“It’s the dogs, JB.”

Whenever I engage in a discussion like this on the blog I always get a few notes — some more civil than others — saying: Open your eyes, Joe! It really is big, greedy, soulless mega-corporations that do things like take our lard away. That dark art known as marketing is to blame!

Speaking as a longtime food, ingredient and restaurant marketer all I can say is I wish it were true. I’d have a much bigger house. Sadly a food product’s success really does depend on humdrum factors like quality, price, value, difference, shelf life and convenience. A product that doesn’t offer the right mix of those things can never succeed, no matter how much money you pump into marketing or what Madison Avenue genius is writing your headlines. Which reminds me of an age-old marketing joke that I occasionally tell. It goes something like this: JB, a big company CEO decides to launch a new miracle dog food. He calls in his marketing director.

“Johnson! I want this new dog food in every newspaper in America! Get me the most expensive PR company you can find!”

“Right away, JB.”

“And I want ads on every billboard and TV station. Hire me the best advertising agency in the country!”

“Right away, JB.”

“And I want every office worker in America talking dog food around the water cooler — get the late night talk show people on the phone!”

“Sure thing, JB.”

“Oh and find us the hottest celebrity spokesperson out there, tell them money is no object!”

“Absolutely, JB.”

Two months later, sales are flat. Huge inventories of dog food are piling up cross the country and the company is going broke. The enraged CEO calls the marketing director back into his office.


“Yes, JB?”

“This is a disaster!! Did you hire that PR firm like I told you?!”

“Yes, JB.”

“And what about the ad agency, did they do that Superbowl spot?!”

“Won a CLIO award for it, JB.”

“And the late night hosts? Did they do the jokes?!”

“Every night for the last two months, JB.”

“And Kim Kardashian, she’s talking dog food, dog food, dog food around the clock?!”

“Sure is, JB.”

“Then I don’t understand it! We’ve done everything! We’ve been in newspapers! We’ve been on TV! We’ve shouted about this new dog food from every blasted hilltop!! What the hell is going wrong????!!!!”

The exhausted Johnson drops his armloads of reports and charts, sits down on the desk and sighs.

“It’s the dogs, JB. The darn dogs.”

“Yes? The dogs? What about the dogs?”

“They just won’t eat it.”

The message here of course: that there are good products and there are bad ones, and no amount of media coverage can change that fact. Consumers made the choice to switch from lard to Crisco over 100 years ago for good reasons. The fact that some of us are switching back as circumstances change and new facts come to light shouldn’t come as any great surprise. No one is making us do it, that is unless the Lard Council has some new marketing super-guru I don’t know about. In that case: yes, my master.

10 thoughts on ““It’s the dogs, JB.””

  1. Dogs are sometimes a lot smarter than we are, y’know. They rely only on their taste buds. People, however, can be (and are) easily convinced that a food product is “good” — just put enough salt, sugar, and fat in it and it’s a go. I can’t underestimate the role of marketing in this. It brings to mind an article in the NY Times a while ago about a product called “Lunchables.” (Which I had never heard of until I read the article.) Talk about marketing to the vulnerable. And I don’t know how else to explain the fact that people will pay top dollar for mediocre fare. Even the gravitation back to lard and other animal fats, there’s plenty of marketing behind that as well. Of course it’s a very complex topic, but I wouldn’t discount the role that marketing plays.

    1. Glad to hear that, Chana. If people did, I’d be out of a job!

      To your point, however, loads and loads of marketing certainly can get people to try a product. That’s marketing’s main utility: to make the handshake between the product maker and the consumer. Once that’s done the product has to sink or swim largely on its own. Marketing can’t go on forever at a high intensity, it’s too expensive. There’s also a point of diminishing returns where audiences get burned out and quit paying attention. If by that point the product hasn’t proved its worth, no amount of money can make it sell.

      I’m not saying that a lot of stupid things don’t come to market. They certainly do, and some of them are heavily advertised. However if they don’t offer something that consumers genuinely want, they’ll flop. The vast majority of products you see advertised do exactly that: flop. What to say about stupid things that actually succeed? They’re offering something that the great hive mind of consumers finds useful. One of the funny things about consumer goods is that sometimes the makers of the product don’t even know why people are buying their products. They think it’s for the taste and find out its for the convenience, or the consistency, or the price point, what have you.

      McDonald’s is a great example. Is the food great? No. Very few people think it’s great. Their success is built on delivering a convenient and consistent product in a clean and welcoming environment. When you have something like that, that busy people in busy urban settings need, the food can be merely acceptable.

      That’s why I find marketing so fascinating. You never really truly know what people as a group are going to do, or what they’re going to find useful or interesting. It’s all informed guesswork, but when you help a client hit with something it feels great. Says the marketer.

      I could go on about this all day. Back to work!

      – Joe

  2. Bring a child along with you to the supermarket and you’ll have a customer for lunchables. No marketing needed. Although supermarkets are pretty genius at display, which is a kind of marketing.

    Some of the best marketing for food comes gratis through the media. How else to explain the massive consumption of margarine? Personally, I’d rather have dry toast than that noxious stuff.

    Gluten free products, organic products and fair trade products likewise got a boost from the press. And the food industry responded. Big food is, I think, remarkably limber when it comes to getting product on the shelves to fill those demands. Admittedly touting a product like olive oil as gluten free is kind of stupid, but it seems to work.

