Marketing of Food

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MARKETING OF FOOD. In order to understand how food is marketed in grocery stores or in restaurants or other food outlets, it is important to understand how consumers make choices among food options. It is generally believed that, although consumers sometimes have strong, stable preferences for some foodsfor example, one may have a clear, unambiguous preference for sardines over and above any other foodmore often than not, consumers' preferences are constructed on the spot and are contingent on a variety of factors, such as the social context, the other choices available, or the decision-maker's consumption goals. Therefore consumers do not always choose the same brands, or the same products, each time they go to the store. In this kind of decision context, marketing stimuli can be very effective at persuading consumers to buy one brand over another. In particular, the packaging and the branding of foods can be influential in how consumers choose among food items.

Packaging Strategies

There has been a great deal of research done on how packaging influences consumers' perceptions of products. The first research in packaging was done in the 1930s when self-service supermarkets were becoming more popular. At this time, marketers placed identical detergents in two different packages: one had circles on the outside and the other had triangles. The marketers asked consumers which product they preferred and why. Eighty percent of the consumers preferred the product in the box with circles because they believed it had "higher quality." Even when the consumers took the two boxes of detergent home and used both products, the belief that the one in the box with circles was of higher quality persisted. This example points out an important aspect of the marketing of food: it is the perception of quality, not the actual quality, that influences consumers' decision making.

The packaging can influence a consumer's decision about what foods to choose even more than the taste of the product in some cases. One aspect of packaging that is very influential is the package shape. One of the most successful campaigns has been the Absolut Vodka campaign in which the shape of the distinctive Absolut Vodka bottle is featured in all of its advertising. Whereas some people may not be able to differentiate among the tastes of vodka in a blind taste test, they can easily differentiate between the different packages. Coca-Cola has also been successful in creating a distinctive bottle shape that influences perceptions about the taste of their product. One of the most famous bottle shapes is the Heinz ketchup bottle, which has been called the "best-known bottle in the world." The irony in this shape is that it is not really conducive to the use of ketchup as it is difficult to get the product out of the bottle. Heinz however used this difficulty as a positive feature in their advertising by promoting "ketchup races" in which being the last one to come out of the bottle was perceived as an advantage because it indicated the ketchup was very thick.

During the 1990s, Campbell's was concerned about decreasing sales of the company's soup. The marketing department did research to try and discover how to increase consumers' interest in their soup. Their research indicated that new soup in the old package would taste the same, but familiar soup in a new can would taste different. So Campbell's redesigned the label on their soup cans. The familiar red and white Campbell's soup can (made famous by Andy Warhol) was changed so that the red banner was thinner and a photograph of the soup in a bowl was placed on the white banner on the can. In fact, Campbell's was so convinced that the new labeling, rather than a change in the soup, would be a decisive factor in persuading consumers to buy their soup again that they declared right on the can, "New Look, Same Great Soup."

Framing Strategies

Another aspect of marketing that influences consumers' perceptions about the food, which in turn affects consumers' choices, is how the product is positioned or framed. Ground beef that is 75 percent lean beef and 25 percent fat can be labeled either way: as 75 percent lean or 25 percent fat. Although these alternative labels convey the same information, however, they will not affect consumers' perceptions about the product equally. Studies showed that labeling the beef as 75 percent lean as opposed to 25 percent fat increases sales. The framing of the product can even be implicit. For example, the placement of a product in a certain aisle in the supermarket can affect the framing of the product. Consider Guiltless Gourmet Tortilla Chips. Placing this item in the regular chip aisle suggests that the product is a low-fat, perhaps worse-tasting, alternative, compared to the other chips. Placing the same product in the health food aisle suggests that the product is a better-tasting snack as compared to other alternatives.

