Category Archives: consumer marketing

The truth about polenta

What’s so good about polenta? In no particular order: it’s inexpensive, easy to cook, versatile, tastes good, and doesn’t sit in your stomach like a rock the way so many other foods do. Also, it’s comforting not just when it’s freshly cooked and still has that gruel-like consistency, but also when you let it cool and then steam, fry, grill, or broil it with whatever vegetables and fruits and sauces you like. When it’s good, polenta transports you to a home where things are almost simple, you can get by without cruelty, and people’s lives complement each other without needless friction. It’s a dream, but nonetheless enjoyable and possibly worth looking for.

Finally, polenta reminds me of the millet gruel my grandmother used to cook when I was little. It was a summer dish, usually served with fruit, and one of the few things that remained edible even after she was done with it. When she made this, she was usually in a good mood, unless she overcooked it, which meant it burnt and stuck to the pot, and it took lots of work to clean up. When she felt serene, she didn’t want to talk, didn’t bother me, didn’t make me go on a boring walk with her, but spent the afternoon looking at her magazines and leaving me alone. Just what I wanted.

In North American grocery stores, pre-cooked polenta in plastic casings that make it look like a fat yellow sausage has been available for many years. It is usually bland, but can acquire a kind of burned-rubber taste that goes well with the dull, mealy texture. Sometimes, these polenta products are flavored with basil, specks of “sundried” tomato, pistachios, or other things. Those add some visual appeal, but never any flavor. The only flavor in these polenta products apart from the residual plastic taste is salt. Don’t waste your money on them. The plastic can’t be recycled, so it hangs around your trash can and then piles up in the landfill.

Dry cornmeal—which is what polenta is—can be bought in many of the same places that will sell you these lame polenta rolls. Several food companies produce it in North America, and you also find it imported from Italy. At least one type of polenta by a U.S. supplier always turns out gritty and never quite sticks together, unless you cook it for a very long time and use a lot of water. You can get what’s said to be instant polenta, which is supposedly ready in a few minutes. It’s edible at that point, but not as good as when you cook it a little longer. So there’s no real advantage to purchasing the instant versions.

Standard polenta, every cookbook tells you, has to be prepared in boiling, salted water. You pour it in slowly and stir, so it doesn’t clump. Then you keep watching and stirring it until you’re happy with it. The part about the boiling water, sure, that’s true. Stirring for an eternity, like the half hour or whatever the experts insist on, no, that’s totally unnecessary. Stir it for a few minutes, cover it and let it sit over low heat, then maybe add some broth or water to be absorbed, stir it again, and so forth. You can do other kitchen work while you cook polenta. Or, read. Or do nothing. When polenta gets hot, it likes to spit little flecks of itself onto your arms and hands. You might want to stir it with a long-handled tool.

After about twenty minutes or so, the polenta has absorbed all the liquid and then some, and it has a pleasant, slightly foamy, resilient, gruel texture. You can serve it as a side dish with whatever vegetables or salad you’ve prepared. You can also pour it into a container to stand and cool before you do more with it.

Or, do this: When you like the state of the polenta and before it’s quite ready to either cool off or be consumed, you toss in the cherries, blueberries, soaked raisins, chocolate chips, thin-sliced leeks, diced Brussels sprouts, olives, capers, roasted peppers, grated cheese, small-cut greens, herbs, and additional seasonings of your preference, and give it all a good stir. Then you let the mixture cook over low heat for about five to ten more minutes. A couple of days ago, I made cherry polenta this way.

Homemade cherry polenta

The overnight-cooled block of cherry polenta before it was cut up into sections to be fried.

I removed the pits from the cherries while the polenta was cooking, and threw them in when it was ready. I added cinnamon and honey for flavor and depth. I poured the mix into a flat glass bowl to cool. The following day, I cut it into wedges, which I fried with a little butter and cinnamon, and served with a cold mix of raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, seasoned with a little mango chutney.

When you let the polenta cool, it’s best to do it at room temperature and without a lid over it. In the refrigerator, the texture may turn sort of brittle and any flavor can fade away. And, if you put a lid over it, evaporating liquid will gather on that and drip back onto the polenta, where you don’t really want it.

