The Nature Of Status

As the specialty food trade gathers in Chicago for NASFT’s premier Midwest Fancy Food & Confection Show, the industry will encounter another first, the International Wine & Spirits Pavilion. This trade-only event is a natural extension for NASFT, as many of the specialty retailers and restaurants attracted to the Fancy Food Shows also sell wine and spirits. Drawing wine and spirits buyers of larger organizations to the show will require more effort since these organizations typically have specialized wine and spirits buyers. But most smaller retailers, many of which sell wine and spirits as an accompaniment to fine foods, are at the shows already.

Wine marketers, in particular, have been in the news lately as a result of their efforts to gain approval to make health-oriented claims on wine labels. Though they have not completely succeeded in these efforts, they have won approval for oblique reference. The two statements approved to date:

  • “The proud people who made this wine encourage you to consult your family doctor about the health effects of wine consumption.”
  • “To learn the health effects of wine consumption, send for the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

Though these statements make no outright claims, they are likely to remind consumers about articles they’ve read or programs they’ve seen that mentioned health benefits of wine consumption.

The general question of health benefits is important not only to wine producers but also to the entire specialty food trade. The definition of upscale food is changing, partly due to consumers’ desires to spend money improving their health. With the large baby-boom-age populous now running smack into middle age and beyond, a desire to maintain youthfulness and good health is natural. Additionally, this generation is the most educated up to its time and has a healthy disposable income. The mixture has created a consumer market ready to explode.

The implications of this for the specialty food trade are many, not least of which is that upscale food is likely to continue to evolve. It becomes less a matter of taste by arbiters pointing out the newest from Paris and more a search for what medical and health information is perceived as dictating.

Some of this is product. Witness the prices of some upscale bags of bean soups, which an awful lot of grandmothers would have rejected as food for the impoverished. Today, bean soup is seen as a high-fiber, low-fat contributor to a healthy diet.

Just as much of it is venue. Whole Foods Market and its ilk have cleverly served a new market for upscale products. This market is not really that interested in stores with lots of little glass jars. Instead, it wants to feel it is buying wholesome and healthy food.

In fact, the nature of status has changed. If once status was conveyed by an ample physique, which communicated affluence (to have great stature one had to be able to afford large quantities of food and servants to do the manual labor), today, a svelte physique indicates both intelligence (one who can read and analyze the latest health information) and leisure (one who can afford to spend hours at the gym).

Inevitably, when the nature of status changes, the nature of high-status food and shopping venues change. So at upscale dinner parties all across the land, people are bragging that they bought the ingredients at a Whole Foods Market or other store associated with wholesomeness and healthfulness.

Fortunately, all is not lost for so-called indulgence foods. When health concerns heavily restrict eating, the occasional indulgence becomes all the more important, boosting sales of upscale foods. If you eat ice cream every night, you may opt for the fat-free version, but if you perceive ice cream as a special treat…well, the higher the fat content, the better!

This is the trick behind the whole-food retailers. Create an atmosphere, an identification, a brand that provides a kind of halo effect over all the products. Then the consumer who identifies a rich ice cream in a traditional supermarket as an undesirable fat-laden product will see the same product as a highly desirable and deserved indulgence when bought at a whole-food-oriented venue.

The key to all this is marketing. Without a doubt, wine offers some health benefits. It is also certain that wine can, if consumed in excess or by the wrong people, do potentially terrible things. In fact wine labels already warn – and will continue to warn – that pregnant women should not drink alcohol during their pregnancy and that alcohol can impair driving and cause various other health problems.

The American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and American Medical Association have all opposed the good-health labeling of wine for the simple reason that these organizations hypothesize that labeling will actually encourage people to drink – incurring more risks and problems.

According to The American Heart Association, drinking alcohol in moderation – one glass of wine a day for women and two glasses a day for men – may help some people over 45 years of age; but people with a personal or family history of alcoholism, pancreatitis, liver disease, various blood diseases, heart failure, hypertension, as well as pregnant women, should not drink at all. However, people under 45 years of age, show no benefits from alcohol consumption and may be more at risk from drunk-driving accidents or sexually transmitted diseases. Some evidence also indicates that female drinkers may be at higher risk for breast cancer.

My intention is not to analyze the pros and cons of drinking. My point is that drinking wine is a no slam-dunk health miracle that is highly controversial. Yet savvy wine marketers have seen the future. They desperately want to position their product by accentuating the positives – good health and long life – because that’s what the Baby Boomer population wants to hear.

In an age when so many marketing efforts are short-term, the labeling gambit is a long-term strategic positioning move by the wine industry to avoid tobacco’s fate. That’s a hard realization for Madison Avenue’s advertising gurus who struggle to maintain the once glamorous cachet association with cigarette smoking. In our meritocratic society, the fashionable never want to be thought of as stupid.

The specialty-food trade will be wrestling with health-oriented marketing for a long time. New foods, created to fight specific diseases, will create new niche markets. As baby boomers move into their senior years, expect even greater demands for heath-oriented products and shopping venues.

How the industry and individual companies respond to these pressures will determine who is successful in the years to come. The lessons we learn in life are often unexpected. So after some fine pâté at the show, make sure you visit the International Wine & Spirits Pavilion. Oh, and don’t forget to read the labels.