Posts in Food and wine

Mainlining Umami Deliciousness to Secretly Drive Growth

June 24th, 2018 Posted by Consumer insight, Culinary inspiration, Culinary lifestyle, Food and wine, food experiences, Food Trend 0 comments on “Mainlining Umami Deliciousness to Secretly Drive Growth”

Yes, the Secret Sauce IS the Sauce

To our friends in the food and restaurant business: want to know how to get people to, in effect, eat out of your hands morning, noon and night? Turns out delicious and umami are littermates and keys to the culinary kingdom of eating satisfaction, smiles and happiness. These attributes sit knocking at the front door of repeat purchase and visits.

Yes, the path to great taste is regularly paved with umami, the fifth taste sense (friend to sour, sweet, salty, bitter) discovered and minted in Japan around 1908 by chemist Kikunae Ikeda. His work determined glutamic acid lies at the foundation of great taste experiences. Ikeda then set about commercializing this epiphany by designing it in crystalline form as a flavor enhancer ̶ commonly known as MSG.

The so-called Glutamate was a shot across the bow in refining and defining what it is that humans experience and love about deeper, crave-able flavor. This discovery helps explain why there are more burger and pizza chains than any other form of foodservice business. A cheeseburger with tomato and ketchup is an umami flavor bomb. Thus, perhaps, explaining its lasting popularity across both geography and generations. Ditto pizza.

How Umami found me

It was in a Galaxy Far, Far Away – the Pacific Northwest’s city of Seattle, where my journey begins as a junior home chef on a mission to apprentice the culinary arts. I discovered a cookbook titled The Sixty Minute Gourmet, published by the food editor team at the New York Times. It famously promised to impart basic French technique to the Yankee reader in short order.

I made every dish in the book. Perhaps the chief skill gleaned in the process was saucing and caramelizing. And thus I witnessed how reduction sauces, for instance, could be created to take a plain hamburger patty to an absurdly elevated and refined taste experience. It quickly became clear that any protein or vegetable could climb the deliciousness ladder if a compatible savory sauce pooled above or below.

The sheer act of reducing stocks – vegetable, beef, fish or veal – with butter, wine and in some cases (a little bit of) cream was literally a set-up for injecting umami flavor formally described as concentrated savory, brothy and meaty-ness. Relatively neutral tasting chicken could become a culinary tour de force with a proper sauce.

On commoner ground

Umami isn’t just a highbrow culinary concept. The ubiquitous bottle of ketchup also sits high on the umami ladder, and also probably explains why $8.6 billion of the common red condiment is sold every year in America, a per capita spend of $17.85 per person per year, according to Statista. No surprise Heinz owns about $1.4 billion of that lucre. What’s at work here, in addition to the brothy meaty-ness, is flavor intensity, mouth feel and a redolent savory-ness. When savory is combined with a creamy-like carrier that takes up residence on the tongue, magic happens.

  • The intense salty, nutty richness of correctly aged Parmesan cheese provides another umami-bite example; hence why cheese is, in many ways, king of the umami empire. Translating this understanding into business opportunity can be summed in an innovation cornucopia of opportunity.

Condiments, sauces, toppings and marinades can be employed as umami revitalizers, providing transformative power to reinvent otherwise bland and less interesting foods and menu items. Flavor enhancers impart what the senses want in appetizing taste experiences. It can alter the perception of value in the consumer’s passion for food adventures. Such as:

  1. Bone broth instead of stocks due to its inherent richness, mouth-feel and flavor depth.
  2. Soy, Teriyaki, sesame oil and other Asian sauces that drive the experience of a noodle way past its hereditary plain and maybe boring self.
  3. Sauces and proteins are a marriage made in heaven and allow not only for amping the delicious quotient but also bringing global flavors for an adventurous twist.

In short – bowls, pasta dishes, proteins, salads, vegetables and sandwiches can all be elevated by cranking up the umami index.

Quick innovations

Sauces and toppings can be a faster path to reinvention and reengineering packaged foods and dishes. Think of umami as flavor paint that accompanies anything it sits on or near, to bring the glutamic acid punch that sends ordinary to extraordinary.

The novel use of fresh real-food ingredients to form the basis of umami richness adds to the alchemy of creating flavor without resorting to the chemistry set. In the end, it is deliciousness that wins. Umami is the envelope that enrobes common foods in something special. The outcome is business growth because of the surprise and delight it imparts.

I know because here at the Wheatley house, Hamburger Soopreez as we call it is one of the most popular dishes on the family menu due to its umami bath. Thanks for getting us on the road Ikeda-san.

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Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, the healthy living agency. Emergent provides integrated brand strategy, communications and insight solutions to national food, beverage, home and lifestyle companies.  Emergent’s unique and proprietary transformation and growth focus helps organizations navigate, engage and leverage consumers’ desire for higher quality, healthier product or service experiences that mirror their desire for higher quality lifestyles. For more information, contact [email protected] and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.


