Food Marketing in 2014 Will Be Ugly

Photograph by Marcus Nilsson/Gallery Stock

Beauty is so boring, or so declares advertising firm JWT. Its 2014 trends report predicts that next year will be one to be “proudly imperfect”—including in the world of food. The rugged hand-made look is already spreading, from imperfectly shaped “artisan” pizzas at Domino’s, to uneven “carving board” cuts of Oscar Meyer turkey, to eggs that aren’t shaped like discs in McDonald’s Egg White Delight McMuffins.

“Imperfection and even outright ugliness—the quirky, the messy, and the flawed—are taking on new appeal in a world that’s become neatly polished and curated,” the report states. It goes on to explain how everything, including but not limited to selfies (duck face), modeling (brands are crowdsourcing “real people models”), and parents (enter the Type A-minus mother), is embracing fallibility. It’s ostensibly a symptom of a newfound appreciation for individuality and authenticity. We are ready for the red pill.

Of course, this is not the first time people have rejected the flawless as fake. Embracing authenticity—and its inherent flaws—has been the anthem of generations. In the tradition of trend forecasting, the imperfectionism discussed in JWT’s report never goes past the superficial. In food, it suggests merely that next year we’ll see more food that looks imperfect. Take the turkey in Oscar Mayer’s Carving Board line of sliced meat. It’s cut thick and uneven to look like home-cooked leftovers, but as JWT explains, that requires a process that took the company two years to develop. The so-called imperfection of the product is as deliberate as it is false. Packaging actual leftover meat—or any product with more serious flaws, for that matter—likely wouldn’t be as appetizing to consumers.

While pursuing perfection hints at aspiration to a perfectly controlled, ordered universe—one in which watermelons can be transformed from ovals to cubes by sheer force of will and inventiveness—pursuing imperfection, even cosmetic imperfection, has other connotations. Do consumers now truly value flavor over appearance? The most tasty food doesn’t always look the best. Or is this just the logical extension of the recent anti-mass-industrial trend toward “artisanal,” “craft,” and “small-batch” everything, in which small blemishes connote, at times misleadingly, a return to the simple? If we are buying rough-hewn furniture and limited-edition beer, why would we expect any less from our food?

Almost six in 10 people surveyed by JWT say they “like goods that are a little flawed or imperfect”—notice the word “little”—and seven in 10 find beauty in flaws. The survey never asks how flawed they’re willing to go. In an age of epic food waste, it’s reassuring that consumers may find something charming about a bruised apple, but would they prefer it to a flawless apple that cost the same? Preferences often are emotional, and JWT’s point, perhaps, is: Only if the marketing is persuasive enough.

Considering that my life is already rife with imperfection, I am ultimately more interested in some of the other food trends JWT predicts for 2014: Chinese wines, cocktails on tap, craft mocktails, DIY dinner kits, natural food dyes, edible packaging, fast-food tofu, homemade baby food delivery, flavored ice cubes, orange wine, regional ethnic cuisine, savory yogurt, smart vending machines, silent meals, Soju liquor, “stealth health” (when restaurants quietly give dishes healthy makeovers), and veggie-focused dishes. I am willing to forego perfection in all.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.