The Gentle Simmer

Of Novelties and Fads in Food

Anjali Oberoi | How many truly new foods have loomed into your life in the past 10 years? And by truly new, I am excluding all the cronuts, cruffins, cragels, and other such hybrids of common items that make equal numbers of mouths salivate and eyes roll. I am more interested in foods that may have tasted utterly foreign to you at first encounter, yet after some time landed at a comfortable place in your personal food culture.

For me, fish is a big one, having grown up in a vegetarian family. I expect that many Americans will think of hummus, which became a household item in the 2000s, at least two decades after it was introduced to US grocery shelves.

I find this exercise interesting because it leads to questioning a common assumption in food entrepreneurship: that product novelty pays off. Or, to pose the topic of this piece from a slightly different angle, the core question I am asking is: Does novelty in food hinder or foster consumer adoption?

You might have noticed that I evoked this topic in an earlier piece, where I contrasted the viral adoption of smartphones with the years it took for Americans to take to sushi. Underlying this example is one of many precious insights on business that I owe to Minh Tsai, founder and CEO of Hodo Foods. During a conversation we had on food trends, Minh remarked that revolutions don’t happen in food consumption, because people’s tastes and food habits evolve slowly. Unlike with tech products, when a food pervades the collective consciousness and becomes popular, it has generally been around for years, often catering to a niche consumer segment. Think of kimchi or quinoa for example.

Food Innovation is Risky.jpg

This idea may be counter-intuitive to many of us because the entrepreneurship discourse is dominated by the tech industry, which is fixated on “innovating”, “disrupting”, and “going viral”. There might be an additional, more insidious factor misleading food entrepreneurs. Studies are showing that food neophobia, i.e. the aversion to unfamiliar foods, is tied to socioeconomic indicators. Put simply, if you’re young, in the middle to upper class, and live in an urban cosmopolitan environment – as most entrepreneurs do – you are more likely to seek, try, and adopt new foods. Moreover, what marketing professionals call “innovators” and “early adopters” are probably over-represented in your networks. And so, if your underlying belief is that product novelty is key to succeeding in food, you might well be succumbing to projection bias.

Are all new foods doomed to fail then? Clearly not. Suffice to compare America’s food landscape in the 80’s and today to see that this is not the case. However, it is important to recognize that sustainable trends in food consumption are slow waves that can be shaped but hardly accelerated.

Crystal Pepsi: Another ghost haunting the realm of F&B fads.

Crystal Pepsi: Another ghost haunting the realm of F&B fads.

In fact, there is some indication that cultural items that experience rapid uptakes tend to be abandoned faster. In other words, hype often turns to fad. Many brands have learned this the hard way, deploying heavily-funded product introduction strategies with major marketing efforts to create a buzz… and falling flat, generally within months. Who today remembers Heinz’s green ketchup – also available in orange, purple, teal, and I’ll stop here before you pull an eye muscle. Launched in 2000, “Heinz EZ Squirt” was specifically targeted at kids, aiming at adding fun to their meals. The insight was not unreasonable. Initial sales exceeded all projections. Quickly though, kids got tired and skipped off to the next craze, like one hits “next” on a former favorite song. Parents of course never joined the fun. And, Heinz put an end to its rainbow dream by 2006. In food, the new kids on the block rarely become household classics.

The key to succeeding might be a combination of patience (read “funding”), building on existing cultural foundations, and taking consumers by the hand through progressive discoveries outside their comfort zones.

Case #1: Pizza Goes Masala

The story of Domino’s Pizza in India makes a compelling case for this approach. When the chain launched there in 1996, eating pizza was far from common among Indians of all backgrounds. To overcome this challenge, a key element of Domino’s strategy has been to design menus that maintain the chain’s western feel – making them cool and appealing – all the while playing to local tastes – making them accessible. A fine balance sustained by a continuous R&D effort: from selecting the right flour to enhancing the toppings list with popular local flavors (fancy a spicy raw banana pizza?), no details are left overlooked.

Today, with close to 1,200 locations, Domino’s has become the largest western-food chain in India, and the default home delivery food for many Indian families. What is more, its proactive product adaptation approach has become the norm for western chains aspiring to cater to the second largest nation in the world. You might be surprised to know for example that McDonald’s India proposes a mostly vegetarian menu, with the Maharaja Mac as its newest addition, or that the Paneer Tikka might be Subway India’s top-selling item.

