Talking Up Value: How To Market Premium Foods

By Annika Porsborg Nielsen  

Conventional wisdom on marketing preaches clear, simple messaging that is directed at a large audience and is accessible to as many people as possible. However, if you want to position a product as premium, you need to use more complex messaging that will demand more of the consumer.

Here is our take on how marketing can lift products to a higher status using premium foods as a case.

The phenomenon: How premium food is marketed

Think back to the time when coffee was just coffee, or when the selection of chocolate ranged from light to dark. While today it seems perfectly normal to entertain long conversations about the taste and aroma of products like chocolate or coffee, it wasn’t always so.

The encroachment of feinschmecker language into everyday consumption is happening in an ever-growing range of products. From coffee to chocolate, oil to beer— even grains[1] and yeast[2]—these products are no longer just generic food items.

When products move from the ranks of everyday food to a premium position, two major discursive changes occur:

  1. The language used to describe the product becomes richer (proliferation of words).
  2. The language used to describe the product becomes increasingly abstract (introduction of words from other language realms).

The hugely successful Brooklyn Brewery is an interesting example of the transition to gourmet status. In describing their unique signature creations, the brewmaster compares the process of conceiving of a new beer to coming up with a recipe for an extravagant dish. The language is detailed and complex: beer can taste like bananas, tobacco, chocolate, limes, corn, raspberry—even fish! It can be earthy, honeyed, dry, or rum-like—or you can roast the grains to get a taste reminiscent of coffee.

Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster

Just as the richness of the language—the creation of an entire social universe around a beer brand, for instance—can give products premium status, so can the abstraction of language.

Luxury products are described with language usually reserved for other things: a fine red wine can have hints of berries, oak, liquorice, or even flint[3]. (People who dine in fancy food establishments may have observed that the more high-end the restaurant is, the more abstract the sommelier’s musings tend to be.)
Similarly, whiskey is marketed as honeyed or floral[4], vintage vinegar can taste “like apples”[5], and the Gourmet Oil Company[6] describes their organic “Sinolea” olive oil as “an aromatic and fruity oil with rare elegance (…) the nose is intense and fragrant with an aromatic tail of artichoke and a background of hazelnut.”

Coffee too has reached a new level of refinement and sophistication, where both the richness of the words used to describe coffee and their level of abstraction are growing considerably. The complex vocabulary used by baristas has turned coffee from “just a cup of joe” into a field for connoisseurs—requiring mastery to prepare and a sophisticated palate to enjoy. The coffeehouse chain Baresso has put together a complicated map outlining the 94 tastes and aromas of coffee, including cedar, cucumber and apricot.

The mechanisms: How rich and abstract language increases the perceived value of food products
The way we talk about a product not only reflects its status but also shapes the perception of the product—and increase its actual value. We have identified five typical mechanisms for how language can create and support a premium position.

1. It offers a way to distinguish oneself from the masses.

The language used to market premium goods stresses the uniqueness of the product and signals that it is at the forefront of new trends and developments. It offers a way for consumers to show they belong to the avant-garde, which satisfies a basic human drive (as described by the sociologist Georg Simmel) to distinguish oneself from the masses. Consumers fulfill their need for distinction by buying goods that are specialized and hard to come by, until, inevitably, these products become the target of imitation and lose their attributed status and value.

2. It invites social interaction and affirms group membership.

Just as the need to distinguish oneself from others is a basic human drive, so is the desire to fit in and be a member of a group. A nuanced and rich language encourages social interaction around consumption—it quite simply gives consumers something to talk about. Specialty breweries offering variations such as Dark Chocolate Stout and Pumpkin Ale[7]—along with a rich, descriptive vocabulary to describe their brews—create opportunities for ongoing conversations about the beer. Also, the element of exclusivity allows for beer drinkers to use collective consumption to display group membership. Taking a cue from the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the coded language of feinschmecker beer can be seen as cultural capital that, when exchanged with peers, reaffirms one’s membership in a certain social group—in this case, that of beer lovers.

3. It establishes credibility and authority for the provider of premium products.

The language used to describe premium foods places the provider in the role of the expert: the brewmaster conveying the intricacies of brewing beer, or the coffee producer explaining the origins of coffee beans. In order for the consumer to acknowledge and appreciate this added value of premium products, they have to trust that the providers know what they are talking about. The character and trustworthiness of a speaker (what Aristotle calls ethos) play a key role in getting your message across. Using symbols of expertise (e.g. uniforms and tools) and technical language, as well as demonstrating specialized knowledge, adds to the credibility and authority of the provider.

4. It stresses inaccessibility to preserve an element of mystery.

Describing the wine as tasting like flint highlights qualities of the wine perhaps not immediately discernible or accessible to the consumer. The use of inaccessible language, contrary to mainstream marketing, adds a mystical element, something for the consumer to admire, explore, and aspire to. It also adds an element of surprise and thereby draws extra attention to the product, e.g. when describing an unusual taste. Roland Barthes would explain this as a way in which premium products take on a “mythical” quality. In his anthropological writings, Barthes describes mythmaking as a system of signification, where our understanding of categories (or products) is redefined. Thus, the element of mystery—using obscure or inaccessible language—fuels the imagination of the consumer and alludes to a fantasy that premium foods play into.

5. It encourages a passion for the product that goes beyond consumption.

Consumers engage in elaborate conversations about premium foods as a way of prolonging a type of consumption otherwise limited to special occasions. Being a whiskey aficionado entails more than just sipping an Old Fashioned once in a while. It becomes a hobby that goes beyond actual consumption. The true devotee talks, thinks, and reads about whiskey. This focus on the immaterial qualities of the product (such as language) is an example of what social philosopher Jean Baudrillard labels “commodity fetishism”: emphasizing the social or symbolic value of a product inspires fantasy and obsession with the product.

The recommendations: How you can use marketing to create a premium position

These social, cultural, and linguistic mechanisms represent a potential toolbox for marketers of premium products. In the table below we list the different marketing tactics and some concrete application examples within foods.

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