Of Malcolm Gladwell, the Mystery of Mustard, and the Singular Reign of Ketchup.

I’ve never actively thought about ketchup. I frequently put some on my burgers, less frequently so on my fries (more of a ‘on the side’ kinda girl when it comes to fries or better yet, just plain salted), have maybe moved into the more complex world of barbeque sauce in recent years just to switch things up a bit, but have never really sat down to think exclusively about ketchup. It is just ketchup after all. And I can honestly say I never buy ketchup for at-home use. But then Malcolm Gladwell can really get you thinking about things that you wouldn’t normally spend more than a minute (if even that) contemplating otherwise.

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I bought a copy of his book, What the Dog Saw, from a second hand bookstore a while back and have dipped into it on occasion, randomly reading one of his many essays originally seen in The New Yorker.

In his essay titled ‘The Ketchup Conundrum’ he states how mustard now comes in dozens of varieties and asks why ketchup has stayed the same. He tells the story of Grey Poupon mustard and how it managed to claim a large segment of the market from French’s through clever advertising, thereby opening the door to variety in the mustard market.

Photo: Amazon.com

He then tells us about Jim Wigon, an entrepreneur peddling his World’s Best Ketchup brand, hoping to achieve what Grey Poupon did. His aim was to build a better ketchup and he attempted to do so with six different flavours. Sounds good in theory, not so hot in practice.

Gladwell then gives us some background information in the form of a food tester and market researcher called Howard Moskowitz. Moskowitz conducted some ground-breaking research for the food industry back in the 70s. When working with Pepsi and Campbell’s, he discovered ‘the plural nature of perfection’. By this he meant that there was no one perfect spaghetti sauce, for example, that would appeal to everyone. Diversification was the answer, a way to cater to different tastes. This might not sound particularly ground-breaking to you and I today, but back then, the food industry worked around the idea that there was a single product that tasted perfect.

Another thing that Gladwell talks about that I found particularly interesting was that information collected from regular focus groups where consumers are asked what it is they want from a particular type of product, is not to be trusted: ‘Moskowitz does not believe that consumers[…]know what they desire if what they desire does not yet exist.’ Apparently our minds are limited and we have to be told what we like, or maybe we’re just dishonest. Gladwell illustrates this idea with a very good coffee example in the video I’ve posted below.

Heinz

So when we come back to Wigon and his World’s Best, we see that he was ultimately exercising the Moskowitz theory but not selling enough to make even a marginal difference. World’s Best is one of dozens of gourmet ketchup brands that struggle. Yet Heinz Tomato Ketchup continues to grow year after year, never really tampering with their formula or bothering to experiment much (I’m not going to go into depth about taste perception: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami because that’ll prove to be rather lengthy). I found these two taste tests that were conducted between American ketchup brands and interestingly, Hunt’s  and America’s Choice came out on top. Never tried Hunt’s so can’t really comment, but they still trail way behind Heinz in terms of market share. What is it about ketchup that makes it an exception to the Moskowitz rule that we now see being used for pretty much everything that can be bought in a supermarket? 

I don’t know how long ago this article was written, but thought, surely things have changed now. Actually, I’ve just checked, it was 2004, and I’d like to think that consumers are now more sophisticated and more willing to experiment with different flavours etc. The emphasis on food has changed; it plays a much bigger part in our lives than it used to. The abundance of cooking shows and different dining experiences have turned every John and Jane Smith into a food critic. Food has become an entirely sophisticated affair and people are more discerning.

I’m not quite sure when this shift occurred, but I remember something a friend of mine was telling me earlier this year. She was saying how her priorities had changed quite a bit in recent years. She’ll go to a restaurant and not think twice about spending £30 on a meal, but a few minutes later, she’ll find herself in a clothing store and spend almost half an hour deliberating on whether to spend £10 on a top before ultimately deciding it wasn’t worth it. And as she was saying this, I realised how true this was for me too. I’d mindlessly spend £20 on a gourmet burger and sides (served with a slightly advanced ketchup, I’m sure, haha), and then agonise over a £4 necklace. Food has become more important to us. No more shopaholics, but foodaholics. I realise that there are still a very large number of people out there with a shopping problem, but I’d like to think that the Food Phenomenon is slowly catching up.

