Sea Salting

Does the increased attention to 'real' foods reflect true consumer demand?

Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

I came up with a new term last night. Sea salting (verb): When food companies use a trendy ingredient or term to give their food a natural/healthy halo. See: Wendy's natural-cut french fries with sea salt, or McDonald's real-fruit smoothies.

I don't question the act at all, but I do wonder if customers care.

[image-nocss]Let's back up. I first began thinking about this when news of the Taco Bell lawsuit came out. In January, an Alabama law firm filed suit against Taco Bell, claiming the chain falsely advertises its beef as, well, beef. It alleges the meat contains so many binders and fillers that, according to lab tests, the mixture contains less than 35% beef.

Taco Bell fought back first with full-page ads in prominent newspapers. "Thank you for suing us," read the copy. "The claims made against Taco Bell and our seasoned beef are absolutely false," it continued, going on to list exactly what is in the beef. (Click here to read the message.)

Then, at the beginning of March, Taco Bell rolled out a TV campaign with real employees firmly advocating the quality of the product. They cheerfully encourage viewers to try it for themselves with a special 88-cent Crunchwrap Supreme offer (the 88 being a playful nod to what the company says is the actual percentage of beef in its beef filling).

All this reminded me of Domino's "mea culpa" campaign that started in late 2009. It took the humble, self-deprecating route to consumer acceptanceand a 11.7% increase in U.S. same-store sales in third-quarter 2010by admitting its pizza stinks, but that it was doing something about it.

Taco Bell, for its part, is standing defiantly behind the existing quality of its product. Some advertising experts have faulted Taco Bell for not being more like Domino's, arguing that if its strategy backfires, it'll be harder to recover than it would have been for Domino's. That may be true, but I don't think the company had much choice because its hand was forced by the lawsuit.

So, back to sea salting. Wendy's, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Domino's. All this points to an increased interest among consumers in knowing what they're putting into their bodiesright?

Take a look at more straightforward definitions of healthy, such as low-fat, low-calorie or low-sodium. Consumer research shows that while the scale is tipping slightly, at the end of the day consumers still talk thin and eat fat.

Can the same be said about "real" and natural ingredients as low-calorie and low-fat foods?

Well, I know lately I've been buying many more organic products at the grocery store, especially dairy and produce. But I also love Crunchwrap Supremes and will blissfully eat one in my car while my organic groceries sit in the trunk.

Brands play very specific roles in our lives. They satisfy different needs at different times. The loyal Taco Bell customer isn't loyal because of its ingredient list, but rather because the food tastes good and is priced right. Conversely, the person freaked out by this Taco Bell crisis probably wasn't a Taco Bell customer in the first place.

Do I buy fancy tins of sea salt from specialty retailers? Yes, but only if it is high-quality. Would I eat sea-salt french fries from a QSR? Sure, but only if they taste good.

What role does your brand or product play for consumers? Is it an indulgence, a convenience, healthy nourishment? Given that role, how could you defend yourself in a situation like Taco Bell's? E-mail your thoughts to me at

Abbie Westra, CSP/Winsight By Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP
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