Your additions should remain mostly intact even while their flavor pervades the polenta. Thus, raspberries are probably not good to use, but little chunks of pineapple, cherries, or blueberries, sure. Their juice infuses the polenta. If you add vegetables, keep the pieces or slices very small, because the dish will be more flavorful that way, and it will remain more manageable. Also, you need to watch the proportions. If you add too much fruit or vegetable matter, the cooling polenta won’t hold together nicely and will be a pain to cut, fry or otherwise reheat, and serve. Your polenta mix should probably not have more than about one fifth to a quarter of whatever foods that are not boiled cornmeal. And, be careful with the salt, especially when you make a savory polenta. Saltiness tends to become more intense as the polenta cools and is reheated, something you will not always want.

You can add cream or yogurt to fruity polenta right at the end, if you want it to have a very rich texture and flavors. If you do that, the polenta should have cooked at the lowest heat for a while, or else the cream or yogurt will simply vanish in it and leave barely a trace, but will make it harder to clean up the cooking pot. Similarly, if you add grated cheese to polenta with vegetables, do it when just before you let it cool.

Ideally, whatever you add to polenta should harmonize with it. Let it be simple. Clean flavors, not more than one or two different things. Later, if you reheat and serve the polenta with other foods, you can expand a little. But its simplicity is why polenta remains comforting. I know people cook it with expensive cheeses and other high-grade additions, and one commercial product is pre-flavored with truffles. To me, that strays too much from polenta’s origins in the plain kitchens of Italian cucina povera, and they add calories which most people won’t need.

You can let a thin film of polenta cool on a baking sheet, or slice your polenta loaf or other shape that way. Then you can use those polenta layers as the strata in lasagna-style dishes. Those, too, are best when you keep them simple. Portobello and other mushrooms together with spinach can work well in this. The mushroom juice can soak into the polenta, which could make for great flavor, or, if it’s too much, cause it to fall apart. You just have to experiment.

Another thing that’s satisfying about polenta: when it’s well-cooked, it comes cleanly off the sides of the pot, and washing the dish and the utensils is a minor chore. Some people love washing dishes and other cleaning tasks, but for those of us who want to minimize them, polenta is perfect.

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Perfect marketing for a good cause: Have a drink in Vancouver

What happens when you provide an item everybody needs and link it to a worthwhile cause that requires no additional activity from consumers? You can raise lots of funds, for one thing.

Take water, for example. Everybody needs it. You probably drink it yourself.

In Vancouver, BC, you can help the homeless by purchasing a small bottle of water. You won’t be badgered about it, and it’s unlikely you’ll feel smug. Depending on how thirsty you are, you might not even notice what you did.

On a warm day in June, I walked into Café Bica and got some We Love Van water. They sell other water there, but I l liked the simple design. And, visiting from Seattle—how could I not? I almost recycled the bottle before I noticed the statement on the label: “10¢ of every bottle of water you purchase is used to care for Vancouver’s homeless.” The organization’s website explains how the donations work and introduces the Lookout Society through a short video. It also tells you why they chose the kind of plastic they use, and addresses some common misconceptions about plastic recycling.

When in Vancouver, drink lots of water.

If you’ve been to Vancouver, you probably do love it, so the drink’s name will appeal. Vancouver is one of the most beautiful and interesting cities in the world. As you probably know, housing is very expensive there, hard-drug addiction and alcoholism are huge problems, and a large homeless population lives right next to wealth and elegance. If you live there, you meet the homeless, day after day, unless you take steps to avoid and ignore them. The Lookout Society has a strong, successful program in helping people in a dignified, gracious manner.

The We Love Van website, Facebook page, and Twitter stream use the same, appealing visual brand and an upbeat tone. I’m intrigued by the fact that the homeless support message is treated very lightly—no images of miserable people, no exhortations, no moralizing. The Facebook page shows a few images of homeless people, but most of the content is really about one’s affection for the city and sustainability concerns.

I know that it’s very easy to judge the homeless and be bothered by them, all the more so when you are made to feel as if you are lacking in integrity if you don’t help. We Love Van entirely avoids that emotional mess by attractively presenting a necessary product and letting water drinkers feel good. Imagine what one could accomplish with this approach. After all, there are other things everybody has to have. Connectivity. Operating systems. Electricity. Gas. Think about it!

I hope you’ll be thirsty in Vancouver.

