Learning the power of emotional food branding – and how not to get fooled

In the modern era of food marketing, terms such as ‘artisanal’, ‘traditional’ and ‘farmhouse’ are all the rage, but what do they actually mean?

Ah, Willow Farms. What an evocative name. I can see it in my mind’s eye; a modest farmstead at the top of a hill, overlooking a daisy-filled meadow deep in the English countryside. A willow tree droops over the side of a quaint barn, where the chickens and lambs live happily under the same roof.

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Well, I’m afraid Willow Farms doesn’t exist. At least, not where Tesco is concerned. Just over two weeks ago, the supermarket chain launched new packaging for its Everyday Value range of beef, chicken, fruit and vegetables.

The names chosen are quintessentially British, and include Boswell Farms for “Butcher’s Quality Cuts” of beef, Nightingale Farms for vegetables and Willow Farms for chicken. Nightingale Farms? How twee. There’s just one small problem. These farms are entirely fictitious. They are constructs designed by Tesco to, presumably, create a subtle feeling of goodwill around its products by hinting at an apocryphal provenance.

This type of food marketing and suggestible labelling is totally legal, but it's potentially misleading for consumers. Tesco is by no means the only culprits of this type of emotional branding, but it has suffered a backlash online in the past fortnight. A tweet by JP McMahon, Irish Times writer and head chef/patron at Aniar in Galway, calling out Tesco's "fake farms" as "an insult to real farmers", has been retweeted more than 1,000 times.

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I contacted McMahon directly, so that he could elaborate. “I think it’s scandalous that supermarkets are allowed to mislead consumers,” he says . “At a time when most farming in Ireland is practiced at a loss, large supermarkets profit on the marketing of the farm as opposed to the actuality of it. This needs to change. We need legislation to protect the sovereignty of our farm heritage.”

In the UK, the National Farmers' Union chief food chain adviser Ruth Mason made a statement on her organisation's website. "It's vital that shoppers have accurate, clear labelling on the origin of any British food or drink product in order to make an informed choice about what they are buying."

Being label aware can feel a bit overwhelming, especially once you start noticing misleading terms. Food Labelling Chaos, the title of a 158-page 2010 report by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest in the US, says it all. The ambiguous nature of nutritional labelling is enough to have your head wrecked.

Does sugar-free mean a product is free of artificial sweeteners? Not necessarily. Food writer and independent candidate for the Seanad Ross Golden-Bannon recently published an informativearticle online, asking for food labels in Ireland to be transparent and readable. Worthwhile information if you're concerned about clarity around nutritional labelling.

Just as slippery Apart from nutritional discrepancies, or even ethical quandaries such as food marketing aimed at children, seemingly innocuous food marketing terms used to promote and sell products can be just as slippery. Think about how often you see “traditional” or “farmhouse” on labelling, when it doesn’t deserve to be there.

In May 2015, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) published its Guidance Notes on Food Marketing Terms. This document is designed to look at how food businesses are using the buzzwords artisan (or artisanal), farmhouse, traditional and natural. Its aim is to promote responsible marketing by food manufacturers, retailers and food-service business. It includes guidelines such as only using the terms "traditional" for a recipe that has existed for at least 30 years, and "natural" in reference only to food formed by nature.

These guidelines recognise that the “marketing of food is essential for business development” but the FSAI wants to help prevent marketing terms from being used incorrectly, because of their potential to mislead consumers.

The history of food marketing, in the US, at least, is directly linked to the transformation of the food industry over the past century and a half. In a 2007 Journal of Urban Economics article titled "Taste heterogeneity and the scale of production: fragmentation, unification and segmentation", Professor Yasusada Murata outlines the three phases of food marketing; the fragmentation phase (pre-1870 to 1880), the unification phase (1880 - 1950) and the segmentation phase (1950 to current).

In the fragmentation phase, distribution and sale of food products was local thanks to the prohibitive expense of food transportation. In the unification phase, the expansion of railroads across the US meant food distribution was more accessible, providing a need for food marketing on a large scale. The segmentation phase refers to the use of TV, internet and radio to target particular segments of the market.

The connection between food marketing and locale in the above phases really stands out. It shows the link between our food travelling from far away to get to us, from a place we can’t see or don’t know, and how that ambiguity can be exploited by food marketers.

Why is all this a big deal? At its worst, it’s disingenuous to consumers. But apart from that, as JP McMahon spelled out in under 140 characters, it’s a disservice to the small producer whose craft is truly artisanal.