Picklemakers Finding Their Way Out of a Pickle

Pickle manufacturers are in something of a pickle these days as they search for ways to drive more "aisle turn-in." In other words, with pickles located in the condiment aisle in most grocery stores, they're about as far away from the "impulse buy" sections as one salty jar of vinegary vegetables can be.

What's more, during traffic pattern mapping, grocery consultants discovered that the condiment aisle is visited by just 20% of shoppers, though a full 60% of shoppers will pass through the produce section or the dairy aisle.

So what's a pickle maker to do? Change their marketing, for one. On Monday, the Vlasic "brand character," a stork with glasses perched on his long beak, began appearing in the meat section next to the ground beef. After all, what's more quintessentially American than a hamburger with pickle slices? The stork's also started showing up in the bread section next to the buns (in keeping with the hamburger theme). Ads on shopping carts also promote the perfection of hamburgers with Vlasic pickles.But the creative director of the Vlasic campaign is worried, and not just about recession-conscious Americans detouring around the "extras," like pickles and condiments, on their grocery quests for meat, bread and milk and for the side dishes that come in the "snacks and chips" aisle. Tim Bayne is worried they'll forget about pickles altogether once they're home.

And it is a Herculean task: to keep our attention on such culinary afterthoughts. After all, with more people brown-bagging it for lunch and skipping the mid-scale burger joint for dinner at home, we lose the retail reminder of the automatic coupling of burgers and pickles. Then picklemakers lose, too.

That's why Bayne, the senior vice president and creative director for ad agency BBDO New York, is gearing the pickle up for barbecue season, the best time of year to remind consumers about those pickles hiding behind the OJ and milk in your fridge.

There's actually a very good reason we associate pickles with fatty meats like hamburgers: Historically, pickles (and the pickle category covers everything from cucumber dills to sauerkraut to kim chi to capers, okra, adobe, ginger and other regional and global specialties) were fermented and, as 20th-century nutritionists and culinary anthropologists learned, greatly aid in our digestion.

So far from being a barbecue season afterthought, pickles are and were a wintertime food, meant not just to preserve the foods of summer through the cold months and until the chickens started laying again, but also to counterbalance the rich and fatty meats that were traditionally our winter dietary staple. Think of the French mountain specialty, choucroute, essentially a bunch of cured meats served hot with sauerkraut. Think of German sausages with relish and (again) sauerkraut. Think of sushi with pickled ginger. This is all probiotics: getting good bacteria to work on your gut.

So we should naturally turn to pickles when we're eating hamburger, relish with our hot dogs, and sauerkraut with our potted meats, yes? Absolutely, but maybe not those made by modern picklemakers, who use vinegar and heat pasteurization to kill the bacteria that do the work of helping our digestion.

While the pickle marketing push is a great effort, and I do indeed believe in the wondrous deliciousness of pickles, I'd suggest Americans not spend so much time in the condiment aisle, but, instead, spend that time -- a few days in the summer at most -- making your own pickles. And don't forget them back there behind the OJ and milk: That will hurt the picklemaker's feelings.
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