Wine and food marriage

Wine and Food – a marketing power couple

September 14th, 2017 Posted by brand marketing, consumer behavior, Culinary inspiration, Food and wine, food experiences, storytelling 0 comments on “Wine and Food – a marketing power couple”

Consumer-centric strategy wins every time…

Wine is a unique business characterized by literally thousands of competing brands all packaged and presented similarly. Where marketing is often built around vineyard and winemaker stories, sprinkled with a dose of influencer reviews from a narrow cadre of respected bloggers, writers and wine-centric publishers. Unlike the beer world where some larger brands can afford to spend heavily on consumer pull, for the most part, wine is a trade push story built around trial in on-premise channels while courting volume sales in the off-premise (liquor stores, supermarkets and specialty).

Brand awareness and equity is just a completely different conversation in the wine category. Here, consumer reviews and experience are likely to be crucial to fueling word-of-mouth. In the super-premium end of the category, mainstream marketing tactics can often hurt more than help by diluting the perception of “discovery,” uniqueness and artistry.

That said the wine business is also rich in storytelling material around terroir, viticulture and oenology. Yet despite the differences in such distinctions as soil condition, microclimates and the styles of winemaking, a pervasive “sameness” exists in the presentation of brands at retail.

In the end, wine leans into a very self-reverential form of communication. We have a saying here at Emergent: the brand that gets closest to the consumer wins. If you work backwards from that premise with wine, it doesn’t take long to see the storytelling value of drawing upon consumer experience and context with these brands.

Most often, that setting is about the marriage of wine and food.

Early in my agency career, I had the honor and privilege of representing Chateau Ste. Michelle winery at the time, a boutique vintner of premium wines in what was an emerging industry in Washington State.

Baptism by wine…

For a home chef like me, working with Chateau Ste. Michelle winery was a dream assignment – an opportunity for an immersive education about wine making from the masters of this unique artisanal industry. Initially, our focus was on telling the Washington Wine Story. The wine-growing region of Washington State roughly parallels the latitude of the winemaking areas in Bordeaux, France – so we worked to draw similarities in climate and soil conditions that would favor the creation of exceptional wines, especially their Cabernet Sauvignon.

It was a form of flag wave in a business preoccupied with Napa Valley notoriety.

Then something extraordinary happened that provided a real-world lesson in consumer relevance driving business outcomes.

Ste. Michelle’s owner, the U.S. Tobacco Company, decided to grace its small winery operation with a unique and unexpected parent-company “gift.” Ste. Michelle was to become one of nine title sponsors of the Statue of Liberty Restoration, an enormous public/private partnership enlisting some of the world’s largest corporations as primary contributors.

The question came in from the management team at Ste. Michelle, what are we to do with the Statue of Liberty Restoration sponsorship among all of these Fortune 100 companies? These are organizations with deep pockets to spend leveraging the connection! How would this be made viable for the wine business? Was there any path that would net a benefit to the winery and come at an affordable cost?

The outcome of a considerable team planning effort was a unique and innovative idea to produce a cookbook based on the immigrant experience and the cuisines they brought to this country from other lands. Wine and food is already married. A culinary approach would be consistent with the brand’s imagery and resonate with the consumer’s experience.

We started to build on the concept – the cookbook could be made available free for a donation to the Statue of Liberty fund. It could be purposed as a store level promotional incentive for wine buyers to take the brand, along with displays promoting the book offer. We could use the book launch as an innovative platform for media outreach.

Chateau Ste. Michelle – “Tastes of Liberty”

To this day, I am still struck by the courage and tenacity of Ste. Michelle’s management team led by then president Allen Shoup and chief winemaker, Bob Betz. The cookbook was to be done first-class in keeping with Ste. Michelle’s premium image – so a commitment was made to coffee table quality. The risks were palpable given the book would be offered free for a $25 donation to the Restoration Fund.

“Tastes of Liberty” literally swam in gorgeous, emotion-generating food photography and began with a very human anthology of the immigrant experience at Ellis Island. While wine pairings were present, every effort was made to assure the book would not be just a brand advertisement. It was to be editorial and faithful to culinary inspiration from cover to cover.

Wine buyers loved the unique idea and execution. They were astounded at the value of the ‘free-with-donation’ offer. Equally so, editorial media were awestruck at the quality of the recipes and the way it was presented. One magazine did a six-page, center-spread story on it. It was a successful venture in many ways and the risks Ste. Michelle took were amply rewarded as the brand secured national distribution.

While a case study example of integrated execution, the light bulb moment here is wine and food’s relevance to people and to their experience with the product. Culinary wasn’t in the background, it was a primary agenda with great care taken to assure the taste experiences matched well with characteristics of each varietal.

Yet today, so many wine brands only nod to food with a recipe tab at their web site. Going deep into culinary unleashes the magic of what happens when consumer experience and brand are aligned.

Yes you can (and should) talk about your soil, your French oak barreling, but taste done within the marriage of wine and food elevates this experience to the dinner table. And to a place consumers respect and recognize emotionally.

In the end, “Tastes of Liberty” was a storybook effort by a team of collaborating players on both agency and client sides. And evidence, once again, of what can happen when imagination, consumer insight and strategy coalesce.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to our blog.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, the healthy living agency. Emergent provides integrated brand strategy, communications and insight solutions to national food, beverage, home and lifestyle companies.  Emergent’s unique and proprietary transformation and growth focus helps organizations navigate, engage and leverage consumers’ desire for higher quality, healthier product or service experiences that mirror their desire for higher quality lifestyles. For more information, contact [email protected] and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.