Other People’s Articles: “The Ketchup Conundrum” by Malcolm Gladwell

It was a current iPhone commercial where I was recently reminded of “The Ketchup Conundrum” by Malcolm Gladwell: The article zips by in a milli-second, as a finger flips through the virtual pages of an iPhone screen. Originally published in The New Yorker in 2004, “The Ketchup Conundrum” is an intriguing account of food and marketing. If you’re like me, you have at least five kinds of mustard on hand at all times. And according to the article, lots of other folks are the exact same way.

As an aside, the Heublein Company (mentioned in the opening paragraph below) has former ties to Napa Valley, having once owned Inglenook, which is now Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate. Many folks who drink high-end Napa Cabernet will be familiar with the name Andy Beckstoffer, whose surname appears on several pricey, vineyard-designated wines (I’m told that fruit from the Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard sells for a whopping $15,000 per ton, which is about 2.5 times the average price per ton for Napa Cabernet). Before becoming one of the Napa Valley’s biggest land-holders, Andy Beckstoffer was a former Heublein executive who purchased the company’s vineyard interests when the corporation decided to cut and run. Timing is everything.


Many years ago, one mustard dominated the supermarket shelves: French’s. It came in a plastic bottle. People used it on hot dogs and bologna. It was a yellow mustard, made from ground white mustard seed with turmeric and vinegar, which gave it a mild, slightly metallic taste. If you looked hard in the grocery store, you might find something in the specialty-foods section called Grey Poupon, which was Dijon mustard, made from the more pungent brown mustard seed. In the early seventies, Grey Poupon was no more than a hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year business. Few people knew what it was or how it tasted, or had any particular desire for an alternative to French’s or the runner-up, Gulden’s. Then one day the Heublein Company, which owned Grey Poupon, discovered something remarkable: if you gave people a mustard taste test, a significant number had only to try Grey Poupon once to switch from yellow mustard. In the food world that almost never happens; even among the most successful food brands, only about one in a hundred have that kind of conversion rate. Grey Poupon was magic.

Please click here for the complete story from September 6, 2004…

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