I’m not a “foodie” but I do recognize and appreciate great food when I see, smell and taste it. Food should be the centerpiece of a pleasant and enjoyable experience; a journey of textures, flavors and aromas. I am an ambitious and adventurous eater – yes, I’ll try anything once.
Growing up in Britain I was not exposed to the hot sauce craze. To me, spicy food meant Indian curry, which I consumed every Saturday night after a game of rugby and a few pints of Guinness. It was a tradition to go to the curry restaurant with the boys; every week, some fool would venture into the realm of pain and insanity by vying with his mates to eat the hottest curry. I, too, once or twice tried to achieve immortality by ordering some kind of chicken lava and rice dish. Since I have never enjoyed the taste of fire and brimstone I quickly decided enough was enough. Fortunately, my fondness for spicy foods increased after I moved to the United States and discovered Mexican cuisine. What a revelation… “caliente” cooking enhanced by the liberal application of hot sauce! And the quantity and variety of available hot sauces – mind-boggling!
During a trip to Dubuque, Iowa, my wife’s uncle, Whitey, introduced me to his “hot sauce collection.” Whitey was proud of the collection and provided a lengthy description of each sauce – the heat, the sweetness, and so on. He also offered samples, with heat indexes ranging from “mild” to “meltdown.” In fact, some of the sauces Whitey dabbed onto a chip for my consumption were so hot they literally peeled off the roof of my mouth, much to his amusement. Clearly, there was something here that required further investigation. Similar to the rugby boys back in Wales, there are bragging rights to be won according to the level of hot sauce “heat” that one can withstand. At the end of my taste test, I didn’t have much to brag about.
The following day we visited the aisle in Whitey’s favorite store where he purchases his hot sauces. I was stunned! At first glance, the range of package designs and bottle shapes was astounding. It seemed that the designers used every trick in the book to convey any number of messages. Beyond the obvious heat claims, what surprised me the most was the category’s use of humor. Granted, most of it was puerile, lavatory, school-boy humor but it generated a smile all the same.
Upon later and regular inspection, however, the hot sauce category starts to fall apart. The level of sophistication in design is.....well, shockingly poor. This is a crying shame, particularly when weighed against all of the product innovation being poured into the brands. But, then again, is there any real need for sophistication at shelf when the one message that needs to be communicated – that one brand is hotter than the next – is articulated in a fun, nationalistic or overtly sexist way? Crude? Yes. Effective? It seems to be. The hot sauce market is growing and collectors (connoisseurs, if you will) are keen consumers and avid ambassadors. Watching and listening to Whitey talk to fellow shoppers was fascinating: They exchanged tips, recipes, brand names, experiences and heat stories – a rare practice for male consumers.
Do we always need to be critical of a category that is less sophisticated than others? In the case of hot sauce, I think not. The consumer is clearly satisfied with current offerings and happy to discover more. Brand loyalty means little-to-nothing, although favorites do exist. Brands within the category continue to develop new and exciting flavors and heat levels which the consumer is eager to try. While the visual and category language is a disaster – a visual mine field of clichés and obnoxious graphics – it works. Yes, there could be branding opportunities beyond Tabasco and RedHot (which are viewed as entry-level offerings by many hot sauce aficionados) but I expect that it will be the products themselves – rather than their packaging – that will be generating the heat.