Social Media Is Ketchup

During this past holiday season, there were two things on my mind: food and social media.

Have you ever thought about why ketchup has remained unchanged over so many years, while other condiments and sauces continue to adapt? Think about how mustard started as plain yellow mustard, but upgraded to Dijon mustard, and then diversified to honey mustard and so on. What made ketchup so perfect from the start that it never needed to change?

There’s a lesson to be learned from examining ketchup’s success in relation to social media. To understand this, we must first go back to the origin of the idea that explains the mastery behind ketchup’s lasting power.

The Misunderstood Secret Sauce

Malcom Gladwell first raised this question in his article, “The Ketchup Conundrum” and it sparked me to think about how something as common and universal as ketchup could be so wildly successful yet so greatly misunderstood. Why does ketchup have no competitors? What was ketchup’s secret?
The scientific reason behind why ketchup has stood the test of time is in the secret recipe. Henry John Heinz perfected a recipe many years ago that balances all five fundamental tastes of the human palate – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Any variation only throws off this beautiful balance that wonderfully compliments so many different foods. Other condiments, like mustard, could never achieve this multi-dimensional balance and hence the never-ending quest to find the next best variation of mustard. Many other condiments have suffered the same fate of chasing the new magic recipe. Condiment makers have tried to make better ketchup variations since Heinz, but consumers continue to choose the original recipe. And to this day no one has found a more optimal version of ketchup.

(Does this sound a bit like how marketers try and fail at different ways to use social media to connect their brand with consumers? It should.)
It’s important to note that core ingredients of food are controlled by the food preparer, whereas condiments are used at the discretion of the food eater.

This is a simple but incredibly important insight. Ketchup has a distinct position because it stands apart as the favorite condiment and also readily applies to many different foods. Therefore ketchup plays a very big role in the overall satisfaction of food. As marketers trying to reach consumers, we must remember that we are the cooks but the consumers add their own condiments.

Social Media Is Ketchup But Who’s the Hot Dog?

Shift gears back to the marketing world. Social media is ketchup. Does our analogy check out?
Media represents the condiment and creative represents the main course. Consumers control when and how much media is consumed, but are heavily influenced by the tastiness of creative content. (Check.)

Social media is the perfectly unchangeable ketchup, and every other media is mustard on the quest to find the perfect iteration. In particular, digital media spawns a new variation seemingly every week. (Check.)

Much like how you don’t drink ketchup out of the bottle, you don’t consume social media in isolation of the main course. Social media is the conversation, but not the content. Good content is the catalyst to good social media. (Check.)

Consumers love ketchup because it’s cheap and it goes with everything. Marketers love social media because it is earned media and it rides off of surrounding marketing efforts. (Check.)

When to Use Ketchup and How Much

Chances are the average marketer still does not understand how social media fits into their business. The ketchup analogy is intended to realign expectations on how social media should be positioned within marketing plans.

Start small and imagine that every ounce of ketchup needs a good hot dog or French fry. Too often, marketers fear the complexity of ketchup and serve their hot dogs with expired mustard or no condiments at all. Sometimes, marketers try to mask a bad tasting hot dog with a lot of ketchup. Neither scenario leads to a good meal for the consumer.

Whether it’s reviewing a hotel or reposting a funny video on Facebook, social media is the reason and ability of our consumers to talk or share. No more and no less. It’s simple in theory but complex in design. And just like ketchup, this “magic” recipe to create word of mouth media has remained unchanged for a long time.

Executed with the right balance, social media can enhance your main dish in wonderful ways. On the flip side, the wrong balance can leave your consumers eating rotten tomatoes.

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