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Ding-dong. A man in his forties, sparkly eyes, walks into a deli. Aromas of herbs and cheese, coffee on the brew. The man waves a hello with his eyes to the shop assistant and they roar into a conversation: about a little lunch the man had yesterday, a chutney the shop assistant had just got from this farmer who’s ‘quite a character’…
David Sutton, an American food anthropologist, argues that the seemingly mundane exchange of where and how food is made forms part of what’s called phatic language – used to maintain and build social relations rather than necessarily for communicating new information. In food marketing ‘storytelling’ has been on trend the last few years. Those shopping at the independent retailers care most about the back story and provenance (look at this year’s Soil Association’s report). But why do stories and provenance work such magic?
The industrialisation of food in the last 70 years means we are more removed from the source of food and increasingly bewildered by the plethora of choice. We tend to trust more the products with provenance. When buying a jar of jam with a story we also acquire what the great French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls symbolic capital. We feel special and connected.
But food storytelling can go even deeper. Sutton talks of food synaesthesia, where one sense, such as taste, can trigger multiple other senses, through memories, real or imagined. We start to hear the plop-plop sound of the hot mixture, the warmth of our grandmother’s hip. This is a full cross-sensory experience. When a producer/deli tell their story, they not only replicate their roots and culture but keep them going.
The big guys are increasingly using the power of human story too (just look at Tesco‘s recent Food Love stories). After all, there are people with some stories somewhere in any business. A fair play some would argue, inauthentic or cultural appropriation others would cry. What can the small guys do? You zoom in.
When I work with food businesses on building their story and marketing, I find an anthropological approach very useful. For example, in ethnographies we limit the use of adjectives as they are too subjective (your delicious is different from my delicious) and prefer specific, action orientated descriptions. ‘Slice our sirloin thinly and eat with English mustard’ paints a picture, as does ‘we source all hard cheeses from the south of England’ compared to ‘we buy locally whenever possible’. Be bold with committed claims. After all, unlike the big brands you know so much more about your producers, products, staff.
Every business is unique. But this isn’t always obvious. The ‘about us’ of websites is often I find a missed opportunity. Beyond just being a ‘nice story’, this section helps with reviewing business priorities every few years and for communicating with (social and other) media.
Ultimately, in our, what the geographer Kevin Morgan calls ‘faceless foodscapes’, independent retailers are the curators of stories, tastes, memories and connections. Stories help us all to remember why and how we are human. And to bring us return custom.
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