Glam rock. What a mind f**k. The ’70s era of glitter and gutsy stage presence took bonkers to a whole new level. OTT experiences aren’t only the domain of Alice Cooper and co. though. Beyond trendy pop-ups, #foodporn and fawning whisky adverts, food and drink has its own wild ones. Gareth May takes a bite out of the mavericks’ cookbook and finds out how to really market taste.
We’ve all seen the bog-standard food and drink marketing: “Buy this beer, hop on a train, meet cool friends, become popular”. Products sold on the notion of an instant existence upgrade; a beer purchased off the back of a promise of a better life.
Rarely do food and drinks brands go beyond these generic marketing tactics to really grab their customers. Some, however, do have the balls to flip that on its head: no extreme close-ups, no honeyed voice, no chocolate sauce poured in super slow-mo. Just out-there ideas sold with the sip of a cocktail or the bite of an hors d’oeuvre.
Too many brands seed an idea to sell a food or a drink. What about the people who use taste or sensation to sell an idea?
Dick walls and jelly houses
Yonks before Maybelline hired a male make-up ambassador, men in eyeliner could only mean one thing: glam rock. Throw in lavish stage shows, theatrical personas and more glitter than a Christmas party, and the early 1970s musical movement was a study in spectacle.
Some food creators are similarly off the chain. Take Bompas & Parr. The ex-architects-turned-food-designers made headlines in 2007 when they created a series of jelly moulds of iconic buildings, such as St. Paul’s Cathedral. They’ve since gone on to work with corporate clients including Walt Disney and Louis Vuitton, creating everything from food art from scratch, to sniff cards and vaporised alcohol.
Focused on experimental gastronomical design and immersive flavour-based experiences, the dynamic duo has created musical spoons and matching bowls to launch five new Heinz baked beans flavours, developed a glow-in-the-dark ice cream for Cornetto, and even made a climbing wall out of dicks and tits. (The Grope Mountain installation launched in 2015 at the Museum of Sex in New York. It’s not foodie but it’s still pretty mad.)
Alex Lawrence, head bartender of Dandelyan (winner of the 2018 Bartender of the Year and consultant to brands including the bar at Selfridges) says the key to a good idea is to “never be contrived and always be interesting” – and that it’s critical to find that balance.
“Understanding the [client’s] message is so important,” he says. “We develop our ideas by looking at a theme and thinking laterally rather than literally. And, for us, mostly this comes from the world of botany as it’s our focus.”
For Selfridges, Lawrence developed a tisane (an infusion of dried herbs) that showcased seasonal fruits. “This met the client’s need for seasonality, creativity and ultimately a drink purposed for the space, which was a bar situated in a retail store that had to deliver a creative solution for shoppers – and one that wasn’t alcoholic but still offered a different experience.”
Lastly, Lawrence says “it’s imperative that the physical and mental reactions [of guests] are balanced with the [client’s] environment and product or brand to deliver the brief.”
Food to go
Founded in 2011, AVM Curiosities, the brainchild of food historian Tasha Marks, have curated various sensory-based food events using food “as an artistic medium”.
Scent, smell and sight features in a lot of Marks’ work and previous creations include a tour for the visually impaired at RA’s Open House weekend (where she used the smell of pineapple as a “symbol of welcome”), and a selection of historical aphrodisiacs reproduced from ancient sources (including the Kama Sutra’s Sweet Potato Biscuits) for Valentine's Day at The National Gallery last year.
Marks says that taste and smell are the senses most closely linked to memory, making them a key tool in brand awareness and engagement. “The senses are a storyteller, a brand builder in a way that is human and physical,” she says. “We are driven by forces of nostalgia and novelty when it comes to food. We want comfort and also to push the boundaries, so the scope of the senses and the urge for the experiential, is endless.”
Lawrence agrees, adding that because humans are programmed to appreciate things, the senses are always relatable, and used in the right way the power of taste can not only deliver nourishment, but new experiences too. “Everyone remembers their favourite food from their favourite brand,” he says. “Memory recall can be a powerful marketing tool.”
Zoe Burgess is the head of research and development for Drink Factory. They create incredible flavours for brands, venues, and hospitality clients – and always promise to deliver the unforgettable. “Flavour works in a very similar way to scent,” she says, “in that it’s a very personal experience that’s intertwined closely with memory.”
