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.
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.
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.
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.
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.