Photo: Julia Bainbridge, bonappetit.com

So what was my point again? Yes, the ketchup. To introduce an element of luxury to the most unsuspecting things has become very common now. The most basic food items have been spruced up and so ketchup must follow. And it has. Sort of. This obviously meant that I had to now find out what ketchup flavours were out there. Not an awful lot of variation from Heinz in the UK (they have chili/fiery chili, Indian spices, and balsamic vinegar) and no other brands came up when I Googled ‘gourmet ketchup’. So it seems when push comes to shove, people will always opt for plain old ketchup, plain old Heinz. But WHY??

The essay concludes by quoting Moskowitz: “I guess ketchup is ketchup.” Do you agree? Like coke is coke (Pepsi is just NOT the same, do not even get me started!)? And can you think of anymore ketchup flavours that have made it into the mainstream?

If you’d rather listen to Malcolm talking about some of these ideas, I found this video equivalent on Ted.com. He’s a really engaging speaker.

So it’s nice to occasionally stray from fiction. And it turns out you don’t even need to buy the book because the article can be found on his website.

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77 responses

  1. Love Gladwell — now you’ve reminded me that I need to download/purchase the book you mentioned above, because it’s one I HAVEN’T yet read…

    And nope, Coke and Pepsi aren’t even close to the same thing. Yet Coke has managed to become the moniker for all-things-sugary-soda…

    Even though Heinz has managed to corner the market, it’s really too bad Heinz is just Heinz — not the brand name of all-things-ketchup. Or is it catsup? Whatever… 😉

    • Oh I’m on the other side then , because this is the first of his books that I HAVE actually read. I hear Tipping Point and Blink are supposed to be really good…

      And I guess you’re right about Heinz, I can’t remember the last time I said ‘Do you have any Heinz?’; it’s just ketchup. Or catsup.

  2. I read an article about this and thought it was awfully flip. There’s shedloads of different kinds of ketchups, only they aren’t called “ketchup.” Bazillions of pasta sauces, fish sauces, barbecue sauces, steak and meat sauces … all consisting of a tomato-based vaguely sweet-savory sauce with some sort of unique spice that Gladwell said that no one supposedly wants. People even like to convey them to their mouths with fries or other forms of starch. They just aren’t called “ketchup.”

    • I don’t think Gladwell is denying that other sauces exist, his point is that they can’t compete with Heinz. But the focus here is not on other sauces, whether they be used in the style of a condiment or not, it’s specifically on tomato ketchup. These other types of sauces compete in a different market, even if the way in which the consumer decides to ultimately use it as a ketchup substitute.

    • You make a fine semantic point here. Mustard is different from ketchup in that it is made from mustard and called mustard. Ketchup is made from tomatoes and called ketchup. If it was called tomato, would every tomato based sauce be called “tomato” and Heinz Tomato wouldn’t seem like such a world-beater? Maybe. Would their market share still outpace say French’s Yellow Mustard? Or do certain foodstuffs simply lend themselves to endless variation, while some don’t?

  3. Clicked on your article because I’ve heard of Gladwell, even though I haven’t read any of his books yet. I realized midway through that you were from the UK (I’m in the US) so this whole ketchup conundrum seems to be an international issue. Very weird. I’ll definitely be paying attention to any ketchup transitions over the next decade. (and congratulations on the FP!)

    • Thank you!
      Well this was my first Gladwell book, and I like his style. Very accessible. And I like how you say ketchup transitions like it’s a top secret government operation, haha 🙂 But yes, do keep an eye out, and report back with your findings.

