Sunday, March 27, 2016

Narrative-Enhanced Food

Last week I read a grant proposal for funding to start a maple syrup production operation to generate profits that would be used to support programs that benefit children and families in need. Theoretically, I love this proposal, but I keep getting stuck in the income projections in the business plan. Projected revenue is based on the sticker price of $20 per 12-oz. bottle of syrup. Ouch. This would have to be the Mercedes of syrups. They argue that they can sell the syrup at this price because it will be beautifully packaged with a unique, heartwarming story about the history of sugar maples. A story with that sticker price would have to be so heartwarming that once it warms the heart, the heart stays warmed, through snow, sleet, dark-of-night, and environmental meltdown.

I am so dedicated to eating high-quality food that I will actually pay a fair amount for organic, chemical-free maple syrup, but even I don’t pay more than $7 for a 12-oz. bottle. The only circumstance under which I would pay $20 for a 12-oz. bottle of maple syrup would be if world peace came in the box with the syrup. Although, I confess, the idea of getting a terrific story with the syrup would definitely sweeten (couldn’t resist) the deal. If every bottle of syrup were to contain the tale of the centuries-old history of sugar maple trees, complete with dragons, leprechauns, good fairies (only they would spell it faerries to sound olden), and a brilliant and funny girl of lowly birth on an epic quest, then I would probably pay $10 for it. If the story also included the astonishing and mysterious retreat into seclusion of a bombastic, racist, egocentric, violent, ignorant presidential candidate (with a self-proclaimed shockingly large member, larger than anyone else’s member), then I might actually pay $20.

I almost never pay $20 for a full-length hardcover novel, even if it comes with food. I get my books from the library (thanks ever so much Ben Franklin) or the monthly library used book sale (for 50¢ each), or I borrow them from friends. Perhaps I would consider paying $20 for a bottle of syrup if the accompanying syrup story wins the National Book Award and the hold queue at the library for the syrup story is more than 200 people long. However, correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t think a bottle of syrup is eligible for the National Book Award.

Many factors come into play in people’s decisions about what is a reasonable price for a food item. We often say “I can’t afford that,” but that’s not exactly accurate. A lot of the time when we say “I can’t afford that” what we mean is “I have other priorities.” We constantly make choices. Some people pay $10 a day for a fancy coffee but they won’t buy organic apples because they are too expensive. That’s a decision about priorities. I choose to spend more money on food than most people because it’s important to me to eat real, clean food (organic, nontoxic, chemical-free), but I do balance that with cost. In order to buy the beautiful, healthy food I love, I’m willing to spend less money on other things, such as, for instance, clothes, flowering plants, travel, and brand new hardcover novels. I have no problem paying $3 for an organic mango that has a luminous golden glow. I want to put that mango into my body so it becomes part of my cell structure. I would invest my money in buying that mango rather than, say, buying shoes.

Perhaps the maple syrup folks are actually onto something. This could be a tectonic shift in marketing. Marking up food prices because the food comes with a dynamite story particularly intrigues me because that combines two of my greatest loves. I might actually pay to hear the stories food has to tell. I would pay quite a bit for oranges that tell the meaning of life or cucumbers that come with a visionary description of the seventh generation that reveals that they are OK. Hmm. Interesting. I imagine that food producers could jack up the prices on high-quality food by increasing the value of the product with narrative add-ons.  Asparagus that comes with tales of the hidden messages of the deep forest. “Beans that speak the truth.” “The voices of the ancestors in every egg.” “Sauerkraut with god in every bite.” Bananas with a synopsis of War and Peace. Strawberries packaged with One Hundred Years of Solitude. This kale is crispy and tangy, has strong antioxidant properties that prevent cancer, and it whispers Shakespeare’s sonnets. These flights of fancy are the unfortunate consequence of a former English graduate student becoming a nutritionist and then reading maple syrup grant proposals.

The add-on marketing strategy has broader implications. Imagine selling a jar of coconut oil that can tap dance, a piece of cheese that will do your workout routine for you at the gym, or a salad that sings The Song of the Dirt (yeah, I made that song up). Honestly, I have never met an organic blueberry I didn’t like, and all blueberries have to do is continue to taste delicious for me to pay dearly for them. I whirl organic blueberries in my breakfast smoothie every morning, and they energize me for the day. That’s just me. Perhaps a blueberry marketeer would need to find something more than great taste and good health to sell blueberries to other people. Which leads me to my image for today’s reflection. Caption? How about, “What does a blueberry have to do around here to get some attention?” 

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