HOW A COMMODITY CATEGORY TURNED PREMIUM
You can still buy table salt very cheaply. But, at the top end, Salt has evolved its meaning from that of industrial commodity to premium seasoning and flavouring ingredient. Don’t believe me? Check the graphic above. How has this happened? And what if anything can other categories learn? We have to delve into the realm of category history to understand the fixture today. Thus follows a brief revision of Salt.
God made Salt and saw that it was good. Then He / She rested. Apart from the discovery of the anti-caking agent this brings us from the Dawn of Time to the 1970s. No innovation, no role for modern brands.
SALT TAKES A GOOD KICKING
Thanks to the link with high blood pressure Salt took a good kicking in the late 1970s / 80s. For a while it was up there with Butter as Public Number One. Beyond Own Label and the Traditional Producer, Lo Salt might have been the first Feature Brand able to command a defendable premium in the Category. Only that the feature it traded on was a lack of sodium: It was basically the Un-Salt. Hardly an advertisement for the Category! But consumers paid handsomely for it, as they did for margarine, the other foodaceutical™ miracle of the time.
Poor Old Salt. Things did not look good. What to do? At some point throw-away acrylic grinders were introduced, presumably because consumers found it too difficult to find / fix / successfully operate their original mechanical models. As ever we’ll happily pay a high price for convenience. Then we had the 1990s / 00s fad for motorised grinders (we still have ours but can no longer afford batteries). These had great snob value at dinner parties but did little for the Category itself. It was still just rock salt in there. Basically the same stuff they put on the roads.
THE RE-INVENTION OF ROCK SALT
But then something happened. Rock Salt started telling its story. Talking about ancient origins – in rocks – and its intrinsic qualities, claiming an array of natural minerals essential for a healthy diet. Rock Salt started packaging itself in smaller boxes, with attractive photography depicting chunky opaque crystals (not granules) on a chopping board next to fresh herbs. What? It’s just packaging and communication! It was just a trick of the light, but it worked. People would pay more for this new Natural Rock Salt.
HARKEN, THE FLAKE COMETH!
Sea salt saw this happening and did not want to get left behind. How could it become more natural, more desirable? Harken the arrival – or at least the rediscovery – of the sea salt flake. Like a snow flake, a natural form that begs to be picked up, taken in the pinch, not shaken out of a manky salt cellar. This is no joke. The salt flake is a seminal moment in Salt’s path to premium. Because it changed the way we applied Salt to food. Salt flakes also produced a new sensation, like little islands of intense taste on the tongue. This was an effect you just didn’t get with dusty or granular salt. The flake reignited interest in Salt as taste.
BUILDING ON FLAVOUR INTEREST
The door was ajar. Higher order Salt brands could now emerge, to carry the premium potential forward with communication and flavour innovation. As the idea of craft took off in other categories Salt was able to ride the wave. Flavour ranges began to appear. Salt with chilli flakes. Smoked salt. Truffle salt. Rubbing salt for steaks. As a category Salt was able to deepen engagement and widen its role as a seasoning. Its image was transformed to that of natural, desirable artisan product. Salt had come a long way, from unbranded bulk commodity to celebrated ingredient in rapidly emerging ‘culinary lifestyles’. Foodies bought into the New Salt – hook, line and sinker.
IN THE PINK
Then there was the explosion of interest in Pink Himalayan Salt. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver got in on the act. There were spreads in the Sunday Supplements. Bloggers blogged. Magical but unsubstantiated Health & Wellness claims proliferated. Pink Salt appeared in homes up and down the land. Another exciting chapter in the story.
And finally, we come to exclusivity. At some point (around 2014) Anglesey Sea Salt achieved protected geographical status within the EU. A recognition that certain expressions of Salt were special and specific enough to warrant a designation. This again created opportunities for brands (within the designation) to drive their profile with communication including chef endorsements. Consumers now happily pay a small fortune to hold a pot of Molden’s Sea Salt, as recommended by none other than Nigel Slater.
SALTY SUMMARY – WHAT CAN WE LEARN?
Product formats (Crystals and flakes) looked more attractive, more natural and critically engaged consumers to interact with the product again.
2. INTRINSICALLY GOOD
A focus on product intrinsics and positive, healthful associations reversed the long industrial / chemical hangover.
3. EASY INSPIRATION
Consumer-logical twists on base product extended occasionality & engagement with the Category in cooking processes and final seasoning for taste.
4. AS A FEATURE
Pink salt in premium, craft chocolate was a great advertisement that helped to re-frame perceptions of the Category as a whole.
5. CREATE A PINNACLE
Protected origin status helps make a product feel singular and desirable. For Salt it creates a pinnacle for the Category that illuminates all.