Can Crisco Go Virgin?

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an oil bottleIn recent months I’ve become very interested in all things branding. It takes blood, sweat, and tears to build a brand’s reputation and even more to maintain it. I’ve recently noticed the amount of people who choose to use popular brand names synonymously with the common nouns or verbs. For example  Kleenex: tissue. Google: look up. Levi’s: blue jeans. Dockers: khaki’s. Now, I’m saving the legality and pros and cons on this for a later post, but what I want to know is what happens when a brand’s name is used negatively, like Crisco.

What comes to mind when you hear the word Crisco? I think of lard, baking, cupcakes, or anything that is delicious and disastrous to your body. Apparently so does dictionary.com. If you search “crisco” on dictionary.com you would find the following definition in their slang dictionary: “a fat person. (Cruel. Also a rude term of address. The brand name of a baking shortening.): Some crisco came in and ordered ten large fries.

Now I’ll play fair and say I never once heard or used the term Crisco to describe an overweight individual. At the same time, when I think of Crisco it’s not associated with anything good for my health.

This type of unintentional branding can be very harmful to a company, especially when they want to spread their wings, change gears, and produce new product lines. Crisco recently released its new line of olive oil. In the commercial for it, they demonstrate which types of olive oil should be used when baking a turkey or a vegetable pizza. My immediate reaction to the commercial was an ironic chuckle. A brand that I associate in a negative light is now providing and promoting healthier alternatives.

When searching their site, I learned of Crisco’s other products. Who knew they had more to offer than vegetable oil and shortening?  It could be my lack of food shopping, or even cooking, that causes my ignorance but I place the blame with branding.

How can a company bounce back from negative brand identity? Will their loyal consumers choose their olive oil over another well known brand? Can they successfully reverse the branding and promote their new product?

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  • @jaykeith

    Really interesting topic, but I would argue that the Crisco is actually 100% ok with the fact that their base product (Crisco) isn't exactly healthy. The reason? There are a large group of people who still want those unhealthy options and will use them in cooking, because quite simply, they make things taste better. All you have to do is watch Paula Dean's cooking show. Of course a large portion of America is actually moving towards being healthier and eating better, but they also “cheat” and find ways to moderate “sweet eating” and still having what they crave. I would argue that Crisco is very happy with having cornered the home shortening marketplace, and any healthy options they come out with are just “bonus money.”

    I think that the bigger question is, is having a negative brand perception with one segment of the population (healthy eater), but a good one with another (people who love sweets), really all that bad? Would you rather dominate the market with an unhealthy product, or make options for every consumer?

    But you're right, on some level they might have to overcome that “stigma” with other products, something that they are obviously trying to do. I wonder how much their name impacts sales negative as well as positively?

  • http://twitter.com/tjdietderich TJ Dietderich

    I have NEVER heard Crisco used as a slang term for overweight people. That's just too clever to be real.

    But back on track: I agree with Jay. The people who use Crisco brand products are bakers. Cooks. People who know that you HAVE to use shortening in the recipes they want to make. It's not about making the wider public think of Crisco differently. The wider public doesn't bake! So why should Crisco care what some 20-year-old vegan thinks?

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  • http://twitter.com/stina6001 Christina K

    Jay, I do agree with you that the Paula Dean's of the world don't mind Crisco's unhealthy brand identity. When I'm baking, I turn to Crisco. I'm a sucker for brand loyalty.

    But I think it's going to be really hard for them to tap into the healthier eater. It reminds me of the “healthier” choices McDonald's gave us a few years back i.e. salads and apple slices. How much of their sales come from these items versus the Big Mac or double cheeseburger? I bet the Big Mac wins every time.

    Now I'm about authentic olive oil. I don't skimp – and I'm also about brand loyalty so I'm not really a good “test” case.

    So I am curious if the average customer would buy Crisco olive oil over another brand?

  • http://twitter.com/stina6001 Christina K

    Teej, I'm with you here.

    Stick to what you know. Crisco stick to baking and Mcdonalds stick to Big Macs.

  • @jaykeith

    But if both of them can develop a product that will net them another 5% in sales, wouldn't that be worth it to them, regardless of the brand restrictions? I think that it is. Obviously they do too.

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    Great post. I've been in a situation where I see a brand I'm familiar with in an area of the supermarket they 'shouldn't be' making a product outside their core line (normallya healthy product when they aren't thought of as a 'healthy' manufacturer). Usually I wonder what they've done to the product to make it more along their core product line than the competitors (it may in fact have been Crisco OO and I had to wonder if it was a blend of shortening liquified blended w/olive oil). At the end of the day I don't have the time to stand in the grocery store reading the fine print to avoid being duped and will go for the company with the rep in that area.

    Companies usually need a reason to associate a new line with a particular brand rather than cast it out on its own and just put its financial heft behind the marketing or loosely tying it with a 'from the makers of….'