  4. I think that ketchup has stayed the same because of picky little kids. I don’t know about you guys, but I personally ate a lot more ketchup when I was a kid than I do now, and in general I see a lot more kids eating it than adults. Maybe it’s the sweetness? But kids who are picky eaters love things that they’re familiar with, not new flavors, and definitely not gourmet.

    Just a theory.

    • It’s funny you mention that, you’re definitely on the right track. Actually I think you’ve pretty much got it. It does say somewhere in the article that kids consume 60% more ketchup than adults and how they shrink from new tastes at the age of like 2 or 3. So dousing food in ketchup takes things back to the familiar. Interesting stuff.

      And Heinz also carried out some market research that resulted in them producing the EZ squirt plastic bottles. This meant that kids had more control over how much ketchup they were eating, and ultimately landed up consuming more as a result of not having a parent doling out a small amount from a glass bottle they weren’t allowed to touch.

      Thanks for commenting!

  5. Nice post. I’ve read “what the dog saw” and love it. I like the moskowitz rule that he talks about: I think it holds true now more than ever, what with companies like Apple dazzling us with devices and features no one ever thought they desired, but couldn’t not want them once released. Same goes for social platforms like Twitter, Pinterest. Giving people what they didn’t expect helps sometimes, I guess.

    Congrats on being freshly pressed!

    • Thank you!
      You’re so right though. I’m a slow adaptor when it comes to new things, and I remember a few years ago not understanding why everyone was all over the whole smart phone thing. I strongly believed that that a regular mobile phone was all I’d ever need. I grudgingly switched over 2 years ago, and I honestly do not know where I’d be without my smart phone today (or even Pinterest that I only started using a week ago). But does that just mean that we’re fickle?

  6. I tried the green ketchup put out for a while by Heinz…but it didn’t “taste the same”. Of course, my Mom and Dad used to can mincemeat using green tomatoes, so maybe that had something to do with it. Great article. We do have “spicy” ketchup on this side of the pond and it apparently sells. Maybe I should follow up with a poem or two about ketchup…at ourpoetrycorner.wordpress.com…! Come visit us and see!

    • I read about the green and purple ketchup…didn’t sell very well though. Wonder why? Maybe, like you said, the colouring altered the taste.

      I’ve just gone on to your website, I thought you were kidding about the poem!! That was quick! My blog is honoured to have a poem about your favourite ‘food group’ dedicated to it. Thank you!

      If anybody wants to read a quick poem about the wonderful world of ketchup, check out ourpoetrycorner.wordpress.com

  7. At my mothers table there is only ketchup not sauce not BBQ nothing else if you want a condiment that’s it. Coke is coke, I’ll blind taste test any day. Nice post good read while having smoko at work.

  8. Somehow Heinz cornered the restaurant market & I’m sure that explains their larger market share generally. I’ve never seen non-Heinz in a restaurant! As for me, I prefer Hunts; it tastes richer/better to me. Re Gladwell: he’s a wonderful writer and great observer. I especially liked his book “Blink.”

    • I haven’t tried Hunt’s but maybe next time I’m in America, I will. And as for restaurants, I’ve never paid that much attention but I thought it was just the big fast food chains like McDonald’s that did Heinz….

  9. I often thought about that too — why no gourmet ketchup? The only answer I can come up with is our fear of change and risk. I use mustard — mostly spicy — on hot dogs, deli meat, chicken, and to add some spice to dressings. Most people, I assume, stick with mustard on a hot dog, a cheap roll of meat you wouldn’t want to see made. The hamburger, oh the hamburger. It can be one of those tasteless, flat fried McDonald’s, or a fine fire-grilled kobe beef from your favorite pub. Now, I ask you, you get one shot. Do you risk another brand ketchup and ruin your $12 burger, or do you go with what you know. Pass the Heinz, please.

