The winter 2012-13 issue of the Concordia University Magazine features a four-part series on the role food plays in culture, business, nutrition and defining who we are. In this fourth segment of four, Jordan LeBel, associate professor of marketing in the John Molson School of Business, says food marketing has never been hotter.
“Food for thought” is a common turn of phrase. Thought for food? Well, that sums up Jordan LeBel. LeBel, a John Molson School of Business (JMSB) associate professor of marketing, discloses that as a teen he wanted to be a pastry chef. His dad was against it, so he studied management instead. Yet his fascination for culinary delights, especially chocolate, never diminished. Except now, LeBel’s musings come with a heavy dollop of marketing.
His goal is to understand why consumers choose the food they do, especially what he calls “pleasure” foods. Why, then, do dubious doughnuts and savoury snacks sing to us?
LeBel cites two reasons: “bottom-up” factors, such as how long it has been since our last meal; and “top-down” factors that can include one’s mood and mental images and associations. “Comfort foods are imbued with a special sort of magical power,” says LeBel, who is also director of the Luc Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research at JMSB. “They help you get over whatever ails you at the time.”
His latest project involves Québec en Forme (QeF), a non-governmental organization looking “to qualify and quantify the food supply in three of 140 communities the organization is involved in across Quebec.” QeF hopes to determine “how easy it is to eat healthy in those communities.”
Who better than supermarket leaders to answer that question, right? Not necessarily. “Most people think supermarkets are in the food business,” real estate business. They sell square footage and make money off that.”
So who is responsible for access to good food: consumers or industry? As a member of the World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence, which aligns business with public health interests, LeBel — and his students — often asks the same question.
Why? “Because food is trendy,” he says. “Look at food media. They need content and food shows are really hot. We call it gastro-porn.” Little wonder that LeBel’s Food Marketing course is wildly popular. “Students are interested, but they need the tools to succeed.”
So do modern supermarket clients. “Consumers have more access to information but are not necessarily better informed,” he says. “There’s a lot of confusion and so the industry has moved to decision aids [helpful graphics] on front-of-pack logos.”
Fair-trade, environmental and other “green” logos only add to the existing information deluge, LeBel points out. “If you don’t do your homework and just buy on the basis of a logo, then you think you know more but you don’t necessarily. There are 420 different certification logos for green marketing
and eco-friendly products.”
Beyond the white noise of consumer information, LeBel predicts food safety and industry transparency will remain a vibrant issue. Sustainable business practices will grow more sophisticated too. “We’ve seen a lot of ‘green-washing and lip service paid to certain things, but as consumers educate themselves and go beyond this initial step of confusion, certain things are here to stay.”
One hopes that includes hot dogs.