    This may be why some brands, upon acquisition or when making an entirely new product line hide who the actual producer is even if it's a bigger name. Consider Gevalia (a Kraft brand) and Haagen-Dazs (a General Mills brand).

    The parent companies are much bigger brands than the individual line but the parent companies realize they aren't associated with 'luxury' and so keep their particular branding off the product to keep allure (and foreign sounding name) of the product. Kraft could easily bring the Gevalia line into supermarkets for retail distribution but chooses not to for a reason.

    I also wonder about the opposite – what would happen when a brand associated with healthfulness creates a non-healthy product just because they can. For example if Weight Watchers made a full-fat, full-calorie pastry line. I'm pretty sure it would be cast out on its own given that people buy WW products assuming they conform to the WW rules/point system and consumers buying a product on that assumption would lose trust in the company.

  • http://twitter.com/erob1 Evan E. Roberts

    As a person who cooks often and who also is a purveyor the hottest slang, I can honestly say that I have never heard of a fat person referred to as a “crisco.” That being said, it's hilarious! But I won't be using it anytime soon. The reason? I like Crisco, and to me (singularly) there are no negative connotations with the brand. Jay brings up Paula Deen (mi esposa futura) and to those of us who follow her and cook like her, Crisco is king.

    You're right though, this kind of negative attribution can really damage a brand if they are unaware of it, but reversing Crisco's image with olive oils shouldn't be too hard. From my experience, olive oil is an irreplaceable ingredient to a lot of recipes but it can really be expensive. If they provide a quality product and it's not an arm or a leg (or other appendage for that matter) then I know it will do well. But in the end, all the branding and pricing in the world can't make up for taste. If it tastes good, people who cook will buy it.

  • jeffespo

    Am I the only person that has heard Crisco used in a derogatory way? I guess I am just mean, but hey its funny.

    Now on the branding, no one can claim that any oil is 100% good for you and like Jay said, Crisco is well known for their deep fried goodness.

    I would also say that the brand recognition of deep frying and lard is a good thing for Crisco. Think about it what name comes to mind when you think of Oil? Me = Crisco. Now when I am in the store buying olive oil would I buy something that has an Italian name or something that I know as a quality oil like Crisco?

    (Note – I would choose the Italian one for the record. but many consumers go with brands they trust)

    Now adding olive oil could also be a good thing for the Crisco brand as well. Everyone knows olive oil is supposed to be good for you. So it is safe to say that some consumers will figure all Crisco is good for me.

    Can't wait to hear: Butter up on east exit doors. at the supermarket.

  • http://amymengel.com amymengel

    Christina – you gave three different issues to think about in this post. The first is “genericide” of trademarked brand names – Kleenex, Escalator, Saran Wrap, Rollerblades, etc. That's clearly a frustration for brands that see their products copied and commoditized and their brand equity watered down — but like you said, fodder for another post.

    The second issue is a brand name being adopted in cultural parlance to refer to something that's not descriptive of the product itself (although I'm with TJ and have never heard Crisco as a euphemism for a fat person). Often when brands become slang terms, it's in a derogatory manner that doesn't usually mean positive association for the brand ('McJob' comes to mind).

    The third issue you present is brand extension, especially when it's an extension that's somewhat antithetical to your core product. Crisco started out decades ago by positioning itself as a healthier and cheaper alternative to animal fats like butter or lard. Now that the dangers of trans fats and hydrogenated oils are known, Crisco’s core product is under attack by some (though as Jay pointed out, still used by many), and many people are shifting back to natural foods again. Cities and states are even legislating bans on products made with trans fats.

    So, their move to olive oils is more than just brand extension, it may be brand survival. Crisco is a 100-year-old brand name, and while “healthy” may not be the first association that comes to mind, consumers still know and recognize this brand. Slowly moving into adjoining product lines but retaining the Crisco brand is a way for them to gradually coax consumers into associating the brand with more than just the tubs of white, hydrogenised gunk. If they can make good use of their brand equity and shift some of it onto newer, healthier products, they should be better able to survive what’s likely to be a continued onslaught against their core product. The risk, of course, is that if enough people view the Crisco brand now as unhealthy, any newer, healthier products they might launch (like the olive oils) may not even get a fair shot from consumers.

    @amymengel

  • mikeschaffer

    Fantastic post…and a lot to, literally, chew on.

    I think it's much easier to spoil a good brand (I'm lookin' at you, Tiger Woods) than it is to prop up a bad one.

    This isn't even a crisis management test case (like the Tylenol issue of the early 1980s), since Crisco is just known for stuff that's bad for you.

    My best suggestion would be a series of community initiatives. Sponsoring youth sports leagues, cooking demos in high-end grocery stores, etc.

    How about a Crisco diet book, on healthy recipes using the product?

    Honestly, do them all. And more.