Have you ever wondered how the US transformed from a nation of people who rejected tea in favor of coffee, then again from a nation of simple “take it black, or cream-and-sugar?” coffee drinkers into folks who will line up every fall to pay $5 or more for a Tall, Non-Fat, No-Whip Pumpkin Spice Latte.
It's really astounding. And it comes down not just to smart branding, but to building a cult following.
The Temple of (Starbucks) Doom
The reason Starbucks was so successful in modifying consumer preferences— and, indeed, molding them to fit its vision of how Starbucks wanted them to be— was that it focused on positioning its products as "exclusives." But at the same time, the company inculcated employees and customers in its own, secret language (where else can you find a tall, grande, or venti coffee?).
Essentially, Starbucks took coffeehouse culture— the exclusive redoubt of beatniks, poets, jazzheads, Bohemians and middle-class intellectuals— and turned it into the daily destination for every soccer mom, business guy, teenybopper and working Joe in America. And, they dramatically increased prices to boot. But people pay it. They line up to pay it.
Yet if you were to ask those displaced, dejected beatniks, Starbucks offers a bland product in a canned atmosphere. Your local microroastery and open mic jump joint, it ain't.
So how do I start my own Food Cult?
It's pretty simple, really. Have a product that a core group of people want to consume. Starbucks expanded beyond the coffeehouse market and exposed the masses to the joy of cappuccino. But once they did, they really set to work indoctrinating that market.
You need good branding with a clear goal. It's not enough to have a mission statement— Starbucks' is "To inspire and nurture the human spirit– one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time," but few of its customers could recite it to you. You need to make your customers want to be in to your product line. You need to connect them to each other.
To do that, you need to show how people enjoy your product, how they crave your product. You need to build up expectations. You need to sell not your products, but the emotions people feel in or around the consumption of your products.
You need a little rock star power.
Emeril Lagasse and Gordon Ramsay: world's greatest chefs?
Hardly. They’re certainly good, but it would be a stretch to claim they are the best in the world. But people still buy their merchandise, tune into their programs, and flock to their restaurants in droves.
So what are they buying into? Image. 100% image.
Emeril's “Bam!” catchphrase and up-a-notch kicking built him an empire of loyal Food Network subjects. Ramsay's over-the-top rants, unnecessary curses and "SIM-puhhhhhl! RUSSSSSS-tick!" schtick turned him into a household name. Shoot, Paula Deen built a career— even in the midst of our watch-what-you-eat, low-fat, obesity-awareness era— by hurling her food directly through entire vats of butter, and no one seemed to mind, until darker aspects of her personal life came to light.
Now does that mean you need a celebrity endorsement or a marketing figurehead to elevate your food brand to cult status?
Not necessarily. You really just need to play to the zeitgeist.
Thirst is nothing. Image is everything.
Even when successful and innovative food brands purport not to be pandering to image they, in fact, are. Remember that Sprite campaign from the '90s? "Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst." Much easier to believe it was genuine, if it hadn't come ready-packaged with lines of apparel.
Or how about 7-Up's later campaign, fronted by Orlando Jones: "Make Seven. Up Yours." Highly successful. Buzzworthy. And it sold quite a bit more 7-Up than their rather strange "Are You an Un?" campaign.
Why? Because people repeated the slogan, ad nauseum. It was sassy, edgy. And quickly it was ubiquitous.
Innovative food brands start with exclusivity. Build it, then maintain it.
Excite your customers' perceptions. If you make them think that everyone else is eating this, they'll want to try it, too.
Back in the 1980s, you couldn't go five feet without seeing a Budweiser, Coors, or Miller sales pitch showing sexy people having a great time, partying by the pool. But when hipsters — a demographic obsessed with being first in the know about everything — rebelled against the bland American pilsner and jumped onboard the IPA beer train in the late 2000s, the market was suddenly glutted with hoppy, "craft" brews and Budweiser, et al, saw their revenues begin to dry up. The microbrew market leverages consumers' desire for exclusivity, all the while seeking to expand beyond niche and undermine the very impetus that made it successful.
Eventually, that backfires. Just look at the fondue fad of the 1970s.
Once the unique mystique wore off, all the fondue restaurants littering early '80s street corners and mall spaces went away and those green-and-gold home fondue sets ended up going for 50 cents a piece in garage sales.
Like Starbucks, you must continue to engage your customer base. Build new and exciting buzz. When something seems about to break through the exclusivity ceiling, tweak it to become exclusive once again.
And build your branding around it.