Chew On This

Playing with food for fun and profit.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the February 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Sorry, Charlie, you've got company. Although there's no denying the long-standing popularity of StarKist's spokes-tuna, he's not the only fish in the sea as far as edible mascots go. Just take a gander -- if you dare--at those Slim Jim TV spots with a man running amok in a beef jerky costume.

"It's a character people are supposed to identify with and at the same time [want to] eat," observes Paul Lukas, author of Inconspicuous Consumption: An Obsessive Look at the Stuff We Take for Granted, From the Everyday to the Obscure (Crown). "They're quite a trip, those ads."

That they are. Beef jerky, however, isn't the only food advertisers are messing around with. Other recent chewables in motion include M&Ms, animal crackers, popcorn kernels and Foster Farms' "impostor" chickens.

But isn't it a little, uh, unsettling to put a happy face on edibles? "[Charlie the Tuna] does seem to have this odd suicidal obsession with trying to end up in your tuna casserole," agrees Lukas. Nonetheless, entrepreneurs thinking of promoting their foods with a catchy character should know that consumers appear able to disassociate the personality from the product--particularly if the personalities in question don't seem plate-bound themselves. "You've probably figured out by now that [Charlie] isn't going to make it into that can of tuna," Lukas points out. Hey, that's good news, Charlie.

Mourning Has Broken

Burying old traditions.

Death isn't exactly an easy sell. Despite the obvious marketing hurdles, however, entrepreneurs in the funeral industry are learning to take a little bit of the grim out of the Reaper.

"Funeral directors are learning more and more that they're not a retail business; they provide a professional service," says Kelly Smith of the National Funeral Directors Association. Combine this with the general public's growing inclination toward personalized memorial services, and you've got the demystification of an entire industry.

"There's a funeral director I know who recently conducted a memorial service [where] the focal point of the service was a canoe," offers Smith. "The canoe was full of the deceased's hunting and fishing gear. That canoe--and that gear--told the story of that [person's] life." Other life-affirming touches include rock music (think "Stairway to Heaven") and customized caskets (say, with a golf-course motif).

Just how much of an image makeover will ultimately ensue, and is the trend toward more aggressive, open marketing by funeral homes destined to continue? "It's the baby boomers who are going to decide what direction it's going to go in," says Smith. "In some people's eyes, [we've already had] a revolution."

Good Grief

Hello and goodbyes . . .

And speaking of the sweet hereafter, what do computer games and a virtual cemetery for deceased family pets have in common? At first glance, not a thing. Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll discover that the enormously popular The Virtual Pet Cemetery Web site is linked to LavaMind--a five-year-old San Francisco-based business-simulation game company whose co-founders clearly understand the value of innovative marketing.

"We wanted to get our name out, and we didn't have a multimillion-dollar budget to do it," says Steven Hoffman, 33, explaining what prompted him and his wife, Naomi Kokubo, 34, to set up a site where pet owners can eulogize their late loved ones. "But we didn't know what to expect."

As it happens, the couple's brainstorm paid off. "A number of [customers] say they found us through The Virtual Pet Cemetery," says Hoffman, who estimates the majority of LavaMind's 1 million monthly Internet hits are for the electronic burial ground. "This is a way for people to come across our site who otherwise never would have."

Contact Sources

LavaMind, lavamind@mail.com, http://www.lavamind.com/pet.html

National Funeral Directors Association, (414) 789-1880, http://www.nfda.org

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