All that said, it would be reasonable to question how great of a leap it was to familiarize Indians with pizza, given its resemblance to several popular local foods. If, like me, you were born into a North-Indian family, you might have found yourself one day describing pizza “like a roti with vegetables on it”. That is why it is time for me to bring exhibit #2, which will add a new layer to our discussion: the case of Sabra’s hummus in the US.

Case #2: Hummus Takes a Dip

Until about 15 years ago, you generally had to be of middle-eastern origin or live in the whereabouts of Dearborn Michigan, a.k.a. Little Lebanon, to be familiar with hummus. Since then however, most Americans have taken to hummus, generally consuming it as a dip, which is not without making many Levantines cringe as they consider that an abasement of their glorious food. In fact, this tension might well have been at the heart of packaged hummus’s sluggish start.

A plate of hummus as it would be presented to you at a traditional Middle Eastern restaurant

A plate of hummus as it would be presented to you at a traditional Middle Eastern restaurant

Before Sabra, the leaders in that segment did little to demystify the exoticism of hummus, even playing it up at times and thereby unwittingly perpetuating a barrier to broad consumer adoption. Kraft’s Athenos’s largest advertising campaign in the recent years revolved around the character of a yia-yia, the stereotypical Greek grandma, altogether adorable and insufferable. A great way to appeal to the 0.4% of Americans of Greek heritage. Al-Wadi Al Akhdar and Cortas, perhaps the most popular hummus brands among Arab Americans, never gave up on the unattractive tin cans, with labels deliberately conjuring traditional Lebanese rural imagery.

Sabra’s game-changing strategy, launched mid-2000s, was based on a simple yet novel principle, summarized by Scott Goodson as “[Connecting] with Americans where and how they already eat, instead of trying to bring Americans to the Mediterranean”. Concretely, this meant for example embracing the idea of hummus as a fancy dip – notwithstanding how reductive this notion may seem to the hummus purists. While Domino’s and Sabra’s approaches are technically different – the former being focused on adapting the taste of its products, and the latter on the presentation of its products – the two share a fundamental principle: winning consumers starts with building bridges to their comfort zones.

Note that by 2008, Sabra was co-owned by Strauss and PepsiCo, which ensured critical support for the company’s strategy in two ways. Firstly, PepsiCo had recently acquired Stacy’s Pita Chips and was set on leveraging synergies in the chip-and-dip category. Secondly, Sabra now had the means to deploy substantial marketing efforts. And, in doing so, it distinguished itself from its competition by aiming directly at normalizing the hummus experience. The phenomenally successful Share the World campaign, launched in 2011, featured diverse consumer characters, each describing how s/he liked his/her hummus. The message was iconoclastic and clear: Out with all the yia-yia’s and exotic Levantine landscapes, the best way to eat hummus is your way! And just like that, the hummus spread. All puns intended.

A couple of years later, the “Dip Life to the Fullest” advertising campaign added an educational component to Sabra’s outreach. The company set to coach Americans on how to eat hummus the traditional way – in case you’re wondering, it’s more about micro-scooping than dipping. That was interesting on a couple of levels. Firstly, the campaign seems to have done little to change the habits of existing customers, confirming that a critical mass had already appropriated the product. Secondly, Sabra had yet again demonstrated superior insight, directly addressing potential customers for whom the novelty of hummus still constituted a barrier. The hummus experience was simple, fun, and only a small step out of their comfort zone.

In 2015, it was estimated that over a quarter of American households bought hummus on a regular basis. Virtually unknown a couple of decades ago, the glorious chickpea paste today seems destined for a prime place in the US’s culinary landscape. And if you have any remaining doubts about Sabra’s role in the patient making of this, consider the numbers: Sabra’s market share rose from less than 8% in 2008 to over 60% in 2016, while that of every other major player… well… dipped.

So, do me a favor – Next time you think of an awesome food concept that will take Whole Foods’ shelves by storm and make you an overnight billionaire, pause for a second, order yourself some sushi, open a box of hummus for the wait, sit comfortably, close your eyes, and remember. Revolutions don’t happen in food consumption. Thank you, Minh

* All illustrations by Dannae Alvarez