The Green, Mean Grassroots Branding Machine

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Originally published in Applied Arts Magazine, 2015

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There’s little doubt that the way we eat now (at least in developed countries) is unsustainable. A few possible futures from the experts:

“A diet more heavily reliant on plants and less on animals and junk, and a more sustainable agricultural system that moves away from chemical-intensive monocropping.”- Mark Bittman, writer for The New York Times and the author of How to Cook Everything.

“The arrival of ‘cruelty-free’ meat grown in vats and not in living animals could free up enormous quantities of grazing land worldwide to return to nature, reduce the water demand of agriculture, and be a big win for animal welfare.” - Stewart Brand, author of Whole Earth Discipline

“Twenty years from now companies like Beyond Meat will be making foods that taste just like meat but eliminate the need for cattle and other animals be eaten. This will result in us being able to utilize 35 times less lamb, 15 times less water and could be as much as 20 times less costly.” - Richard Branson

Well, okay. Two experts and an evangelist.

These prognostications are made in response to the fact that we can no longer afford to devote 70 per cent of arable land to growing feed for meat production. Agriculture is responsible for 50 per cent of antibiotic usage, one third of freshwater pollution with nitrogen and phosphorus, and almost all pesticide use. It is the biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a major driver of water quality degradation and habitat loss. As the population eclipses 7 billion it’s clear that humanity is on a collision course with its own appetite.

Hence the above predictions of a meatless future, a culinary warehouse of everything from in vitro protein production (a.k.a., fake meat) to the Jetsonian dream of a meal-in-a-pill. While such experiments are already underway, the closest we have come so far is something called “Soylent,” a concoction made of soy protein isolate, algal oil, canola oil, rice starch and oat fibre. It’s touted as a meal supplement that is capable of meeting the daily dietary requirements of a normal healthy adult.

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Available in powdered and liquid form, Soylent is, from a scientific perspective, a product that could be of great benefit to mankind. But it has one problem: the name makes it sound like the contents of a dirty diaper.

A clue to Soylent’s rather vomit-inducing moniker can be found in its provenance. It is based on the 1966 sci-fi novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison and a 1973 movie called Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston, wherein an over-populated, resource-exhausted planet runs out of conventional food and keeps what’s left of humanity alive by feeding them something called Soylent Green. The kicker of the film is that the stuff keeping humans alive is made of — yuck — other humans!

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The cult status of the film Soylent Green has been enhanced by a widespread grassroots response in the form of catchy ads and grisly package designs, all calibrated to mock the movie’s basic premise. Suffice to say there’s a lot more of this kind of imagery associated with the word “soylent” than there is of the actual product, a phenomenon that puts the actual brand in the curious position of having to compete in the public imagination with a sci-fi version of itself.

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Given the rich history of branding bequeathed to us by a century of consumer packaged goods marketers, you’d think that the creators of this product would have learned a thing or two about how to name and sell something destined for human consumption. Taste appeal, the food manufacturer’s greatest ally, has somehow fallen off the list of key product attributes prized by the makers of Soylent. But I guess that’s what happens when the creators of this wonder substance are not from the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant, but the Valley of Silicon.

Do yourselves a favour, Soylent. Hire a marketing firm and a decent package designer. You’re not feeding robots. You’re feeding people (and you’re not feeding them other people either). For the love of god, go back to the drawing board. wn