpha Bits are almost identical, but their brand names and the shape of the cereals themselves help pull the brands apart. It is this principle that has made the cereal aisle the most colorful and visually arresting aisle in any grocery store.

We are braver and more willing to accept a different approach if we know we will be rewarded with something tasty. The powerful pull food can have on an audience is not limited to edible brands themselves. Consider the appeal outof-category brands have created when they commandeer food-related terms to market their products. This technique has been used not only to sell computers (think Apple), but cell phones like the LG Chocolate. Food naming tempts us behind the wheel of the Porsche Cayenne as well as the shoe world of Piperlime. And nobody seems to paint their houses yellow or white anymore, coating them instead in “Sugar Cookie” or “Buttercream.”

While food does other categories a huge favor when it comes to marketing their products, it is not a favor that can ever be returned. Simply put, food can be used to market other categories, but other categories cannot be leveraged to market food. Why is this? It’s hardwired in our brain through a biological imperative for humans to seek out what is edible and avoid anything that is not. Evolutionarily speaking, that which is not food may kill us. That which can safely be called food, will not. ■

Interbrand | Pg. 2


Rachel Bernard Rachel Bernard is a Director for Interbrand’s Verbal Identity department. A linguist and writer by trade, Rachel brings both strategic and creative expertise to consumer and corporate brand engagements. She specializes in the global management of verbal brand assets and has developed names, taglines, naming architectures, messaging, and packaging copy across a diverse set of business sectors.

Paola Norambuena Senior Director, Head of Verbal Identity T: 212-798-7590 Paola.norambuena@interbrand.com

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Everybody Speaks Food  

Culinary language and the fastest way to a consumer’s heart

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