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[whitespace] cereal Photograph by Jeff Kearns

Food for Thought: General Mills has leapt into the spiritual marketing fray with Harmony, a cereal designed for women. A bowl of Harmony contains higher amounts of calcium and iron than regular cereal, but has 13 grams of sugar.

Spirit Crunch

Once the packaging schtick of organic farmers and independent health food producers, the mind, body, spirit marketing niche has a new pal: Madison Avenue. Is nothing sacred?

By Justin Berton

THE CEREAL AISLE inside Albertson's on 41st Avenue is a scary place. Down on the lower shelves--the ones that are eye-level to a 5-year-old--a vampire with slicked-back hair peers out over a bowl of chocolate pebbles. A few boxes to the left, a sugar-smacked bear flings spoonfuls of slop. And in between, a crazed rabbit is frozen in a hyperactive gaze.

On the top shelf, though, the cereal speaks to the adults. Brands boast about high fiber. One box pictures trim-looking adults jogging along the rim of a lake. Even Grape Nuts asks potential consumers to "Discover the Energy."

Among these top-shelf breakfasts-in-a-box, one stands out. The box is gently swathed in strokes of baby blue and soft yellow. Near the top, the silhouette of a woman's body raises her arms heavenward, in victory. It looks like a dream. Its name is Harmony.

I reach for it. On the back of the box, a middle-aged woman wearing a cable-knit sweater stands on a seashore, and again, she is raising her arms above her head. To some, like me, she is indicating that a field goal has been scored. To others, she is celebrating her empowerment.

On the back, in elegant italics, the ingredients--soy, folic acid, calcium--are accounted for, along with the cereal's philosophy: Meeting the nutritional needs of women is what Harmony cereal is all about.

I say what-the-hey and toss it in the cart. A few steps later, I notice a new cereal from the New Organics Co. They sell a generic-looking type of frosted flakes that are "Organically Certified." The top of the box suggests it will feed more than just my stomach--"Mind. Body. Spirit." Jeez, I say. Mind, body and spirit? I toss it in next to the Harmony.

Now that I'm aware of the spiritual movement taking place inside Albertson's, I'm curious to see how many products will deliver me down the path to solace. Over in the tissue aisle, Puffs sells dispensers that contain "inspiration." Dexatrim, the appetite suppressant, offers "Dexatrim Natural in Green Tea Formula." The box shows two leaves swirling into a ball to form what looks like the yin-yang symbol.

On the deodorant rack, Secret is selling a new sweat-stopper called Genuine, which allows you to "carry peace within your being." Tazo Tea, "The Reincarnation of Tea," claims that its tea, "blended with artistry bordering on magical, will soothe your soul." And Dixie Cup now sells "Expressions Cups," disposal cups that offer words of wisdom. Reads one, "The eyes are the windows to the soul."

I'm looking for it now, and I see it everywhere. I come across Depends, the diaper for those who've lost bladder control, and I see it has two new shelf competitors: Serenity and Poise. Serenity keeps you dry, but Poise allows you "The freedom to be yourself."

So what I want to know is, with Harmony in my cart and Poise in my hand, who stuck their Zen in my peanut butter?

Take Us Om

PROFESSOR RAJEEV BATRA, of the University of Michigan, knows who's responsible for all of this. He's co-authored four books on advertising and is considered a guru when it comes to tracking advertising fads and branding techniques.

Although Batra says he isn't aware of any hard data that proves spirituality-laced products are blazing a path to higher profits, his own observations have noticed a warm-and-fuzzy shift in advertising today. He suspects, not surprisingly, that that demographic gorilla named baby boomers--some 70 million people between the ages of 40 and 60--is guiding this long, hard look into the mirror. Batra says any shift in mainstream advertising copy can be attributed to a shift in the collective conscious of the average baby boomer.

"What's going on in their lives, and in their heads and in their hearts, is what Madison Avenue plays to," Batra says. "Research suggests as we get older, we become less concerned with the success of our careers and begin thinking in terms of the success of our spirituality."

And oh, how spirituality has become successful these days.

According to a poll taken by Spirituality and Health Magazine, more people now consider themselves "spiritual" as opposed to "religious." Being spiritual is taking a walk in the woods on weekends and rolling out the sticky mat at lunchtime; being religious means going to a church, getting on your knees and praying to a statue.