    • Oooh decisions. I’d like to think that if I’m spending a little bit of money for the burger, then the restaurant will have a decent ketchup. Not a random brand, but probably one that was made in-house with a little bit of texture to it that’s probably quite yummy. No? I fear my comments are wasted, you sound like a Heinz man 🙂

      • Not true. I’d love it if I had a choice of a better ketchup. Imagine, real chunks of tomato, a little less sugar and salt, maybe a little kick to it with some kind of hot pepper. As you bite into that medium-rare, the blood oozes out onto you chin while your taste
        buds scream, “FINALLY, WE’RE GETTIN’ SOME ACTION HERE!” Oh no, I could do without Heinz if there were a good alternative.

  10. Great info and very good “food” for thought (see what I did there?). I read Gladwell’s book “Outliers” a few years ago in book club and found it quite fascinating. I’d recommend it if you’re interested in his stuff in general.

    Here in Los Angeles every Tom, Dick, and Harry restaurateur has a “house-made” ketchup. I’m not a huge fan of the stuff (although I did love it as a kid), and never buy it to keep at home. I’m noticing that, inevitably, these spin-offs always end up tasting just like Heinz but with maybe a bit more vinegar.

    With Heinz I think the bottle is half the success. People just love banging on that “57.”

    • I hadn’t heard of ‘Outliers’, will definitely check it out. There are a lot of in-house ketchups available in London restaurants too, but I like that they experiment (and charge you accordingly). But do people still buy the glass bottle? I can’t imagine why people wouldn’t stick to the plastic – a lot less effort required.

      • I think “Outliers” will appeal to you if you’re the sort of person who finds quirky stats and figures interesting. I *think* that you are, like me, since you posted this. I’d definitely check it out.

        I think people are still buying the glass bottles. Adults, anyway. It has a sort of charm, like those old glass coke bottles. I think people feel “hip” when they use it. And, like I said, there are 32 theories on the best way to get the ketchup out of those bottles, which adds to the fun.

  11. Sold – NEED a copy of this book, what an interesting blog, but of course I do have an interest in all things foodie! I am going to be making home made baked beans this weekend, will do a comparison with heinz baked beans!!! 🙂

    • Thank you! Didn’t even occur to me that you could make baked beans at home. Power to you! I don’t think I could distinguish between different beans though.

  12. Gladwell certainly provokes thought! I read my first book of his recently and it turned me upside down! And no, don’t even try to trick me with a Pepsi. Coke wins everytime, and yes, I actually can distinguish! 😀 Great post.

    • You know when you’re ordering and ask for coke and the waiter’s like ‘We have Pepsi.’ I’m like ‘Err, I don’t recall asking for Pepsi.’ It’s like ordering orange juice and being offered Fanta. Not the same. I’d rather have water than compromise with a Pepsi.

  13. I didn’t even notice this about myself until you described your friend and her eating versus shopping habits, but I’m such a cheapo when it comes to clothing and will spend anything (within reason) on good food. I know there’s tons of other people like this, too. Interesting…

    • I know! When she first told me it was like this epiphany. I don’t understand why I do it though, because at least clothes are tangible. I don’t have anything to show for always eating out. Aside from an expanding waistline maybe, haha.

  14. Heinz may have the market name but do they have the market share? I bet the ketchup (not catsup please. What is that?, minced cats? eww) that you get in the little container next to your £30 burger meal in Jamie’s isn’t Heinz at all. It’s probably catering ketchup, made the same way but in bulk.
    Tesco now have their own range of ketchups, including some alternative varieties and, given their share of the overall food market, I wouldn’t be surprised if their own ketchup outsold Heinz, simply on cost.
    Now I feel a blind taste test experiment on my friends coming on !!

    • Definitely worth a look. There’s a link in my post to his website, all the essays from the book are there…so technically don’t need to buy it. Unless you want it on your shelf of course.

