Artisanal: how overexposure and misuse of a term dilutes its meaning and value

In the US, it would seem there is no bigger name in the food world today than “artisan”. It’s on packaged goods in produce, snacks, frozen food and even the beverage section. Artisan pizzas can be delivered to your door courtesy of Domino’s. Subway has “sandwich artisans”. These days, the word — which used to mean hand-crafted — is showing up on just about anything edible. With the use of the term so pervasive, does the word “artisan” mean anything anymore, asks The Hartman Group?

Artisan, contend the research house, has been so co-opted by the food industry and marketing to the point now that its distinction has been diluted.

Over the last few years, it writes, it has been tracking the increasing popularity in use of artisan on food labels ranging from supermarket bread to mass processed frozen meals, with Datamonitor, for example, finding more than 800 new food products have been dubbed “artisan” in the past five years.

The Hartman Group writes:

More recently, media ranging from the Los Angeles Times to America’s own artisan newspaper, USA Today, has picked up on overuse of the term. The LA Times pointed out that Panera Bread brands itself as “artisan fast food.” We’re scratching our heads over this one; wondering how large, national food companies can claim themselves or their products as “artisan” especially when taking into account, as we have found, that most Americans aren’t even sure how to pronounce artisanal, often confusing it with the word “artesian.”

…. As an adjective, “artisanal” has become the marketing word du jour linking the notion or spirit of hand-made craftsmanship with every imaginable type of food product. By definition, can bagged salad mix be artisanal? We think not.

Domino’s Pizza and Burger King say they are employing a host of experts at their craft, people who have honed their baking skills over many, many years to work on assembly lines creating pizza dough and sandwich buns. Really? Turnover aside in these industries, consumers find narratives like this from mega restaurant chains and food manufacturers a bit hard to swallow.

Artisan is not a label

The authentic meaning and application of artisan alludes to a simpler time when people took pride in their craft: It’s about special and unique. Today, the draw for real artisan products is born out of a movement deriding overly processed, mass-produced foods linked to big corporations. Manufacturers, attempting to ride the wave of this movement by stamping artisan on their products, are hoping it will suggest that what’s inside is higher quality — even premium.

Domino’s has defended its use of the word citing the ingredients used. They use feta cheese, for instance, on one pizza instead of the typical mozzarella. Tuscan salami stands in for pepperoni on another. At Domino’s you’ll find no specialty milled flours or wood-fired ovens, which are typically associated with artisan baking.

Unfortunately, if your restaurant has more than a few locations, or thousands, and any one of them is in the same parking lot as a Payless Shoe Source, Dollar General, or AutoZone, for example, what you make is probably not artisan.

Not to single out Domino’s there were a number of players on the pseudo-artisan scene before Domino’s jumped on the bandwagon including Wendy’s Artisan Egg Sandwich, Ralphs grocery stores’ Private Selection Artisan Breads and Starbucks’ Artisan Breakfast Sandwiches.

We submit that, in practice, when companies use artisan as a moniker they are attempting to create a shortcut to denote higher quality and premium, inverting the original meaning when it’s put in the context of fast and mass produced foods.

This represents the never-ending quest to re-coin premium experiences, especially given the current economic downturn. Artisan, in this context, is merely a proxy for all things food culture, ie, feta instead of mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes instead of conventional.

Artisan is not a label. It’s a whole approach to food. Marketers are attempting to use artisan to suggest value-oriented, premium in a down market economy. Just as natural became organic and moved beyond to local (due to its link to nature), we’re seeing artisanal grow out of a tradition of premium and prior to that, gourmet.

We’re predicting heirloom to be the next artisanal based on its culture-based quality distinction.


Message for marketers

Artisan is a quality dimension, implying the narrative is meant to have deeper meaning beyond slapping a label on the package. It’s not a line extension. Ask yourself:

  • Does a real person craft this product with care?
  • Is it made by hand, in small batches or limited quantities using specialty ingredients?
  • Does it reflect expertise, tradition, passion, a process?

If the answer is no to any of these questions, then you do not have an artisan product, nor should you call it or label it as such. There is an adage that if you have to say your product is something (eg, use the word on the label — in really big letters) then you aren’t it. Artisan is something consumers recognise you as. It is an authentic narrative about the ingredients used and the special process used to create the products. Remember, it is a story of culture (how it’s made) and nature (what it’s made of).

The Hartman Group

Added reading: How to make a food product sell? Toss in the word ‘artisan’