Marketing Unplugged: Madagascar Vanilla


vanilla bean

Recently we dined at a local bistro, a casual spot falling comfortably between family dining and fine dining.  Very straight forward entrées –  grilled rosemary chicken, grilled salmon, various pasta dishes – but I was confused by the description of the crème brulée on the dessert menu – “Creamy Madagascar vanilla bean topped with a layer of carmelized sugar.”

I know what crème brulée is, and have always valued its crusty sugar giving way to its cool creamy mouth feel, but I was utterly perplexed by the Madagascar vanilla bean.  What I was supposed to do with this additional information?  Have I inadvertently consumed crap vanilla my entire life?  Was my palate even sophisticated enough to detect the musty flavor of Madagascar wafting in from the Indian Ocean?   Should I be concerned that I am violating the principles of a locovore? 

Ah, wait a minute, I thought.  Maybe Madagascar vanilla is just a marketing ploy.

Once home, I rushed to consult the all-purpose answer machine – Wikipedia – and discovered that the most common source of vanilla is – Tah Dah! – Madagascar.

So Madagascar vanilla is nothing more than the restaurant’s feeble attempt to spice up the menu by adding an exotic birthplace to the commodity of vanilla.

Beyond my pleasure at busting this pretentious description, I found myself fascinated by the related issue of menu psychology.   Basically a menu is nothing more than an ad with two purposes.  When posted in the restaurant window it should lure diners through the door, and then once asses are in seats, the menu should ideally guide them to order the item with the highest profit margin.  A decoy strategy includes a very high-priced option that will make everything else look cheap in comparison.  At a rmeal at a more down scale family restaurant, I spotted a sure decoy.  “Steak classique” was listed at $32, the price in larger and bolder type far exceeding the other modest entrées.  The role of the high-priced steak was to make the over-priced hamburgers look like a comparative bargain.

Menu psychology has risen to the level of academia and has spawned the job niche of “menu engineer.”  In 2002 researcher Wansink and colleagues authored a frequently cited paper titled, “How Descriptive Menu Labels Influence Attitudes and Repatronage.”  The authors added descriptions to basic menus.  There were four general categories – geographical (my Madagascar vanilla, but also food styles like Cajun, Tex-Mex, etc), sensory (savory, succulent, indulgent), nostalgia (Grandma’s own) and preparation (hand-crafted, slowly steamed, hand-carved).  The added descriptions increased sales by 27% and improved diners’ attitudes.  Descriptive menus have taken off since then.  Certainly there have been times when I have suppressed giggles as the server reels off every last ingredient including each flake of kale or stray anise seed.

I took another look at the bistro menu with these strategies in mind.  Clearly the restaurant had embraced the concept of descriptive menus.  There were no unadorned nouns, all had further descriptions calling on sensory, nostalgia and of course geographical adjectives – the panna cotta came with a macerated berry sauce, the tiramisu was succulent, the chocolate sauce was drizzled, the bread pudding was a comforting classic.

However, as a newly minted menu engineer, I would suggest a few minor revisions.

The bread pudding was also described as oven-warmed, which immediately set off alarms.  Yes, I implicitly knew that the pudding had been prepared beforehand, but the menu now forced be to confront the fact that it could have been cooked days ago, or even frozen from Costco, and now was being rehabbed for dessert.  The only positive message from this oven-warmed description was that the restaurant still valued the hominess of an oven over the convenience of a microwave.

And then there was the chocolate fondant, described as a high-quality dark chocolate cake.  This attribute falls outside the standard sensory descriptions of chocolate as “indulgent” or “decadent” or “death by chocolate.”  My basic premise is that a restaurant should not need to reassure its diners of the quality of the ingredients.  In fact the compulsion to identify the chocolate as high-quality reminded me of Richard Nixon’s campaign blunder in insisting “I am not a crook,” which only led people to believe that he was, in fact, a crook.  I took a pass on dessert.



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