Yoga, as it turns out, is experiencing a wild and well-reported-on resurgence in popularity beyond the confines of places like Santa Cruz, which has long embraced the discipline. In response, Madison Avenue was quick to hear the chant of cash registers ringing.

In just the past few months, according to Advertising Age, brands such as Nike and DaimlerChrysler Jeep have featured their product users practicing yoga--and the ads didn't appear in Yoga Journal, a publishing juggernaut currently enjoying massive popularity. A new Oil of Olay television commercial focuses on a mother stretching out on a yoga mat while feeding her baby. The product helps mom enjoy a "complete life."

cup Driven to Drink: Longtime producers of organic foods and health-food-store staples say they resent the encroachment of large, mainstream corporations like Dixie Cup into their niche.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Soul Proprietors

IN OAKLAND, BURT ALPER is a strategy director and founding partner of Catchword, a national firm that creates names for products. Alper, 32, was born and raised in Berkeley, the self-proclaimed son of BoBos--short for the Bohemian Bourgeoisie--and picked up his MBA at Harvard Business School.

Alper's staff is beefed up with linguists who can turn a phrase on a dime and get a dollar in return. Catchword named products like the Spalding Infusion basketball, Adobe Photoshop Elements, Dreamery Ice Cream and, recently, the Oasis health bar for women.

Two years ago, after Clif Bar released the Luna Bar for women, Alper's company was quickly hired by rival Balance Bar to name a competitor. Alper and his crew chewed on the new product, interviewed its makers and took it through the weeks-long naming process. The team wanted to steer clear from giving it an overly feminine moniker, yet still convey "serenity and relaxation."

"It had to be for the woman who was healthy, energy-conscious, somewhat spiritual in a Zen sort of way," Alper explains. "It needed to give that lift, like a cup of coffee, but without the negative connotation associated with caffeine. And the word 'oasis' symbolized that safe-haven for her."

Alper agrees that brands and advertising campaigns are moving toward an inner-self ethos, but he sees it mostly in the New Agey Bay Area, compared to outside markets.

Still, Alper adds, he's hearing frequent requests from even his technology clients to give their products more melodic names. After a decade of Ciscos and Compaqs, it was time to put the Buddha in the Machine.

One tech company that came to Catchword offered a service that tracked where specific web users traveled on the Internet. Through interviews with company executives, Alper and his colleagues learned that the company offered something "other people couldn't see," and that the name had to reflect its broad capacity.

After several index searches and creative meetings, a colleague told the story of the Asian custom of reading tea leaves. According to Alper, the custom calls for an elder to dry out tea leaves, sprinkle them to the ground and, depending on the way they fall, read the future.

When Alper's team suggested the name Tea Leaf Technology, approval from the client was instantaneous. "It doesn't sound like a technology company," Alper says, "and that was important to them."

In Harmony's Way

ONLY 40 PERCENT of Americans went to a place of worship last year, but just about everybody ate something. And most likely, it was a brand item that they felt an emotional connection to.

So, do Americans really believe in spirituality? Probably not. Do they believe in cereal? You betcha.

But as products that are geared toward our minds and bodies start jumping from the shelves, they've still got a long way to go before they gain broad mainstream acceptance.

Megan Nightingale, assistant marketing director for Harmony, says the driving force of the product was always meeting women's nutritional needs. Harmony was "years and years in the making" and was munched on by hundreds of focus groups before it hit the market in January.

I asked Nightingale if Harmony was developed specifically to tap into the spirituality vibe.

"I don't know that Harmony was designed to speak to spirituality specifically," she said slowly. "But it does acknowledge today's women and where they're at--and certainly a part of what is important to women today is spirituality."

As I scribbled down this quote, a pause fell between us, and I could hear Nightingale rethink what she had just said. She perked up. "But I want to make it dead clear that we did not design Harmony as a spiritual cereal per se."

That said, General Mills is working hard to make sure Harmony lands in a lot of shopping carts, regardless of why.

Earlier this year, as the official story of Harmony goes, a Santa Monica woman named Marsh Engle mourned the passing of her mother. At the funeral, Engle was taken aback by how many people commented on her mother's compassion and personal strength. Inspired, she set out to create "Amazing Woman's Day," a national day where women could just "stop to recognize how wonderful they actually are."

