Avocados, ethics and supermarket histories

15 June 2009 at 9:09 am 2 comments


Alex Steer writes:

The avocado pear’s name is the product of selective memory. Our word for the South American vegetable comes originally from the Nahuatl word ahuacatl, which means ‘testicle’. This unfamiliar word was borrowed into Spanish, but mishearing and confusion with the easier-to-remember word for ‘advocate’ or ‘lawyer’, avocado, led to this being used for the pear. Avocado was borrowed into English in the late 17th century, and has stuck.

The avocado has in recent weeks found itself at the centre of a standoff between two supermarkets. Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer have launched TV adverts – commemorating their 140th and 125th anniversaries respectively – in which they each appear to take the credit for introducing the avocado to Britain. The avocado is now an advocate in supermarkets’ increasingly fierce battle for market share, but it is arguing the case for both sides.

There has been no shortage of ads harking back to the past recently – Sainsbury’s, M&S, Hovis, Persil – and no shortage of commentators noticing this. Most have identified that behind these campaigns lies a perceived yearning by consumers for the securities of nostalgia and tradition. Hovis’s strapline – ‘As good today as it’s always been’ – resonates with wary, recession-weary shoppers who are longing for a little sanity. Nostalgia brands are brands that have stayed the course; brands you can trust.

But Sainsbury’s and M&S are not just saying they are reliable retailers. They are saying they are responsible, ethical ones, and that they always were: employing women, helping the planet, doing their bit for the war effort. These campaigns are histories, written to appeal to the values and good citizenship modern consumers seek from brands.

The demand for corporate social responsibility is relatively new, and it’s hard for older brands not to look like they’re jumping on today’s bandwagon, compared to new brands who have built CSR into their blood and bone. By framing their histories in terms of modern values, retailers are telling consumers that, unlike the avocado, they were always advocates, representing quality and fairness. It remains to be seen if consumers will buy this, or conclude that it’s all a load of ahuacatls.

The picture at the top – a photograph of a painting – is borrowed, with thanks, from Betweenland on flickr.

Entry filed under: brands, economic downturn, food, marketing. Tags: , , , .

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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.

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