It was this theory that led Burgess to create a drink titled Snow at their East London venue Untitled, to see if “it is possible to look at how flavour can be used to evoke an experience such as catching a snowflake on your tongue as a child.”
Flavour mavericks such as Marks, Lawrence and Burgess are no stranger to high concepts. But are these concepts in danger of jumping the shark? Marks says ideas must always start with the client, whether it’s a brand, a museum or an artwork: research is key and exploring different avenues – and having an interdisciplinary way of thinking – can take you to so many different places.
“It’s an overused phrase, but thinking outside the box is still really important,” she says. “But you have to reign it in too and be able to communicate a simple idea in an intriguing way.” When it comes to the making part, the flavour, taste and even technique is the tip of the iceberg, she says. “There’s generally much more below the surface.”
It’s not a f**king art form, it’s putting booze in a glass and having an interesting reason for doing it.
Alex Lawrence, Dandelyan
Lawrence admits that working with different flavours and being given the leash to explore can let the artistic licence run riot, but that getting across a tangible message is always paramount.
“It’s a difficult balance. Marketing has rules. Cocktails do not. But forced marketing about cocktails will lack authenticity,” he says. “At the end of the day as long as you serve people something they enjoy, and they have a good time, then the job is done. It’s not a f**king art form, it’s putting booze in a glass and having an interesting reason for doing it.”
The difference, one suspects, between being chart-topping The Sweet and 'The Little Children of Stonehenge' in Spinal Tap.
Viral culinary content
High concept or not, get what the Drink Factory calls “the alchemy of taste” right and you’ll reap the rewards.
“We live in an increasingly digital world with our attention spans the size of a pea. I am as guilty as anyone of scrolling mindlessly through social media, power walking through galleries, and scanning books rather than engaging with them,” Marks says, adding that this creates a marketing opportunity for experiential-style events utilising the senses, offering great social currency with millennials in particular.
“With our interaction with media being as swift as it is, the marketing mantra of numbers, numbers, numbers, means less and less,” she continues. “It’s quality over quantity that’s important, and taste and food deliver that in a way that digital content can’t. The senses are visceral, engaging, they ask us to interact, to experience. That’s a powerful thing.”
But sharing an event isn’t all about the ephemeral pomp and circumstance; as marketers, get caught up in the shock and awe and you’ll miss the importance of substance.
Barrie Wilson is co-founder of Scotch + Limon, a drinks consultancy that works with several high profile brands and their marketing teams. He most recently created a serve for Jura whisky – a highball topped with sparkling blood orange they called The Jura Sunset – that was developed through a magical moment on the isle of Jura paired with the base spirit’s tasting notes. According to Wilson, when it comes to marketing spirits, creating an aspirational world is great. But if a serve doesn’t taste good, the success will be short lived.
“It is fundamental for brands that back their liquid credentials to get liquid on lips,” he says. “Then it’s all about creating a memorable serve, something that consumers will rave, or rock, about. Consumers remember stories and if you weave in the brand facts to the story, you are winning.”
When we think of glam rock we often think of Slade and T-Rex. Great bands in their own right, albeit ones bouncing around the mirrored halls of the echo chamber of their era. But glam rock also gave the world the New York Dolls, who would go on to influence rock groups such as the Sex Pistols, Guns N' Roses, and even the Smiths (Morrissey organised a reunion show for the NYC band in 2004).
Jump to conclusions and sometimes we miss the true story – and the same can be said for marketing with high concepts. As much as Lawrence accepts that there’s something innately cool and captivating about cocktails, he also believes that brands with less budget can grasp the nettle of glam rock style – memory-making marketing. It’s not about being grand, it’s about being authentic.
He argues that even though most people haven’t experienced drinking a mojito in Cuba, you can still bring the experience to them by making a mojito with Cuban mint. “Evoke a memory. Storytelling can humanise a product or brand, it can attach emotion to something that is purely physical and make that very normal something become significant,” he says. “Emotion is a powerful tool and if you can create genuine relationships by association, then it’s the most powerful tool you have.”
We’ll raise a drink to that. And pop on some eyeliner to boot.