Smoothies, Maple Syrup, and Rattlesnake Venom
I recently started a diet. Well, not so much of a diet as a fast. I read a Tim Ferriss book and now have the compulsive desire to optimize everything. My sleep, my reading, the food I eat. Since I am pretty (very) sluggish in the morning, I decided to try an intermittent fast.
In this particular fast — beginning after dinner and lasting until lunch the next day — you don’t eat. No big deal. I had never really thought of skipping breakfast as a lifestyle choice. I woke up one morning (yes, a little hungry) with the realization that what I was doing was participating in a secular rite to improve performance. It sounds stupid saying that aloud (an optimization cult?). But, here is the deal. I felt better. And it had everything to do with the emotional need to be in control and probably not a lot with when or what I ate.
Growing up, I went to church three times a week. That helped me develop a keen ear for religious language. After my fasting realization, I started noticing this language in all sorts of marketing and brand language. To be clear, I’m not making judgments about what is or isn’t healthy. I am making the simple observation that the language we use appeals not to the attributes of the products, nor what they do for your body, but refers to how they will make you feel: how the product will address an emotional or psychological need we all have.
Words like clean, cleanse, detox, natural, and pure are powerful because they have emotional weight gained through earnest religious practice. In Islam, supplicants perform ritual washing before prayer. Buddhists have elaborate washing rituals as part of the tea ceremony. Hindus wash in the Ganges. Christians are baptized. Ritual washing is a common part of Judaism.
Using this tactic can backfire. It might work in the short term but think about longer-term implications for your brand. Is the language in alignment with who you want to be?
In a recent brand campaign, Panera claims that their food is “100% clean.” What does it mean for a bagel sandwich to be clean? They change the definition to be “free of artificial ingredients.” But that isn’t exactly what clean means, and that isn’t what we buy when we associate that word with a product. Additionally, they have a “No-No List.” This dichotomy of what can and can’t be eaten creates secular dietary laws with centuries-old religious roots.
Juice bars sell gallons of green, orange, and red liquids with a similar promise as Panera: a cleanse. It’s difficult to point to one example. These are so popular that Google auto-fills my search with “juice cleanse near me.” From where I am sitting right now, there are three different places within walking distance. And below those results, there are dozens of blog posts telling me how to do it right. But here, the question of what is being cleansed isn’t apparent. While a glass of juice is probably a healthy choice, no amount of the green stuff will make you clean inside or out. But it might make you feel better. It will undoubtedly make you feel more in control.
For those suspicious of the cleanse, there is the slightly more technological cousin: the detox. A quick search on Amazon for “detox” returns over 3,000 results. There are teas, powders, and tonics that will detox your colon, urinary tract, and liver. In an age of respiratory paranoia, there is now a powder that provides a lung detox. There is no clarity about what toxins you might or might not have and how their product removes something specific. But again, when you feel out of control, a small proactive step can feel good. It is understandable why these products are attractive in the short term.
Natural or all-natural is the predecessor to clean. It seems to be declining in usage but is still worth discussing. If it means anything at all, the word natural implies that it doesn’t contain artificial ingredients. At the risk of being cliche, rattlesnake venom, cocaine, and lightning are all-natural. That doesn’t mean you want them in your body. Natural does not equate to healthy unless you change the definition significantly.
Pure (or all-pure, 100% pure) is a little different. The word is sometimes used synonymously with natural. Pure generally means to be unadulterated. It signifies that the product doesn’t contain the unpronounceables that have been used to preserve or otherwise enhance food. I currently have a can of 100% pure pumpkin puree and a bottle of 100% pure maple syrup. So, while pure is used consistently with most brands’ definition, the concept of purity can’t be removed from its religious history. The intertwining of physical and spiritual (or psychological) purity is one of the predominant concerns of most religious traditions.
Brands can and do manipulate their customers with misleading language. As people creating brand language, we need to understand how we might subconsciously influence consumers with slippery definitions. As consumers, we need to understand why certain sets of language are appealing. As all of us demand more transparency, we should write truthfully, with specific language that helps consumers navigate a world of increasingly complicated choices.
I will leave you with my favorite marketing claim I found. It didn’t fit into any of the other categories but is too good not to include. I have a bag of loose leaf tea that makes a claim: “100% real ingredients.” I love this tea and am so glad there isn’t anything imaginary in there. Not that I would notice it, anyway.