Brands Continue to Keep It 'Real,' but for How Long?

Hellmann's, Wendy's and Alpo Just a Few Examples of Current Marketing Real-ity

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- There's still nothing like the real thing. Or so say food marketers looking to stand out in the mass-produced herd. What really is "real" could eventually be for the government to determine. In the meantime, real people drink Caribou, real dogs eat Alpo, real sandwiches have Hellmann's and Canada Dry ginger ale is made with real ginger. Don't bother taking notes, because Wendy's says "You know when it's real" anyway.

Advertised "real" foods, products, services and even experiences aren't new, but they're on the rise. Beef as "real food for real people" is an artifact of the 1980s. Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise launched the "It's time for real" campaign in 2007, from creative agency Ogilvy & Mather, New York. But as consumers become increasingly conscientious about what's in their food, marketers are working to portray their products as minimally processed, and a handful of "real" campaigns have been launched in recent months.

"To some consumers, 'real and natural' translates to better than 'processed' or 'not real,'" said Darren Tristano, executive VP-Technomic, a Chicago food-industry consultancy. "That's what they're trying to appeal to. That consumer wants things that are natural, and, in a way, that translates into 'homemade,' and other words that imply the same thing."

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Canada Dry's campaign from JWT, Toronto, extols the use of "real ginger," in contrast to its competitors. Wendy's campaign from agency Kaplan Thaler Group focuses on the chain's use of fresh rather than frozen meat, comparing competitors' burgers to hockey pucks. Caribou Coffee launched its first TV campaign, from agency Colle & McVoy, this fall. The chain promise "real" chocolate in its mochas, and pokes fun at Starbucks' clientele, by way of plastic dolls that don't patronize Caribou because, they say, "We're not real."

These tactics shouldn't be surprising, as the food industry has been rocked with a series of recalls in nuts, and increasing skepticism about how meat and dairy are treated on the way to the grocery store. Using the word "real," Mr. Tristano said, appeals to consumers interested in free-range and natural products, while sidestepping certifications associated with regulated terms such as "organic."

But today's loophole could be tomorrow's regulation, said Supermarket Guru's Phil Lempert. "Do I think ['real' is] powerful? Yes," he said. "Do I think that the next phase is the government will actually take a look and try to clarify what should be real and what shouldn't be real? Yes." Mr. Lempert added that the Obama administration is "much more aggressive than we've seen in a long time," and the more marketers that use "real" to circumnavigate regulation, "it's more likely the government will step in."

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In fact, "real" claims in advertising may have risen to the level of parody. Alpo's print campaign from Fallon, Minneapolis, proclaims, "Real dogs eat meat." In it, a dog named Al, calls for an end to dogs in strollers and designer dog foods. "Time to get back to where mud is for tracking. Squirrels are for chasing. And bowls are for the meaty goodness of 100% complete and balanced Alpo."

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