As Engle planned it, she envisioned meeting places inside shopping malls in 10 cities across the country where women could converge, listen to motivational speakers and participate in seminars.

Though Engle had more passion than proceeds, she says she went to General Mills and gave them the chance to sponsor the event. In the end, General Mills underwrote the entire nationwide event. In return, Harmony set up booths for promoting the cereal and attached its name to everything in sight.

By Engle's account, Amazing Woman's Day was a booming success, thanks largely to General Mills. A lot of cereal was shared and presumably eaten, and afterward Engle didn't have to return to her old job as a promotional marketer for the entertainment industry. Instead, General Mills continued its support, which has allowed Engle to work year-round on her project.

When I asked Engle if she ate Harmony (despite the cereal's high mineral content, 60 percent of the recommended daily allowance of calcium and 50 percent of the RDA of iron, each serving contains 13 grams of sugar), she gave an enthusiastic yes. "Their cereal is a wonderful cereal with a lot of good ingredients for women." She went on to say the cereal was "well received" and that "energetically, the cereal is what we're all about."

After learning of Engle's background in marketing, my inner reporter sensed she might have been brought in by General Mills to push their cereal. Engle told me her mother died in 2001, which would have been just weeks before Amazing Woman's Day took place--a quick turnaround to organize a national party.

With some reservation, I asked her again if General Mills hadn't planned the whole thing and come up with her story, and she insisted that she was motivated only by her mother's death to create the day of womanly recognition. General Mills, it turned out, just happened to have the right product at the right time.

Garden of Eating

ALBERTSON'S IS THE FIRST mainstream grocery store to carry products from the ever-expanding New Organics Co. It's no fluke. New Organics was founded in 1997 by two grocery store executives who had one thing in mind: "To bring organic foods to the mainstream," says Anthony Zolezzi, president.

And it's certainly a good time to be an organic food company treading in the mainstream. According to the Organic Foods Association, consumption of their synthetic-free products has grown 20 percent every year for the past 11 years, and retail sales of organics in 2001 are projected at $9.3 billion; by 2005, sales are expected to reach nearly $20 billion.

The New Organics Co., for its part, offers pastas, corns, cereals, mustard, condiments and a new line of children's foods--all of them made from products with minimal pesticide residue, Zolezzi says.

The push into the middle ground has angered some longtime organic-foodies who complain that the "industrialization" of organics will only lead to the oft-feared "organic Twinkie" and compromise the principles of eating healthy, all in the name of earning the coveted "Certified Organic" seal. Players like The New Organics Co. that tout a product for the "Mind/Body/Spirit" are viewed as the greedy uncle who stole the secret family recipe, watered it down and sold it to the masses. Mind. Body. Profit.

Zolezzi says his company hasn't heard of any backlash from the smaller organic companies since the New Organics Co. arrived, yet he accepts the market tension that exists.

"There's always going to be some people in any industry who are unhappy," he says. "But we haven't heard anything like that. Look, the bottom line is that everyone has the same goals. Everyone wants a safer planet, a cleaner earth and healthier food. Doesn't matter how it happens, who profits or how it gets to market--just as long as we all meet those goals."

A few Sunday mornings ago, I slumbered into a Starbucks. Fuzzyheaded and groggy and far, far away from any locally owned coffee store, I took my place at the back of a single-file line, behind 10 other caffeine junkies.

Now, there is no denying that Starbucks has become the decal for mainstream. A man wearing Gap khakis, a Gap shirt and Nike running shoes stood in front of me. And there was another guy dressed just like him a few dudes in front of him.

In my grumpy haze, I wondered why more people weren't working behind the counter. It was Sunday morning, good God.

As I waited, I looked to the right of the cashier's stand and noticed a large yellow poster advertising a recent addition to the Starbucks product line: "Zen Dream Tea." Next to the cash register, in point-of-purchase placing, were a few boxes of Zen Dream Tea.

I studied the product as the line moved forward. If I drink the tea, I'll have Zen, yeah? I'll have dreams? I'll have Zen dreams? What the hell is a Zen dream, anyway? And can it be purchased?

I was curious enough to try.

"I'll have one large Zen Dream Tea, please."

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From the October 10-17, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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