  15. This is really interesting! We tried to get our alternative ketchup (Holy Cow! sauces) into supermarkets for years before Asda and Sainsburys gave us a chance here in the UK! Part of the problem is the relationship supermarkets have to giant brands like Heinz. Sneaking a little shelf space from them is really hard work because of the volumes they shift. Small fish like us struggle against that because we would never be able to compete with their volumes and pricing. Which means consumers can miss out on innovation and quality! Good news is that there is an opening up slowly to the idea that table sauces can be different to ketchup (even “ethnic”) but stand in the same isle as mainstream sauces as we’ve done. It’s getting there – we have more than 130,000 people following us on twitter… One small step for ketchup 🙂

    • Holy Cow! I admittedly had to Google you, but I’ve bought your stuff before. It was the Hot Lime sauce, it was very good 🙂 I’m sure supermarkets have a part to play in all this, but to an extent, their hands are tied when dealing with big brands. How come Tesco didn’t take you on? I know a lot of supermarkets now have a ‘World Food’ or “ethnic” aisle but I wonder how well the products sell. I always imagined that (like myself) when people want something ‘ethnic’, they go to a local shop rather than Tesco or whatever.

      Good luck with Holy Cow. As I said, I think people are becoming more experimental with food (although price will always play a big part in many decisions to purchase), so for your sake I hope they start deviating from ketchup soon!

      • Thank you so much for trying us! Glad you liked the Goan Hot Lime 🙂 The relationship between the big brands and supermarkets is a tough nut to crack (bottle to open?) for sure. We’re knocking on those doors, so fingers crossed, but for a slot on the shelves taken by a small sauce like Holy Cow!, a big brand has to make way – which is a risk for supermarkets given our much smaller reach to spread the Holy Cow! word. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but hoping that we’ll reach a “Tipping Point” for alternative ketchups soon in the ethnic and mainstream markets.. Great food blog too btw, and thank you for an interesting read.

  16. I saw Gladwell speak a number of years ago on Book TV and found him entertaining, thoughtful and interesting. I rarely buy hardback books but have all four of his. I’ve had at least on person downplay him since he doesn’t have PhD ad nauseum after his name; whtever. His story of hair coloring is also fascinating. I’m a believer in the philsophy of “I don’t know what I want it’s given to me.” I know what I don’t want, not necessarily what I do want. Congrats on fresh press.

    • Not that I know of. From what I understand, his other books are focused on a specific subject matter but are anecdotal so he dedicates different chapters to different examples if that makes sense.

  17. Hello,
    Kelloggs Cornflakes retain a healthy share of the cereal market despite being more expensive than the just-as-good supermarket ‘own brand’ cornflakes. It’s about the power of the brand.

    That the quality of the product itself isn’t sacrosanct can be illustrated by a certain chocolate bar, namely Cadbury’s milk chocoltate offering. Munching on this a few time when in India I noticed it wasn’t quite as I imagined, and not as good. They must have altered the recipe to suit local tastes, though I wonder how they work out what people’s taste actually is.

    Jasper

    • You’re right, it’s obviously the strength of the brand that ensures a strong customer base, although I have no problem buying ‘own brand’ cereal (like you said, it’s virtually the same thing but cheaper).

      But it’s funny you say that about Cadbury, because I wouldn’t have thought something like chocolate would be altered to suit different markets. I thought it was essentially standardised, not adjusted, because that would be what makes it distinctive.

  18. Great blog combining two of my passions – ketchup and marketing!
    Here’s what I think happens with ketchup – the majority of people living today grew up with one type, most likely Heinz, and whenever a substitute is used, the food it is applied to tastes “off”. Not necessarily bad but different and that scares off customers. So people develop the loyalty to the product that makes their food taste like it is supposed to taste. It’s less about the ketchup and more about the other food.