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Three flavors of Nutella marketing

Do you like Nutella? I admit I do. I know it’s not exactly a health food. Nutella used to be a luxury item in our house, but by now I buy a new plastic container whenever we run out. Many years ago, Nutella came in glass jars and became dry and brittle if you didn’t eat it soon. And, if you can imagine that, it was even harder to wash off spreading knives than it is today. First brought to market in 1964, Nutella once was an artisanal, not an industrial, product. The original recipe was based on a dessert in North Italian “cucina povera,” the cooking of the poorer people.

On a slow day, I found it interesting to take a look at the Italian, French, and U.S. Nutella sites and informally compare them. Considering that Nutella is a simple breakfast spread, I found an astounding amount of messages and content to review. You may think people eating Nutella the world around are all about the same—they like the flavor, the smell, the sensation of spreading the product on warm toast, and how nice it feels if you don’t eat too much of it. But the marketers clearly don’t think so. A lot of this may seem trivial, but a lot of thinking and discussion clearly went into it.

The U.S. site presents a large, static picture of a woman and three children.

Nutella USA

They are all smiling. Each of the children has an untouched slice of white bread with Nutella, smeared with great regularity, no closer to the edge of the bread than about an inch. Links above and clickable graphics below take you to content about the product’s history, sweepstakes, merchandise, and Facebook page.

The Italian and German pages are much more fragmented—they look like European tabloids. They also have rotating content highlights at the top level of the site. Currently, the European soccer championship games are still going on. The German site offers Nutella-filled glasses with pictures of the national team’s players. In typical German fashion (I remember), there’s not a square millimeter left Nutella-free on the surface of the half bun that illustrates what you’re supposed to do with the product. Cookbooks are very popular in Germany, and so is authoritative research. The site lets you purchase a Nutella cookbook, read Nutella-sponsored research about German breakfast habits, and buy fine German cutlery from marketing partner WMF.

Nutella Deutschland

The Italian site plays you a video with opera-like, Nutella-praising vocals on the soundtrack. I’ve seen many times that Italian marketing has fun playing with opera-related clichés. The people depicted here are healthy-looking, youthful adults. No families with children, which you see on the U.S. and German sites. Italian Nutella wants to be cool and sexy, whereas U.S. and German Nutella aims for a happy family around the breakfast table. And, as you probably know, many contemporary Italians are reluctant to have children. With all the different graphical elements, I find the Italian Nutella homepage a bit too busy (but I’m from Germany, of course) and didn’t want to stay long, but it’s very typical for Italian consumer marketing.

Nutella Italia

As one might expect, the Italian Nutella site features the product’s history very prominently. You can review several sections with historical content and download a PDF if you’re really into it. The voice of the copy here is full of pride. If you are really serious about Nutella, read the surprisingly loquacious blog. The writing uses a personable, occasionally authoritative style, especially when it addresses parents who are to give their children a good, Nutella-enhanced breakfast. I did enjoy the entry about edible utensils—cups, spoons, and stirrers that slowly dissolve or can be nibbled. Probably not the best things to put into your body, but remember where we found this content. There’s also an entry about an iPad app that lets you keep your coffee warm by setting the cup on the device. Is that really a good idea?

The German site has a list of FAQs, but very little additional content outside of special and co-marketing offers. The U.S. site offers more material, including a page about Nutella and Family. The content is partly derivative of an entry on the Italian Nutella blog, but the tone is a little less formal and it’s more unabashedly a marketing statement. Do the Nutella marketers think of Americans as family types that can tolerate marketing messages and glean interesting content from them better than a lot of other people? The history section of the U.S. site is very brief, but it does show you a picture of Pietro Ferrero, who started it all. Somebody must also have thought that the American viewers like illustrations, but don’t want to see too much in the way of words and detail.

The treatment of social media is interesting, too, and maybe it echoes the maturity of Facebook acceptance. In many ways and over and over, the Italian site suggests you join and like Nutella on Facebook. The U.S. site is quite restrained about that—one hint in the southeast corner of the pages is enough. And the German site? It’s even more matter-of-fact than that, with a small-scale invitation at the bottom left.

I could go on, but won’t. But now I wonder if Nutella tastes different in Italy, Germany, and the U.S. There’s one way to find out.


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