How food companies watch what you eat

Mark Garrison Dec 2, 2013

How food companies watch what you eat

Mark Garrison Dec 2, 2013

Chef David Landers is walking through Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philadelphia, a beloved indoor space packed with shoppers and dozens of merchants selling all kinds of food. Chefs visit for ingredients and inspiration, home cooks stock their kitchens and some folks just come for the famed roast pork sandwiches at DiNic’s, Philadelphia’s less famous and often more delicious sandwich rival to the cheesesteak.

But Landers isn’t here for lunch or to get ingredients for a restaurant. As senior chef for Campbell Soup Company, he shops and dines around the world, tracking changes in the way we eat. He stops at a basket full of something Campbell’s finds quite interesting right now, the ingredient that inspired the new product we’ll meet later.

“With ginger, we’re gonna put that at a stage five,” Landers says. “A couple years ago, ginger would have been at a stage three or a stage four, something that maybe you would have found at very ethnic restaurants and specific recipes.”

Campbell’s ranks food trends from one to six. A one is something that’s barely known, stuff only hipster chefs with Mennonite beards are using in their restaurants. Six is what everybody’s eating. Lately, ginger’s been climbing the charts.

Field research like Landers and other company chefs do—eating and shopping in restaurants, stores and markets around the globe—is only part of how Campbell’s develops new products. They’re also in our kitchens. Like many companies, Campbell’s uses techniques from anthropology and other social sciences to study us up close and personal, stepping inside our homes and our lives to see how we’re changing. This is deep dive, personal research, the opposite of mass surveys, taste tests or various techniques that fall under the well-documented trend that falls under the umbrella of Big Data (Campbell’s uses those techniques too, of course).

Companies now study us, consumers, the way we imagine pith-helmeted anthropologists examining indigenous tribes. Since they’re Margaret Meading around our lives and watching us, Marketplace thought it only fair that we have a good look at what they’re doing. Campbell’s agreed to open its research process to us, the first time the company has allowed a journalist inside its newly redesigned test kitchens.

The new facility is inside company headquarters in Camden, New Jersey. Workers in crisp black uniforms man sizzling skillets, stir bubbling pots, and work digital ovens in six fully-equipped kitchens, designed to mirror the homes of the consumer segments Campbell’s watches.

Each kitchen has different appliances, design and most importantly, different food in the cabinets and refrigerators. For the group called “Uninvolved Quick Fixers,” there are pizza boxes strewn around and a gallery of take-out menus stuck to the fridge. The stove looks like it’s never been touched.

“They’re doing a lot of microwaving and frozen foods,” explains Jane Freiman, the test facility’s manager.

On the other end of the spectrum is what Campbell’s calls “Passionate Kitchen Masters.” Freiman swings open handsome stainless steel doors to show off a fridge thick with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses, plus an array of neatly arranged high-end sauces. Cabinets are also full of artisanal pastas and a wide variety of spices.

Creating kitchens with this level of fine detail required entering customers’ lives. Researchers, including trained anthropologists, may spend hours with a family. It’s deep dive, personal research, the opposite of mass surveys.

“We’re in their homes,” says Charles Vila, Campbell’s vice president of consumer and customer insights. “We are cooking with them; we’re eating with them; we’re shopping with them.”

Among the conclusions from that kind of research into Passionate Kitchen Masters: They use broth.

Broth is not a sexy product as food goes. It’s a bit like a band’s bass player: last on the tour bus to hook up, but essential to the final product. Broth is the sturdy component of soups, sauces, braised meats, and, under the Swanson brand, the company balance sheet. It’s a $400 million dollar retail business for Campbell’s.

When a brand pulls in nearly half a billion dollars, any sales-boosting twist is worth a pile of money. Recent field research shows home cooks wanna make Thai dishes, but can’t easily get key ingredients like lemongrass.

“Even for confident cooks, to bring those together, to go and purchase them, and actually blend them in such a way that it actually works, that’s not easy,” says Campbell’s vice president Dale Clemiss, overseer of Swanson and other brands, including Prego and Pace.

Add that insight to what the chef noted about America’s growing taste for ginger, and a new broth is born.

Swanson’s new products are broths infused with Latin and Asian flavors. The company uses Big Data and large scale survey research. But if its Thai Ginger broth is a hit, that’s a triumph of what we’ll call Deep Data, information drawn from rich, personal interactions. Data from that research also informed a complete change in the marketing of Swanson’s traditional broths.

When it comes to the anthropologists working in corporate America collecting this data, the profession is wary. There are ethical issues to consider that don’t come up in academic anthropology.

“There are lots of good reasons to hire anthropologists in the private sector,” says Colby College anthropology professor Catherine Besteman. “The pitfalls are an effort to use anthropology to convince people to buy things that are not in their best interest or may not benefit them.”

Deep Data can be powerful, especially in sniffing out need for new products, something hard to find through a multiple choice survey. But there are potential dangers. Ethnography and other anthropological research techniques are time consuming and expensive, which means sample sizes are small.

“Some people have based results on an ethnography of ten people,” explains Kelly Goldsmith, marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “That is not even rare. Do you really, as a marketer, wanna base your decisions on the experiences of ten people who were willing to let a stranger come into their house and watch them cook dinner?”

This kind of research can lead companies astray if misused. Wharton School marketing professor Americus Reed points to Song, an airline launched by Delta a decade ago. Its research said flyers wanted joy, so it offered flight attendants with fancy uniforms and goofy entertainment routines. The fun didn’t last. Delta shut down Song barely two years in, just after the airline filed for bankruptcy protection.

“Even though if you ask them to talk about and observe them, they’ll tell you all kinds of things about trying to make the experience much more fun, what it really comes down to for most consumers is: who’s got the lowest fare?” Reed says.

As for the flavored broth sloshing around Campbell’s test kitchen bowls, it’s less about price and more about taste. The company hopes its very personal research is turning out the right recipes.

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