    1. If there’s a consumer demand, you can bet there’s a manufacturer that’s willing to make the product, Rachel. Right now everyone is scrambling to get “science-y” sounding words off their ingredient lists (i.e. have “clean labels”), even if the ingredient is completely ordinary and harmless. Consumers don’t like the implication of “processing”, so, that’s what food companies are trying to deliver. Short of going out of business, they’ll do pretty much anything to please customers!

      Regarding margarine, there were actually very good reasons why people started using it about 100 years ago (price, convenience and shelf life being the main ones). Read a few of the posts on oils and fat that I put up this week, you’ll find more information there. Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

      1. I really have no problem with manufacturers meeting consumer demand, I’m just saying that food manufacturers seem to act very swiftly to those demands. Which is a good thing. One minute you’re in your car listening to something on NPR about gluten and by the time you get to the grocery store there’s a raft of “gluten free” products on the shelves.

        What amazes me about margarine is that I still see it on the shelves–in abundance–even though butter is good for you again.

        Let’s face it: You can get whiplash trying to keep up with food-related health scares. It seems like yesterday when movie theaters were basically forced to stop popping corn with coconut oil and not coconut oil–extra virgin at that–costs way more than butter and there’s about a gajillion brands to choose from. Especially in health food and high end grocery stores.

        1. I get you…and that’s very true, they do try to stay on top of new trends. Not easy for larger companies as a rule, but then in the day of social media they’re probably hearing about stuff earlier than ever.

          Regarding margarine, yeah, it is odd that it’s still popular, but habits die hard. A lot of people I know grew up with it, so it’s natural for them. I’m not into it personally, but then I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where we could afford real butter all the time! 😉

          Thanks Rachel!

          – Joe

  3. There is another side to that story- if the maker/seller has a hoard of loyal customers (see Apple, Dell, McD’s, Hershey’s, Royal Canine)
    They can start lowering the quality gradually and still sell.
    I refuse to buy into Apple or Dell, I know where they started, but now Both sell overpriced junk.
    I’ll bet McD’s tasted better from the start, but as their business model shifted, so indeed did the food. But it is what it is. Fast and cheap.
    Hershey’s gets away with crappier chocolate in the US than they can get away with in Canada. I find this rather amusing. My swedish friends who have eaten “american” at the cheaper price points think it’s gross. (In comparison the cheaper brands here taste good, I fear I have been ruined for Hershey’s)
    And Royal Canine? They push and market and teach vets nutrition so the vets market the food and there is a loyal following there because of the marketing, but I refuse to feed that to my pets. Even if I get it for free (IE like I did with neuters)
    They push that the quality is better, but their food is no better than whatever else you can find on a supermarket shelf. So if you are happy feeding Friskies, don’t pay more for the same crap.
    (I look at labels and have switched to a grain free food for my cats. I’ve read countless tests that show actual analysis of the food puts Royal Canine on par or sometimes below supermarket brands)

    Marketing crap to loyal consumers is easier and the product doesn’t have to shine quite so bright vs if it come from an relative newcomer.

    1. Hey Kitty!

      In a broad sense you’re right, though I personally wouldn’t characterize it that way. Every established business experiences peaks and valleys in sales. Sometimes the valleys go on for a short while, sometimes they go on for a long while. But even when you’re in a downturn you have to keep producing, pay employees, keep the lights on and all that. So what can you do to keep money flowing? Either boost sales or squeeze cost out of the system (increase efficiency, reduce your raw materials costs, etc.). If you can’t boost sales you have to “find revenue” inside the business by making cuts where you can.

      I think it is clearly true that most companies over time try to please their customers for the lowest possible costs. I know it was true of my business. As much as I wanted to deliver the most amazing doughnuts the world had ever seen, there was only so much I could put into/on them for a price that people were willing to pay. So over time I cut some of my more elaborate products, or scaled them down a little I could get the return I needed to stay in business.

      That said there comes a point where a manufacturer squeezes too much out of the system and quality starts to suffer…at which point it’s up to us as consumers to make some noise about it. Or go buy something else! It’s the only way to keep product makers honest, by hitting them where it hurts the most — right in the pocketbook! That’s the fun of business I think, and it’s a never-ending game…of keeping customers happy, keeping employees happy, paying the rent, innovating, growing, over-extending, making mistakes, trying again…talk about a drama. Say what you will about capitalism…it ain’t dull!

      Cheers and thanks for the note!

      – Joe

      1. Never said capitalism was dull, and you certainly are right, you have to gain a profit somewhere. The biggest companies however do have enough clout and money to ride out a couple years of bad times if needed, unless of course everyone were to pull out the shares. There are times though, that consumers really should be making more noise than they do, loyalty and all.
        Sometimes it works in the case of the previously discussed Kitchenaid brand 😉 And sometimes it doesn’t.

        1. Hey Kitty!

          I’m not saying you were at all…just being rhetorical. 😉

          You’re absolutely right that we should all be making more noise about products we don’t like. I was always amazed how easy it was for consumers to get McDonald’s to change what they do. When I was a kid they used foam boxes for their larger sandwiches. In the 80’s they made the switch away from those to paper and cardboard. All it took to precipitate that shift was about 100 letters from kids (who are their primary customers). And those were the days before social media!

          Nowadays all you have to do is start complaining on social media about a product, engage a friend or two in the conversation, and before long you’ll start getting responses from company reps (assuming they’re watching for online mentions…as almost all consumers goods companies are these days). So flex that muscle! Today’s consumer goods industry is all about communicating with customers!


          – Joe

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