    I also wonder whether the taste tests were performed straight (ie here’s a teaspoon of ketchup) vs with food that ketchup is associated with (fries or hamburger) vs some nondescript food chosen specifically not to interfere with the taste of the ketchup (like a soda cracker). Ketchup is not meant to stand alone so if it is tasted alone, the comparison is skewed. Respondents start looking for different values rather than it’s ability to coat a french fry, and keep it tasting “normal”.

    Mayonnaise, at least in the US is similar. For health reasons people have adopted low fat or olive oil based, but that is a small number. Most people expect their mayonnaise that they keep in a jar in their kitchen to have a specific density and flavor. Sure chefs make gourmet mayo to adorn restaurant food but that is considered different than “real” mayonnaise.

    I wrote a blog about my ketchup passion a while ago that I will share here. It includes a “psychological” test that someone created that determines what type of person you are based on your preferred method of ketchup application, and that is far more importance than I am willing to give the product. http://brain4rent.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/must-i-friend-my-ketchup/

    • Words that I never thought I’d hear being said together: ketchup and passion.
      You’re right about people’s primary concern being about how their food ‘should’ taste as opposed to the isolated taste of the ketchup in question. But I can’t properly comment because I don’t eat it enough for me to feel cheated if a different brand were to be served.

      But with regards to the tests, from what I recall, they were indeed done with fries and Heinz didn’t win. They did quite badly in a taste test conducted here in the UK as well :-s (there’s a link somewhere in the comments for the article on this).

      I read your ketchup post, it’s really interesting! You’re a serious Heinz girl 🙂 But why? And you seem appalled by the idea of balsamic vinegar flavoured ketchup, haha. Now THAT would be a reason for me to purchase ketchup for at-home use.

      Oh and thanks for the heads up on the whole ‘marrying’ ketchup thing.

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  20. Loved reading this article and all of the thought-provoking comments.

    I tend to agree with those above (as well as the statistics) that ketchup is a kid’s condiment, used too often to drown out the blandness of American (for me, at least)/poorly prepared food . I only use it if and when it’s needed on burgers and fries that are under-seasoned (my favorite fries are fresh and peppered to the max!).

    For those who are mustard fans, and love a bit of the ridiculous, check out this Michael Ian Black (American comedian/blogger) article, whose opining on mustard harkens to the one-sidedness of mass culinary tastes and markets.

    • I do agree with you about the times when I tend to use ketchup (plain salted fries are just amazing, don’t know about the whole pepper thing though!). I think there are a lot more interesting sauces out there if you need something to dip your non fast food in.

  21. Pingback: 2012-08-31: Fabulous Friday Finds « surviving the food allergy apocalypse

  22. It’s strange how we can have so many consumer choices, yet always come back to the same thing. I think ketchup is primarily eaten by little kids and so the taste (sweet!) really appeals to them. No need to change your recipe when you’ve got something that appeals to generations.
    great post!
    cheers,
    iRuniBreathe

  23. ugh my cousins would put ketchup on EVERYTHING! and I think its funny, when you are a child, you only lick the ketchup off of the bun and then and only then do you make the decision to eat the rest of the hotdog/burger! lol! great post

  24. Pingback: Of Malcolm Gladwell, the Mystery of Mustard, and the Singular Reign of Ketchup. « Live, Laugh, Love

  25. I love Malcolm Gladwell! He’s such a gifted writer. Yes, he really does make you think about insignificant things in a whole new way — this ketchup story was one of them! I’m now super addicted to everything he has to say. Finished What The Dog Saw weeks ago and am now reading Tipping Point. Plan to read Outliers and Blink too! 🙂

  26. Sheesh, sometimes we’re just so analytical! All this talk about ketchup vs. mustard… I could sure use a burger. Thanks for the post and for the Malcolm Gladwell video. I have his “Outliers” audiobook and found it fascinating, so it’s great to hear even more. Take care.

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  28. Pingback: 2012-08-31: Fabulous Friday Finds | surviving the food allergy apocalypse

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