Why I’ll Never Be a Real Insider

I understand that, for a business, marketing plays a key role in achieving success. It’s fine to make a product or write something or make a piece of music, but unless people know about it, you tend not to sell much. I also understand that most advertising, as its basest level, is about manipulation – make people want what you have. Make them believe they can’t live without it. And it used to be that advertising was pretty straightforward – run an ad in a magazine or on TV, or maybe a big billboard. Free samples, gift with purchase and other  programs that made consumers feel as if they were getting something extra also worked well.

Since the Intarwebs became popular, marketing has kind of been thrown on its head. And while it may take longer than hitting a million viewers all at once with a TV ad, viral marketing directed at “community influencers” is becoming more and more popular. Recommendations from people in “the community”, under the guise of friendship, trust and camaraderie, pull more weight than an ad in a magazine, which can seem insincere.

Bloggers are a key target area for viral marketing campaigns. Sending a promotional product or book to a blogger with high site hits is a cheap and easy way for marketers to have the (usually positive) word spread about whatever it is they’re trying to sell. Marketers depend on the blogger to be naive about the marketing machine; to be flattered, and have feelings of obligation, and in turn write a glowing review of the freebie. Since getting free stuff is fun, most bloggers know better than to rock the boat by writing a negative review, or if they do share their true feelings on a product, it’s usually tempered with political correctness and apologies for not liking it.

I’m writing this because I attended a promotional event this week that was very much directed at bloggers and another group of people the company was depending on for favourable reviews. And it was weird.

For the past couple of years, Loblaw, the Canadian grocery chain, has held a preview event of their holiday President’s Choice Insider’s Report magazine. Each year they do releases of specialty products; some of which remain part of their inventory and some of which are only available seasonally.

The invitation I received for this event was sent to TasteTO, and I actually turned down the invite last year because we don’t cover mainstream grocery items on that site. But this year we’ve started a new monthly column featuring non-local products, so I figured anything that caught my eye could be included there. But I was expecting this to be a media event, with the sea of faces that I always see at events like this – a combination of folks from mainstream publications, a few people from local commercial blog sites and some freelance food writers who would try and sell their story wherever they could.

Instead, the room was full of people wearing nametags that said “PC Insider”. One woman starting chatting with me, immediately gushing about how much she loved PC products. When I queried her about the PC Insider designation, she explained that PC Insiders were people who “reviewed” the various PC products on the supermarket’s website. And looking at the site, there are indeed reviews there, although none of them are particularly negative. I suspect PC Insiders probably get the occasional gift basket delivered to their door and the invitation to the fancy product launch is like a special treat for the people who post the most reviews or something.

I also came across a few people wearing nametags that identified them as a “blogger”, perhaps so one of the many marketing people who were also working the room could be sure to talk to them and talk up particular products. I caused some consternation on this front by crossing out the “blogger” on my nametag and writing in “TasteTO.com”. The only other actual media person I recognized there abandoned her nametag (which included her media affiliation) so she could presumably work the room without being harassed.

The other odd thing was the speechifying. You can tell when marketing people are in the room, because all of the people standing up to talk went on about branding and promotions. There was talk about the food later as the President’s Choice Chef Claire Tansey talked with the product developers about the various items being featured, but there was an awful lot of talk about development and promotion. Because while the PC brand is hugely popular across Canada, Loblaw as a whole is facing stiff competition from cheaper food retailers and market share is always the most important aspect of any campaign.

One final thing that rubbed me the wrong way – the products themselves. Not that what we tried wasn’t decent, although I’ve had some PC products (like the disastrous frozen sushi) that made me wonder what the hell they could have been thinking. The Insider’s Report was originally based on a similar magazine from US chain Trader Joe’s, with colourful stories about how these hard-working product developers travelled the world in search of these wonderful new products. But like the J. Peterman catalogue before it, the stories are mostly fake. In fact, in the little profile packet we got, the info on Chef Claire Tansey says this:

Passionate about the latest cuisine trends, Claire finds inspiration from dining at Toronto’s finest restaurants to create recipes people can adapt and enjoy in their own homes.

So why not mention that instead?

One of the products they were promoting at this event was a line of fresh pasta products, specifically a triangular ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and served with browned butter and sage. When I sampled this, I immediately noticed there was amaretti in it – and there on the ingredients list, amaretti cookies were included. We received a spiel about how the recipe for this pasta had been found in some little town in Italy. But… I had had this pasta before. It was on a tasting menu I tried in the spring at a restaurant called Tutti Matti in downtown Toronto. I was there writing about said tasting menu and talked to chef Alida Solomon extensively about the dishes – including about how she had just come up with the idea of adding the amaretti to the pumpkin puree for that special tasting menu. It could just be a coincidence, but probably not given Tansey’s bio.

Likewise, I’ve been buying jars of an olive and fig tapenade from a vendor at the One of a Kind Show for years, mostly because it doesn’t exist anywhere else. And this year – oh look, it’s in the Insider’s Report. I hope they at least contracted her to make the stuff for them instead of just ripping off her idea.

I won’t discount the fact that the Insider’s Report has been responsible for opening the Canadian market up to gourmet foodstuffs. They deserve a lot of credit for that, even if some of their products are duds. But is it wrong (or naieve) to expect a bit more honesty from a big corporation? Tell people straight-out that you’re expecting them to write a favourable review because you’ve given them swag, and then allow them the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want to take the stuff or not. And if you rip off an idea from a hard-working local chef, tip the hat in her direction. Maybe the marketing machine doesn’t work that way, maybe the “PC Insiders” would rather believe that the food they’re reviewing originated in some little hillside Italian village, but honestly, I’d be more inclined to buy that box of pasta knowing that the inspiration was from a local chef who makes the stuff fresh every single day. “Chef Alida makes this special pasta in her downtown Toronto restaurant every spring for the Italian Seasons Festival, but now you can have it at home throughout the year…”

I don’t presume to be immune to the marketing machine. I’m cynical by nature and that helps, and I hate dishonesty, but I still feel guilty when I get a freebie that I can’t write about, and I love the great feedback I get from places when I write something that pleases them. But I hate viral marketing – I think it’s incredibly manipulative and turns people into sheep unable to think for themselves or trust their own tastes, opinions and instincts.