As consumers return to their kitchens and lean on reliable brands during an uncertain year, we revisit the great American marketing tactic: the branded recipe
When pineapples were introduced to a wide American audience at the turn of the century, home cooks weren’t quite sure what to do with the prickly, bulbous fruit. In a savvy marketing move, James Dole—the Pineapple King himself—offered recipes to curious homemakers interested in adding the exotic food to their menus.
In their earliest forms, branded recipes helped to introduce Americans to a food product and provided suggestions for how to use it. Christina Ward, author of “American Advertising Cookbooks: How Corporations Taught Us to Love Bananas, Spam, and Jell-O,” references Rumford Baking Powder as an early example: “Leavening was something that people were rigging up at home,” she says. “When you have the introduction of baking powder in the 1870s, it had to include a recipe to teach people how to use it.”
One of the best ways to reach the home cook was through women’s magazines. Marty Ordman, communications director at Dole Packaged Foods, says Dole frequently ran its recipes in the so-called Seven Sisters magazines—publications aimed at homemakers that included McCall’s, Woman’s Day and Better Homes and Gardens. Not only were these food products being introduced to the target audience, but the magazines were purveyors of an idyllic American lifestyle. If a Hellman’s-branded recipe for chicken salad was good enough for the pages of Good Housekeeping, it was certainly appropriate for the family picnic table.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has driven a renewed interest in home cooking, stay-at-home kitchen crusaders are likely revisiting these classic, simple recipes. Ward says ghost nostalgia—a sentimentality for an era in which some consumers never lived—during the pandemic may help explain the longing for beloved brands and recipes. “You have this ideal, a perfection that never existed that was a ‘Leave It to Beaver’-ness—a perfect society, a perfect time when everybody was happy,” she says. “A lot of the branding of that time period and the ’60s [and] ’70s and these foods represent that perfect family, that ideal situation. People are [now] looking to recreate that for themselves and bring themselves some comfort.”
Cooking at home is on the rise and has propelled a return to simpler, more accessible forms of cooking—a trend that began before the pandemic. Branded recipes shine here, too. Companies don’t want to put consumers off by presenting complex, multi-step cooking projects; just about anyone should find the branded recipe doable, otherwise they won’t purchase the star ingredient.
We’re sure you’ve heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so to celebrate #BetterBreakfastMonth and our #SunshineForAll program, here’s a recipe to make a nutritious breakfast at home. pic.twitter.com/u3kIKZtTyR
— Dole Packaged Foods (@DoleSunshine) September 17, 2020
And as consumers have reached for tried-and-true brands while doing their pandemic grocery shopping, they’re also likely to look to the brand for recipe inspiration.
Looking for some recipe inspo for that Dole Organic #Pineapple you just bought? 🍍 Try making these Buffalo Bites with Chicken & Pineapple. Simple and tasty, the whole fam is sure to love it! 😍 #dolerecipes #NFVM2020 https://t.co/geHyOVqGQq pic.twitter.com/QpDRTBVuX2
— Dole Tweets (@DoleTweets) September 18, 2020
“One of our flagship historical items, canned pineapple, which lasts a long time in the pantry—it just makes sense for a stay-at-home situation where you don’t want to make as many trips to the grocery store,” says Julie Pierrat, senior manager of consumer services and test kitchens at Dole. “We have really seen an uptick in our business overall. With that, consumers are calling us to get ideas on how to use [the items]. They’ll ask to be run through the steps of a specific recipe, or they’ll ask for more recipes: ‘I’ve got this can of pineapple slices in the pantry, what else can I make besides upside-down cake?’”
When consumers trust the brand, they’re more likely to trust the recipe— and that hand-in-hand pairing often means that a home cook isn’t willing to make substitutions with another brand that could undermine a successful dish. Pierrat says this happens notably with special occasion meals.
“Many of the specialists that work in my department have stories where pineapple upside-down cake or angel lush cake are part of every Easter or Thanksgiving celebration, and they would only accept using Dole,” she says. “With an occasion that’s that important, it’s really critical that you make sure you’re using the best brands. They’ve relied on us for their special occasion for generations.”
Consider the classic green bean casserole: Although many families likely attribute the recipe to their own grandmother, it was actually invented by Dorcas Reilly in 1955. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Reilly was working at Campbell Soup’s test kitchen where she was tasked with creating a recipe that would appear in The Associated Press. The recipe had to include Campbell’s mushroom soup and green beans, along with other ingredients that any home cook would have on hand. Thus, the Thanksgiving staple was forged.
The trust that flows between brand, recipe and home cook continues unabated. Where it began with recipes printed in magazines and branded cookbooks (Pierrat says Dole still receives requests for such booklets), it’s moved onto social media and YouTube videos. Online food network Tasty, owned by Buzzfeed, has produced recipe videos sponsored by brands such as Godiva and Baileys. Companies also partner with cooking influencers and other trusted food brands. That Campbell’s green bean casserole? It’s not complete without French’s Original Crispy Fried Onions on top.
As brands move into new formats for sharing their recipes, they’re also keeping pace with food trends. Pierrat says Dole is developing new recipes for health-conscious consumers (smoothies and salads, for example) or updating older recipes to include less sugar.
“We have a long history and legacy of recipes and product usage and balancing those generational family recipes with what today’s consumer is looking for,” Ordman says.
Whether from grandma’s worn index cards, snipped from the Sunday circular or saved as a screenshot from Instagram, branded recipes continue to provide home cooks with the reassurance they crave in any era.