Supermarket Layout

In general, the physical layout of the supermarket can also affect consumers' food-shopping decisions. Everyone knows that many supermarkets place high-demand items such as milk in the back of the store so that consumers are required to walk through the entire store and perhaps purchase extra items. Similarly, marketers can use cross-merchandising techniques in the supermarket to try to influence decisions. Cross merchandising is a promotional technique that ties a promotion for one product to the promotion of another. For example, Duncan Hines might include a coupon for its frosting in a cake mix box, or Rice Krispies might include a coupon for Marshmallow Fluff in its cereal box. Similarly, in the physical store, marketers can link together certain items to encourage purchase. For example, higher-priced salad dressing might be located closer to the fresh produce, or a coupon for one product might be located on the shelf of another, higher-traffic product category. In another example, an in-store coupon for a health and beauty aid product could be located in the high-traffic bathroom tissue aisle. Some of these cross-merchandising strategies might be even more effective if consumers begin shopping for groceries on the Internet.

Branding Strategies

Another aspect of food marketing that can very much affect consumers' decisions is branding. From the consumer's point of view, a brand name is generally a strong influence on purchase if three elements of the brand name are in place. First, the consumer must have a positive evaluation of the brand name. Second, the brand name must be easy to remember and strongly associated with the product category. The ease with which the name is remembered when a consumer thinks of a category will depend on the frequency with which the consumer has seen the brand associated with the category, how recently the consumer has seen the brand, and the salience of these connections for the consumer. In addition, a strong association with the category will depend on how similar the brand is to others in the category and also how prototypical the brand is to the category. For example, Coke is seen as a prototypical soft drink and thus will easily come to mind when the category "soft drinks" is evoked. Finally, the brand image and evaluation must be consistent over time. In particular, a very strong brand name is one in which a consumer holds favorable associations that are unique to that brand and that imply some kind of differential advantage over other brands.

One of the strongest brand names in food marketing is the Coca-Cola brand name. After years of advertising and marketing, Coke also has a very strong, clear, consistent brand imagetherefore, consumers form clear associations with it. For example, consumers may recall the packaging (the distinctive bottle or the red can), the taste of the product, or the current advertising appealsfor example, "Coke is the real thing." It is thought of as a "fun drink." Coke is also positioned as a different drink than Pepsi or its other competitors. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Coke has a clear emotional bond and relationship with its customers. Coke learned just how important that brand name was in 1985 when they considered taking the old Coca-Cola product off the grocery shelves and replacing it with "New Coke." This prompted strong consumer reaction. Consumers felt that Coke violated something that was "theirs"they felt that the Coke brand name belonged to its consumers and that Coca-Cola could not remove this classic icon from the market. Coke eventually returned "Classic Coke" to the marketplace to the delight of its customers.

Brand names can also influence consumers' perceptions of new products. If a marketer puts a familiar brand name on a new product, for example, Oreo cookie ice cream sandwiches, the consumer immediately knows something about the product even if she has never seen it before. Marketers are usually very careful about which new products they support with existing brand names as sometimes these brand extensions can backfire. For example, although Miller Lite was a very successful brand extension because the new light beer was instantly recognized and adopted in the marketplace, the new light brand had a negative effect on the main Miller High Life brand by causing consumers to think the original brand was less hearty.

In conclusion, sometimes when consumers go into the supermarket or into a restaurant to buy food, they have clear preferences for the foods they are buying and are not influenced by the food packaging, merchandising, branding, or promotion. However, more often than not, food preferences are not that stable and are constructed on the spot. In these cases, what consumers end up buying can be swayed by marketing cues in the environment such as labeling, branding, and packaging.

See also Advertising of Food; Food Cooperatives; Food Politics: United States; Food Supply, Food Shortages .


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Barbara E. Kahn

Grocery Shopping on the Internet?

Although there has been a great deal of interest in the United States in trying to make grocery shopping on the Internet a viable concern (for example, Webvan,, few companies have been able to make it profitable. Part of the problem is the delivery of the groceries. In most residential areas in the United States, delivery locations are too far apart, meaning a truck can waste a great deal of time driving from one neighborhood to another. In order to make this kind of arrangement profitable, grocers will need a 25 to 30 percent gross profit on each order as well as average orders over $100. This just has not occurred yet in the United States, and the firms such as Peapod and Webvan that have tried to make it work have not been profitable so far.

