What happens when you strip food of the branding and just rely on taste?
Restaurant critic Jay Rayner finds that once products are naked of all that crafty packaging, "expensive" doesn’t always mean "best"
Watching blocks of cheddar cheese glide around the whizzy conveyor belt for Channel 4’s new food review show, Tried and Tasted: the Ultimate Shopping List, I was reminded of a terrifying incident involving my then two-year-old son. We were in a kids’ playground on a hot summer’s day and, when my back was turned, he decided to take off all his clothes, as many of the other children already had. I turned and he had vanished. The fact is that, without their clothing, one blond two-year old lad looks much like another.
The same applies to those cheddars. Take them out of the carefully designed wrappers, the ones with which we are all familiar from the supermarkets, and telling them apart visually becomes extremely tricky. This, of course, is the point of the show. Under the leadership of our head judge, the Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr, we professional tasters – myself, London restaurant manager and star of First Dates Fred Sirieix, baker and deli owner Stacie Stewart and TV presenter Lucy Alexander – are tasked with deciding which product is good, naked of all that crafty packaging.
The results are not predictable. Across the dozens of product categories we review on the show – sausages and bacon, apple pies and lamb shanks, whiskies, sauvignon blancs, lagers and more – sometimes it really is the most expensive product that wins out. Sometimes you really do get what you pay for. But more often, there is an upset: the one we judged to be the best across a range of criteria, including appearance, smell and taste, was not the so-called handmade artisanal product but something mass-produced for one of the major supermarkets’ own-label range.
All of which is testament to the brilliance and sophistication of the marketing of food brands. Sure, we like to think we choose the products we eat because they taste the best… In truth we’re influenced by a whole bunch of visual signals and clues that silently reinforce how we see ourselves in the social order. The kind of cheddar we buy is an acute mark of who we are.
“Colour of packaging, feel of the packet or carton: all of this has an influence on how we respond to a product and is thought out by branding gurus,” says Barry Smith, Professor of Philosophy at London University, an expert on the senses and a panellist on Radio 4’s food show The Kitchen Cabinet.
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He describes a famous test involving those two giants of the soft drinks market, Pepsi and Coke. “When they taste blind, people prefer Pepsi, but when they see the cans, they say they prefer Coca-Cola,” says Prof Smith. “That’s because they prefer the Coca-Cola brand. There were neuroimaging versions of this test showing that we get pleasure from the brand, activating our pleasure centres. These influence how we perceive the taste and flavour.”
Brands began, pretty much as the word suggests, with the branding of animals to denote ownership, a practice going back thousands of years. As laws were passed setting out minimum qualities, symbols would be introduced to prove that this product, wine for example, or olive oil, met those standards. The hallmarks on silver and gold are an early form of that quality-based branding.
It was the boom in the middle classes in the 19th and 20th centuries that laid the ground for the sort of branding we’re used to today. John Pemberton, who created the drink we know as Coca-Cola, first sold it as a “patent medicine”. It apparently had health-giving qualities. The Kellogg family’s toasted Corn Flakes, launched in 1906, came with the legend “None genuine without this signature” and the scrawl of WK Kellogg beneath.
Today, branding is a multibillion-pound business. Indeed, sometimes the branding costs more than the product being sold. Think of those set yogurts sold in little glazed pots. The pot costs far more than the yogurt inside, but gives the product the weight needed to set the high price, while promoting its “rustic” charm.
Not that such ruses always work. Last year Tesco was criticised by both farmers’ representatives and customers for creating a bunch of fake farm brands for their own-label products: there was Rosedene Farms for soft fruit, Boswell Farms for beef, Redmere Farms for vegetables, and more besides. Not only had these farms not supplied these products, they didn’t even exist. Tesco was forced onto the back foot, explaining that the branding was there to denote “quality fresh food at very competitive prices”.
As Prof Smith says, “If you create expectations that are exaggerated, the experience will be a let down and you won’t like what you taste. Good branding has to be careful. My distinction is between leading and misleading our tastes.”
There are also signs of growing sophistication among customers. Since 2008, following the credit crunch, the UK’s big four supermarkets – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons – started losing market share to discounters Aldi and Lidl. It seems canny shoppers had discovered what a lot of us in the food world have been saying for a while: that discounters generally have only one of each product, so they can buy a large amount of it – meaning the quality is just as good, but at a much lower price. Customers just have to be willing to forgo the household brand. Conventional wisdom was that they wouldn’t. Conventional wisdom was wrong. Aldi’s and Lidl’s market share has grown from 6.1 per cent in 2008 to 11.9 per cent now.
And what about those cheddars, trundling around the Tried and Tasted conveyor belt? On closer inspection I was able to see the differences between them, just as I was able to spot my missing son. A couple of them were multi-award-winning artisanal cheeses, sold at a premium. But the winner? Based on the blind tasting it was the market leader, a huge seller across all the supermarkets. It’s hard to argue with a test like that.
Tried and Tasted: the Ultimate Shopping List is on Tuesday at 8pm on Channel 4