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Vanilla and Marmite

Retailers would like to appeal to a broader audience, but sometimes taking a stand can reflect your brand’s values and increase sales. Ian Jindal examines the pull between vanilla (appeal to all) and polarising stands.

Trump. Brexit. Fake News. Bannon. Antifa. Plastic straws. A starter list of some of the topics that can lead to a dinner-party meltdown or tabloid rage. These are topics of passion, of importance, and – increasingly – topics without a middle, grey ground. A characteristic of our time is not only “differences” (which have surely always existed) but “polarisation”. This is where the middle ground of consensus is eroded, leaving only implacable, opposed and increasingly hostile perspectives.

Against this background of vocal social stirrings, amplified and accelerated by the echo chamber of social media and the non-stop rolling news machine, there’s a desire by retailers and brands to appeal to the broadest, biggest consumer base possible. At first this choice appears to be a conflict between a ‘vanilla’ approach and a ‘Marmite’ approach (that invites a consumer to take a side in a debate).

Vanilla is the world’s most popular flavour, neck and neck with that of chocolate (with which it’s often combined, of course). Being ‘vanilla’ is seen as being bland (a sort of white), universal and inoffensive. Ideal, you might think, in approaching a global audience.
Marmite (a salty, pungent, yeast-based savoury spread manufactured by Unilever) is a cultural phenomenon with adverts that revel in its polarising nature. Marmite is so distinctive, so recognisable and so uncompromising that it’s a ‘love it or hate it’ product. I’d argue that no-one is indifferent to Marmite (disclosure: I love it!).

We have seen a number of brands take risky, Marmite-like positions in recent months. Nike’s new Kaepernick campaign is a thought-provoking recent example. Nike has a record of sustaining its sponsorship of athletes who fall temporarily from grace and this reinforces their value of commitment, faith and being involved for the long haul, not just for the fashionable moment. Colin Kaepernick is an American Football player who ‘took a knee’ during the American anthem in protest at police brutality and racism. He is currently suing the football league, alleging that he’s been excluded from play since 2017, and he’s faced a vitriolic campaign from the White House and right wing commentators for a claimed disrespect of the American flag. In making Kaepernick the face of their 30-year anniversary campaign Nike is living up to the strapline “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”.

While the internet is awash with ‘patriots’ burning and defacing their Nike trainers, the online sales of Nike products grew 31% over the weekend of the campaign launch. The calculation is both to do with brand values and, I suspect, a bet on the future – namely that its most important customer is the ‘millennial’, issues-aware consumer and not the larger older, whiter, more conservative customer base. It’s interesting that Nike chose to side so strongly with one part of its ‘base’ rather than try to keep all sides on board. However, it’s also clear that rival brands have been eroding Nike’s position with more resonant relevance to urban youth and committed sneaker aficionados in particular. Perhaps the reasoning is that the ‘centre cannot hold’ and a passionate, clear position is better than being ‘wallpaper’.

There is also a call for the appealing, certain comfort of vanilla. Consider Amazon for a moment – certainly a company that goes to lengths to avoid offence or adopting a campaigning position. Rather, Amazon represents consistency, capability and quality – the ‘madagascan vanilla’ of the flavour world, perhaps. Like the internet’s dial tone, or the British Royal Mail, the Amazon capabilities “just work” (irrespective of product category, brand or the demographics of the delivery address!).

Modern retailers, therefore, need to be both vanilla and Marmite at the same time. Vanilla in terms of accessibility, recognition, consistency, quality and experience. Excellence is now a uniformly-demanded consumer experience. However, the product, the brand’s values and behaviours, and the consumer experience also needs to be recognisable, distinctive, memorable and clear – based on authentic and sustained values.

Retail has moved beyond ‘vanilla’. Think salted caramel ice cream. With added sprinkles. A no plastic spoons.

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