Veggie Delight

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More Americans have developed a taste for healthier foods. Did Morningstar Farms define its consumer target too narrowly?

Pondering a tempeh burger, Anne Merkel, protagonist of Kyle Baker's 1990 graphic novel, Why I Hate Saturn, muses: "Why do vegetarians spend so much time trying to make vegetables taste like meat? Do monks buy a lot of inflatable sex dolls?"

We laugh at vegetarians because, at least on their extreme fringe, they won't shut up. As much as we should applaud pie-assaults on public officials, the missionary Puritanism of veggie die-hards tends to occlude wholly plausible notions that the consumption of more - if not only - dirt-borne food products will actually help us to live healthier. With that, middle-class folks have, for years, looked upon their local organic and health food stores as hippie enclaves, something for a counter-cultural niche, not workaday family diets.

That's begun to change, due in no small part to the inroads of better-for-you food products in more mainstream retail outlets, buoyed in some cases by new, mega-corporate parents and a flurry of national marketing campaigns in recent years. For example, Gardenburger's $14 million advertising gambit two years ago, raised the profile of veggie patties, giving that company a 76 percent jump in sales for 1998 and bolstering revenues for the category. So we might wonder why, with a new campaign for its Morningstar Farms vegetarian patty products, Kellogg Co. has backslid to the earthy-crunchy, counter-culture stereotype of the category's progenitors.

The campaign's print schedule in such magazines as Family Circle, Working Mother, Parenting, Self, and Cooking Light reveals an adult female/mom target that makes sense. Sales of vegetarian foods - overall, not just veggie patties - have increased an average of 37 percent per year over the last five years, versus the 1 percent to 2 percent in overall grocery sales - though obviously off a much smaller base. (And, its buyers skew heavily female.) According to a January survey for Kellogg conducted by Bruskin/Goldring Research, 30 percent of Americans would prefer a veggie burger option at barbecues this summer, almost twice those who say they were offered them at last summer's fetes (17 percent).

But to look at the Morningstar ads, one wonders if Kellogg's first splash with the brand buying last year is undershooting its mark: The Brady Bunch font, liberal use of the word "groovy" and the tagline "Far Out Flavor," all over a tie-dye-ish green field. One ad avers "Mellow Out," with the word "is" inserted. Though a Kellogg spokeswoman would not discuss the genesis of the creative work, calling such information proprietary, we know enough not to take this period stereotyping too seriously. Kellogg is going for irony here, riding a broader obsession with the ugly aesthetic of the 1970s. But given the product and its potential target, standardized veggie-head imagery may do more harm than good for the campaign.

The broader consumer target for healthier foods, says Robert Posten, managing partner at Icon & Landis, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, has entered a new phase in how they choose their purchases. They're eschewing outright health for what he calls healthfulness, a movement away from hardcore "tree-bark" and "seaweed," as well as big-banner low-fat and low-cal claims, in favor of foods that simply taste good and happen to sate dietary concerns. It's a psychographic middle-position, he asserts, that has people saying, "If someone tells me it tastes really, really good, it won't be healthy, and vice versa."

This poses a problem in drawing a direct correlation with the earthy root of the product. "This sort of 1970s retro imagery, regardless of the taste claims, is still going to give you a more limited appeal," Posten says. "They've anchored it back in the `peace, love, baby' mindset that makes it just seem like one of these organic, limited-market type of products."

As Posten posits, a lot more people are willing to eat healthy given a better-targeted hook. According to a recent survey on organic food purchasers - a demo paralleling the growing veggie-curious - by The Hartman Group, in Bellevue, Washington, a solid one-third of Americans have used organic products within the last three months, while 60 percent are willing to try such fare. Less than 10 percent said they would never eat organic foods, down from 35 percent asked a similar question in 1997. Among heavy buyers, Hartman found that 50 percent were female with households of $30,000 and under, living without a spouse, but with a child and/or another relative. Of lighter users, half rang in as husband-wife households with incomes of $50,000 or more, and purchasers of higher-end gourmet organic items, most often through regular grocery channels.

This mainstreaming process finds its roots in a trend spurring so many product categories these days: Distrust of the HMO system has inspired more proactive, preventative lifestyles. That suggests a more middle-class, than politically activist bent to such buyers, says Lisa Demerit, executive vice president at The Hartman Group. "Seven, eight years ago, people bought organic to look out for the environment," she says. "Now they're doing it as `good for me, my family, my kids,' even among women who don't have a lot of money. A decade ago they went out of their way to get to the health food store. Today, it's convenient, with over 50 percent of organic food sales taking place in grocery stores."

The trade-off for competitor Gardenburger's "coup" of 1998 was that, unable to sustain the same level of spending the next year, its sales plummeted by $60 million. The lesson: In this still amorphous category, brand distinctions aren't easily established; and it's even tougher if you're playing the same old hippie card.

"This leads directly to the fact that people have no brand awareness when it comes to these types of foods," says Demerit. "Consumers are making brand connections with better-for-you foods not by the products themselves, but by where they shop. Places like Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Garden of Eden, have integrated themselves as components of consumer lifestyles, which is such a big part of what a brand is these days. That suggests these companies selling their products in supermarkets have a long way to go."

Sidney Lumet movies and early Springsteen records aside, let's just all agree to declare a moratorium on the decade. Starting now.

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