One retailer that has made it work is Tesco in Britain. Tesco is Britain's biggest grocer with more than 650 sites; they have said that their online grocery site,, was profitable in 2000. Tesco allows its consumers to make their decisions online, and these orders are then sent to the store nearest the customer, where a store employee picks out the items ordered. Once the order is assembled, vans carry it to the customer's house. Orders average sixty items, and perhaps surprisingly, the most popular items purchased in this way include fresh fruit and vegetables (not bulk items such as laundry detergent). Tesco reports that in 2000, its online business represented one percent of its total grocery business.

If a model does become viable in the United States, we can probably expect online shopping to differ from shopping in a physical locale. Online consumers can sort their purchases much more easily and are not constrained by the physical layout of the store. For example, when shopping online, consumers can sort by price or nutritional information or create a list of products that were bought last time. These conveniences could potentially make grocery shopping a more efficient and more enjoyable endeavor. On the other hand, the flexibility of layout on the Internet can also help marketers to position their products in such a way as to increase the likelihood of consumers' purchasing them. For example, more packaging or advertising information could potentially be made available online.

Grocery Cart

The grocery cart was invented in 1937 by Sylvan N. Goldman for his Standard Food Stores in Oklahoma City, after he noticed that shoppers would quit shopping when their hand-carried baskets became too heavy. The grocery cart on wheels was a stroke of genius in food marketing: It promoted greater sales, led to greater efficiency, and saved on labor costs. It was the start of self-service.

Before the grocery cart, food store merchants kept food on floor-to-ceiling shelves behind counters; a clerk was needed to assist customers with each purchase. Using the shopping cart, customers could select food items directly from "gondola shelves" set across the floor space, lowered so they could reach the top shelf and set just far enough apart for two shopping carts to pass between them, and fill their basket themselves. The width of the carts determined the width of the aisles in supermarkets.

The first cart was a folding cart with two baskets one above the other. Initially, the carts reminded women of pushing baby buggies; men eschewed them thinking they were strong enough to carry groceries by themselves. One of the early models of a shopping cart is enshrined at the Smithsonian Institute.

Once shopping carts caught on, they changed forever the way people shop and the way stores are laid out. By the late twentieth century grocery carts had increased in size and took on various configurations. They came in metal and plastic, some with special seats for children and some motorized for handicapped shoppers. Grocery stores on two or more floors have carts with locking wheels to allow them to be taken up or down moving ramps between floors. Some department stores are experimenting with nylon mesh carts.

In 2001, a cart cost around $100 apiece in the United States and an average supermarket owned about 300 carts; at least 9.6 million grocery carts were in service (Weir, p. 37). In urban neighborhoods people would use them to transport their purchase home. Shopping carts are also commonly seen on the streets of big cities being used by homeless people as "portable households." Strategies to prevent the loss of carts include imposing fines on anyone found with a cart off the store premises, locking carts together with a small device that releases a cart when the customer inserts a coin, and installing electronic sensors around the perimeter of store parking lots or at the store's exit doors. These sensors detect when a cart is about to leave the premises and lock the wheels, making the cart impossible to remove.

The shopping cart is a symbol of a consumer-led economy that is fueled by an affluent and mobile society. It is a piece of equipment that has become part of the distribution system of goods between manufacturers and consumers. It allows consumers to expand their purchases until the cart is full, wheel them in the cart to their cars, and drive them home. It also changed the need for labor in stores and allowed mass merchandising to the masses. As Terry Wilson wrote in 1978, it is "the cart that changed the world."


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Wilson, Terry P. The Cart That Changed the World. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.

Jean D. Kinsey

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Marketing of Food

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