Are you in a mustard, a spaghetti-sauce, or a ketchup market?

Thoughts on Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw – part 2

Beg to Differ is riffing on thoughts inspired by Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his new book What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures. Today we reflect on his essay The Ketchup Conundrum, information pills with strategies for smart branders in all kinds of pickles.

Condiment conundrum
From the "Club Heinz" web site

Essay:THE KETCHUP CONUNDRUM – Mustard now comes in dozens of varieties.Why has ketchup stayed the same?


In this essay, hospital Gladwell asks a pretty basic question about ketchup: why are there “No Other Kinds?” That is: while there are a handful of ketchup manufacturers, more about there is really only one variety of ketchup that has ever gained any market traction.

But along the way, I see three different brand-building strategies that apply to all kinds of markets as well.

Mustard strategy

The mustard universe used to look the same way as ketchup. In the old mustard universe, there was just plain old yellow mustard (a la French’s).  But then, along came the game-changer: Grey Poupon. With brilliant advertising (see YouTube clip below), premium pricing, and an exotic taste, Grey Poupon created  a “high end” in the mustard market, and voila! Faster than you can say “pardon me…” consumers began seeking out and buying other kinds of mustard.

All it took was for one smart new product to change the rules of the mustard world.

Spaghetti-sauce strategy

Gladwell shows that the spaghetti-sauce market underwent an even larger transformation, but in this case there were already two dominant varieties: Ragú with a thin sauce, and Prego, with a thicker, richer sauce.

Gladwell tells the story of Howard Moskowitz, the food industry guru who convinced Prego to try not one, not two, but three different varieties of sauce under the same Prego banner. Suddenly, consumers were delighted to “fine tune” their spaghetti sauce by choosing plain, spicy, or extra chunky.

The result: Prego became number one, and an arms race began in the pasta aisle, that continues to this day.

Ketchup strategy

But before you run off to re-write the brand strategy for your product: consider ketchup.

Many companies have tried to play the Grey Poupon and Prego tricks with ketchup. Gladwell narrates the efforts of one such upstart “World’s Best Ketchup” and shows how such contenders have utterly failed to create a “second wedge”.

Why? Turns out that the definition of “Ketchup” is much narrower in the consumer’s mind, and once you cross that line, it’s not ketchup at all anymore.

Or as Howard Moskowitz himself shrugs at the end of Gladwell’s article: “I guess ketchup is ketchup.”

So brand managers,what does your market look like?

The basic truth in Gladwell’s article is this: all markets are different, and therefore, the path to success in each will be very different. So whether you’re trying to create a brand in robertson screws or facial tissue, network servers or off-road vehicles, the key is to learn the peculiar mindset of customers in your industry:

  • Mustard Markets: there’s room for a “Grey Poupon” to show people that another option can a) fit the definition, but b) take the category in a whole new direction. Your job: find the wedge, and push it hard – and a bit of class with a sense of humour won’t hurt either.
  • Spaghetti Sauce Markets: there’s room for a lot of variety under the same category umbrella, and customers are hungering for choice (even if they don’t know it yet). Your job: find out what “chunky style” looks like in your spaghetti bowl.
  • Ketchup Markets: sorry to say, your product category is very narrowly defined in customer’s minds, and there’s not a lot of room for competition with established players. If you “break the rules” too much, you’ll never get very far. Your best bet here is to compete on “non product” benefits like service, price, or clever branding. Or maybe try the salsa business instead.

Malcolm Gladwell at TED on Spaghetti Sauce

The classic Grey Poupon ad

4 thoughts on “Are you in a mustard, a spaghetti-sauce, or a ketchup market?”

  1. Now you’ve got Barenaked Ladies going through my head:

    But we would eat Kraft Dinner!
    With really expensive ketchup . . . dijon ketchup!

    Curiously, the Ladies predicted pre-wrapped bacon but the dijon ketchup has never come to fruition.

    1. Funny but the same song has been rattling around my brain since I read the original essay. So you’re welcome.

      But I wonder if Gladwell is a Barenaked Ladies fan? I bet he is.

      The song actually underlines the “ketchup is ketchup” point nicely. Because, if ketchup didn’t have a single, unassailable spot in our minds, we wouldn’t laugh at the idea of “dijon ketchup”.

  2. By the way – did you know that “Kraft Dinner” has no frame of reference south of the border? A truly Canadian song! It’s always, always macaroni&cheese or mac&cheese.

    (same goes for the Chesterfield…)

  3. Remember Heinz trying to sell green and purple ketchup a few years ago? I tried it. Tasted the same but was a bit weird. What about cultural boundaries? In Spain for instance ketchup has a slightly different appearance. It’s a bit “transparent”. Tasted the same.

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