It was way back in 2019 when they sent me the Waitrose Strawberry and cream sausage for a tasting. I hadn’t been writing about food for very long, so when the banger arrived . . . natural hog casing, pork, English strawberries and crème fraîche with a ‘hint of mint’, I took it at face value and believed that the new product development team had really launched the thing ‘to celebrate Wimbledon’.
I was young, I was naive, and above all I was thrilled to get the words “suppurating wen” into print. Damn, I was pleased with that image! But it was the start of a long trend, one that predictably enrages the food chatterati and one that I’ve had to learn to live with.
Every morning, the food media professional’s inbox brims with a boiling froth of fresh press releases, some for hopeful new products. Think “We’re disrupting the world of meat with our new yeast-based ham!” or “Oli & Wills’ ‘we-just-packed-in-our-city-jobs-and-moved-back-to-the-family-estate’ curated artisanal gins”, and all imbued with an uncalibrated excitement that they hope is infectious. They are sadly wrong. And then, at suspiciously regular intervals, particularly from big brands, you’ll see what I’ve grown to recognise as “Stunt Foods”.
I’m looking at one now. It’s from Heinz, announcing “Hot Cross Bun flavoured Mayonnaise”. If you care about food as much as I do, I suggest box-breathing — a technique developed by US Navy SEALs to reduce stress in combat situations . . . do it with me now. In for four . . . hold for four . . . out for four . . . hold for four. Repeat until your BP returns to acceptable parameters.
They’re proliferating. Terry’s Chocolate Orange After Eights, Jaffa Cake flavoured gin. Maybe they’re seasonal, like asparagus or norovirus.
This is my problem. The marketers roll out “extensions” to what are always described as national treasure brands and I respond with sclerotic, impotent rage. I don’t actually use these products at all and probably never would, but there’s something that just snaps. My eyeballs pop out, the veins pulse in my neck and my fingers pound the keys till my fingernails snap. WHY? WHY MESS WITH IT?
And, of course, I know why. I know exactly why. Because I’ve sat in those strategy meetings and even written those bloody releases.
Have you noticed how it’s the most trusted brands, the oldest, the originals, that can pull this off so well? If someone offering superfood smoothies decides to do a Marmite flavour, no story. If Marmite launches a goji berry and chia version, it’s a comment on the decline of civilisation, even a new front in the culture war.
It’s an easy dog-whistle. Announce that you’re taking salad cream off the shelves, propose changing the recipe of a traditional sauce or threaten to reduce the number of fingers in a popular bar of chocolate and we collectively respond with a whole cancan line of jerking knees.
Most of these ideas are just plain silly. The nation has certainly drawn a veil over those strawberry and cream sausages. When you actually try to find a jar of the accursed bun-flavoured mayo, in order to taste it and be publicly scornful, you quickly discover this involves entering a draw to win one of 100 in the “limited edition”.
The thing to grasp, though, is that these ridiculous, infuriating and often quite revolting-sounding launches actually create a virtuous circle.
The manufacturer develops and announces the product, the media amplify, the audience experience emotions ranging from eye-rolling to rage, then, once its done is work, the variant quietly fades away while the original is strengthened. Customers and brand are both happy. And often, nobody has to actually eat the stuff.