Nouveau Cuisine

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Quaker Oats' ad campaign plays up the changing American palate.

Potatoes or Stove Top Stuffing? At one time, the latter effectively locked in the dinner plans of any number of schnoring, would-be child stars. In the real world, on Stove Top's premier day - Thanksgiving - we have our pick of any number of savory side dishes, allowing us to have our potatoes and eat our stuffing, while bobsledding toward a coma in front of a Vikings game. Throughout the rest of the year, however, with the exception of fries, most of us don't even bother with sides anymore.

This, then, is a curious time for Quaker Oats to be selling us couscous instead of potatoes. Earlier this year, the company ramped up a Rockwellian campaign under its Near East brand, tendering rolling Americana vistas - ostensibly Idaho - and folksy, workaday Idahoans increasingly going for couscous on the side of their entrees. This tongue-in-cheek scenario marks the first and broadest effort by any marketer to put couscous onto the plates of mainstream America. To first see the spot, it seems an odd sell, and yet the creative tack may pave Quaker's way out of the realm of niche ethnic cuisine and onto an American palate more amenable to the new and offbeat.

This obviously poses one of those cultural crossover issues - one in a history of quiet points when something alien essays into the territory of the familiar, in both restaurants and cupboards. Ruling WASP classes once derided natives of the Northern Mediterranean as "garlic eaters," and even in the 1970s, advertisements for spaghetti and spaghetti sauce proffered gross ethnic stereotypes seemingly cast from a pool of Godfather extras. Now, the idea of pasta as an alien thing, is as foreign as spices other than salt and pepper once were to WASPs, with some 55 percent of Americans frequently eating Italian cuisine, according to the National Restaurant Association.

"People's taste palates are changing," says Elizabeth Marshall, assistant brand manager for Near East. "For example, they're willing to try more spicy foods. Not that couscous is necessarily spicy, but it's an indication of a more general sort of openness about food."

Ethnic cuisine typically moves into the proverbial melting pot by way of restaurants, which are varied and diverse, just like immigrant enclaves in major cities. And the sheer ethnic multiplicity in recent decades has led to a broad mainstream shift in consumer interest in ethnic foods, reports agricultural research and consulting firm Promar International. Overall sales in the $709 billion grocery and retail food category are expected to grow by just 2 percent a year over the next eight years, according to a Promar study. Ethnic food sales - currently at $50 billion - are expected to rise to $75 billion by 2008. The mainstream consumer will account for some 75 percent of that growth - not core minority communities, the study concludes. And, Dr. A. Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends and Solutions, posits that about a third of all restaurant patrons go out looking for new tastes.

"Just look at the mobility of the population; the ethnic diversity of the population," says Andre Williamson, senior analyst at Promar. "It's tremendous compared to what it was 20 years ago. Sure, it's a nation of immigrants, but immigrants for a long time were largely European. Now they're from everywhere. And among the consumers who've come up [accustomed to] this diversity, there's a broader acceptance of differences, and a willingness to seek them out, and not just in food."

All that would seem to set up a welcoming environment for Near East, but Sloan adds a caveat on this trend. In terms of new cuisine, we often tend to think of the young, experimenting yuppie couples trying out new dishes while at home or dining out. But still, that's a far cry from Peoria. "Seventy-five percent of people are looking for new things, but familiar at the same time," says Sloan. "These people are armchair travelers, not jet setters. So while they're open to new things, the key is to offer a familiar flavor cue with a twist. And that twist has to be subtle for mass-market America. Look at flavored pastas out now, or Campbell's putting basil and oregano in their standard tomato soup. If you want to bring consumers to new products, you've got to give them something they understand and build on it."

Couscous has gained some buzz in restaurants in recent years, but has remained on the cusp between oddball and mainstream, says Sloan. Quaker hopes to push it over the hump, but to do so specifically by avoiding couscous' point of origin. It's no coincidence that Near East commercials, which were tested in select markets last year, and broadened to 14 cities this year, eschew ethnic endorsements or identification, for all-American imagery. "In our market-potential study, couscous was termed a Mediterranean type of dish, and we thought that was very limiting," says Marshall, Near East's assistant brand manager. "And we don't plan to position it as such."

The company is taking a cautious approach - not trying to jump in feet first. Its initial rollout of the campaign has focused primarily in the East, plus San Francisco - markets more penetrated by Middle Eastern influence - in delis, restaurants, et al. While Near East's sister brand, Rice-A-Roni occupies a more Peoria-friendly position among family consumers, "ours is an entirely different consumer," says Marshall. "Our consumers have an income of $60,000-plus, and are usually higher-educated women . . . typically more adventurous, more risk-taking. We're evenly split among singles and families, but families typically with teens. Once kids get to a certain age, they're willing to try different things. It's not the same crazy juggling just to make the kids happy that the younger mom has to deal with."

In television markets, the company saw 50 percent jumps in sales during the ad run, and 35 percent residual jumps in the three months after. Although Near East is taking on the hardworking potato creatively, it may further benefit from next year's movement of media dollars to print and in-store merchandising. In those media, Quaker can focus on painting couscous more in the context of specific recipes, which could be key to matching up with the broader consumer food-preparation trend among single consumers and moms: the "big bowl" meal. According to Sloan, some 60 percent of meals prepared at home go without a side dish. These are the "all-in" meals - casseroles, rice dishes, and stews - that spare the home chef both preparation details and cleanup time, and also, per Sloan's aforementioned "familiar-with-a-twist" notion, allow consumers to get creative with conventional foods.

With a Near East recipe program, Quaker can jump off this year's image play to establish Near East as more of a component of similar meal solutions. "They're on the money," says Promar's Williamson. "There are a lot of features of Mediterranean cuisine offered in terms of lifestyle fits - and from a perceived health standpoint. They're [probably] thinking, `If we can give this a shove, we can own the category.'"

In a few years, Near East might get tossed into the Corelle-wear and shoved in the microwave with everything else left in the fridge once the set-piece anomaly of Thanksgiving has passed.

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