Culinary Diplomacy: The Ultimate Branding Strategy
I was cooking dinner the other night and was so tuned into a fascinating podcast that I dropped a jar of salsa all over the floor. (That’s not a euphemism. It happened. It was messy.)
The something was episode 551 of the Splendid Table. There was a segment about cacao, an interview with John Gorham of Toro Bravo… It was all pretty interesting, and I encourage you to listen to the episode here. But what led to my salsa fiasco came in around the 24–minute mark:
For those unfamiliar with the term, culinary diplomacy is what research consultant and culinary diplomat Sam Chapple-Sokol calls “an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions in cooperation.” Or, to put it simply, “using food to get along with people, to talk with people and to get to know them better.”
Talk about a dream job.
The Splendid Table feature touches on a variety of topics facing two of Grady Britton’s core industries: food and beverage, and tourism and destination marketing. If you’re involved in either industry (or you like, you know, eating and/or traveling), the segment may leave you thinking about both in an entirely new way.
Take Chapple-Sokol’s first anecdote, for example. In 2002, to drive tourism to its country, the Thai government launched the Global Thai program, which incentivized chefs to go abroad and open Thai restaurants in other countries in order to introduce more eaters to Thai cuisine. Today, there are nearly 10,000 Thai restaurants around the world (a little less than half the worldwide number of Starbucks locations), and tourism to Thailand has grown by 163% since 2000, from 10 million visitors to 26.74 million visitors in 2013. Mind you, that’s after the 2003 SARS scare, the 2004 tsunami, and years of global recession.
Clearly, at least for Thailand, the approach worked. It was and still is a radically different way to think about destination branding. In lieu of a marketing campaign, consumers get to experience a preview of a destination before visiting—a literal taste of what’s to come. It works because food is often our first immersive experience with a different culture.
Food isn’t just food; it is culture. Through its flavor, rituals, and ingredients, food tells cultural stories. We learn different ways to eat and taste. Our palettes reconfigure. We’re taught what to look for, how to tell if a dish is prepared authentically or not. We discover cultural similarities and differences, along with our own preferences and biases. And often, we pick up some new words along the way.
Sounds a lot like travel, doesn’t it? But culinary diplomacy has equally vast implications for food manufacturers and preparers.
In food and beverage marketing, the number one strategy is trial: you test out a new product before you start scaling its supply chain.
Culinary diplomacy takes trial to a whole new level.
- If you think of a country as a super-brand, one that’s developed through centuries of influence and iteration, food is a pathway. Cuisine not only helps a destination gauge and grow its global interest; it acts as a representative of the brand.
- Food is a cultural export. For restaurants, cooks, and food and beverage distributors and manufacturers, this means both a responsibility and an opportunity: a responsibility to represent the “brand” (the culture or cultures the food comes from) and an opportunity to define the brand through personal expression of a culture. For people who have never visited Thailand, an individual Thai chef’s take on tom yum can stand in for the entire country.
In truth, culinary diplomacy isn’t that far removed from my real job, or what we at Grady Britton help our clients achieve every day. We have to weigh the same considerations: what flavors and stories do we expose our client’s audience to? What does our marketing message say about a brand culture, and what does it leave out?
So, PDX folks: what would go in Portland’s media kit? What would you pick to represent our city, or Thailand, or your own cultural destination? Play culinary diplomat along with us and leave a comment, or reach out to us on Facebook with your thoughts.