Food companies' target consumers: Looking for 'Linda'

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Kristin Mastre and her two boys, Carter, 4, and Logan, 7, pose in a Fort Collins, Colo. grocery store. To the potato industry, Mastre is a "Linda," the ideal consumer they're trying to reach. (Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media)
Kristin Mastre and her two boys, Carter, 4, and Logan, 7, pose in a Fort Collins, Colo. grocery store. To the potato industry, Mastre is a "Linda," the ideal consumer they're trying to reach. (Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media)

Are you a middle-aged woman with kids at home and a penchant for cooking? To the potato industry, you’re “Linda.”

Do you like healthy snacks and small portions? To the almond growers of California, your name is “Jane.”

Have a taste for a more refined craft beer? Companies like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors like to call you “Joe.”

These three people are fictional, but at the same time, they represent huge sections of the American population. They’re target consumers.

I started working on a story recently about a new marketing campaign the U.S. Potato Board (USPB) is rolling out. In the process I became obsessed with the concept of creating target consumers to sell food. Just like any other product in a store, food is made to sell. To push potatoes and other fruits and vegetables off the shelves, there are hundreds of groups targeting you and your food budget, whether you know it or not.

The USPB is tasked with promoting and marketing potatoes both in the U.S. and overseas. Their most recent campaign is in response to a decline in potato consumption nationwide.

To focus their efforts and reverse that decline, they’ve chosen to put all their eggs, or I guess potatoes, in Linda’s basket. Linda is the potato industry’s ideal consumer. She’s any middle-aged mother with children who likes to cook. The USPB projects there are about 35 million Lindas in the country.

I set out to find Linda, a real woman named Linda who also fit the “Linda” profile. I sent out about a dozen awkwardly-worded emails to women named Linda I scrounged up in my station’s membership database. Starting the email with, “This will be the strangest email you receive today,” I asked about their family situation and whether they eat potatoes on a regular basis.

A few responses came back, but most of the real Lindas didn’t have kids at home or didn’t like to cook. The search continued, that is until I stumbled upon a group of bloggers in Fort Collins, Colo. Most were women, who blogged about food and had young children.

Alas, none were named Linda, but they definitely fit the profile. Finally, I went grocery shopping with a woman named Kristin who likes cooking for her husband and kids and does all the food shopping for her family of four.

The creation of Linda is not unique to the USPB. Almost every food producer and marketer formulates an ideal consumer, whether we’re talking about potatoes, corn, beef or crackers.

I went to talk with Kate Thomson, who locates and describes target markets for a living, at the Boulder, Colo.-based Sterling Rice Group. She says the entire process involves more than just a demographic profile, with age, ethnicity, and marital status. Market researchers are actually delving into the psychological impulses that drive our food decisions. Then they come up with something called a psychographic profile.

“Psychographics are attitudes,” Thomson said. “Whether or not you’re food-involved, meaning I like recipes and I like talking about food and would call myself a ‘foodie’ – that would be a psychographic.”

Another example could be someone who obsesses over the healthy aspects of meals, or someone who makes all their food decisions based on a budget and the price of certain food. All this information was collected to create Linda.

I asked why the USPB decided to go with Linda, why she was the chosen consumer. Why spend more than $3 million each year trying to reach Linda?

Linda has influence. She likes to cook for her family, so already she’s influencing the food choices of everyone around her. The 35 million Lindas out there choose the food for 117 million other people, about a third of the American population, according to the potato marketers.

So the potato board is getting the most bang for its buck, as long as its advertisements are convincing to Lindas. Other food companies are going through the same process, trying to figure which segment of the market is going to bring in the most money for the least amount of effort.

As for the name, why Linda?

Thomson couldn’t be sure, but said food producers and market analysts like to give target consumers a name to make them feel more familiar, like someone you already know.

After all, it's a lot easier to talk to "Linda," "Jane," or "Joe," than a complete stranger.