“I’ll have the Patagonian Toothfish. That sounds delicious!” Said no one ever. But chances are, if you like seafood, you’ve already had it. You see, it’s actually menu’d as Chilean Seabass. In truth, there is no such thing. There is no taxonomy—phylum, genus, species—of Chilean Seabass, it is a marketing name. In 1977, Lee Lantz coined the name to make it appealing to American menus. If you take a hard look at many of the products we purchase, they are simply marketing. Marketing designed to inspire you to believe in its quality, reliability, desirability, and to feel better about your purchase. Cars, schools, movies, clothing, dating websites, on and on. In the marketing and presenting world it is called “the big fat claim.” How do I motivate you to change your behavior in favor of my widget? And yes, it exists in the food industry, too.
I recently held a beef training for a large customer and in my preparation for the training, I stopped searching after 30 different “brands” of beef and still had many more results on Google remaining. And that was just for foodservice, not grocery. There are hundreds of brands. And yet, aside from the niche operators, we really only use about four breeds of cattle in the food supply. Wait, four breeds and all of these brands? Yes. And they all make a claim: all-natural, 100% percent grass fed, free range, certified this, organic that.
Did you know that all beef, this bears repeating—all beef—is grass fed? The point of distinction is, what it’s finished feeding on before processing. And that by law—dirty little marketing secret here—in order for your steak to be called “Washington Beef,” it only has to be in the state for 48 hours. Was it born here? Raised here? Processed here? Lots of room for interpretation. But if it was in the state for 48 hours, it’s termed Washington Beef.
It’s marketing designed to make you feel better about what you’re purchasing. The word “certified” sounds so official, so authoritative. But the question is, certified by whom? By which agency or official? For beef there is one required certification. USDA certified. It’s a certification that must be on all boxed beef processed in the United States. We just don’t see the delivered boxes at the grocery store. The grading—prime, choice, select—is completely optional by the brand’s owner. They pay extra for grading. So the brand “USDA Certified Prime” is two-thirds correct. If it was processed here in the U.S., it is USDA certified. Add the word “prime,” which is optional, and you have a statement of quality and certification. The “prime” part is not a USDA managed term.
But what about “100% Organic”? Same story. Verified by whom, to what standards and processes? The truth again is, there is only one true certification: “USDA Certified Organic.” It’s an extremely rigorous and systematic approach to verify that the soil is clean, there’s no chance of contamination from neighboring soil, the fertilizer is clean, and the practices that support the growing process are clean. If it doesn’t have that logo, and there’s the “100%” claim, it is marketing. There may be organic practices in place, but it is not certified—not official.
And this happens in all of our products: beef, produce, seafood, granola, cars, watches. The “big fat claim” pretty much lives everywhere, and in all of the products we buy. So, how do you separate the brand, from the marketing? It is fallible, and it requires the consumer to be diligent and aware. But in the end, does said widget do what the marketing claims it will do? Are you willing to ask, “Tell me more about the (insert marketing claim here) you are selling.” It can sound very suspicious and conspiratorial, but the marketer’s job is to inspire desire, and the seller’s job is to close the deal. It’s the consumer who has the real power and responsibility. If (marketing claim) is something of value to you, be an active consumer. Ask, verify, ask again. In the end, only the consumer can truly raise the bar. That old adage “buyer beware” still stands true.
Food for thought.
And really, I do recommend the Seabass. It’s good!
Chris Patterson is the Director of Business Solutions at Food Services of America. He is a 30 year veteran of the hospitality and restaurant industry and has conducted more than 700 trainings, seminars, and consulting sessions with Inland Northwest operators.