Lille Allen/Eater

With a recent line of seasonings, McCormick seems eager to compete with modern spice companies, like Burlap & Barrel and Diaspora Co.

When I think about McCormick, my mind drifts to my mom’s spice cabinet, where stout, red-capped bottles have been collecting dust for decades. During visits home, my siblings and I like to fish out old bottles like bingo balls and gleefully announce their expiration dates — usually closer to our DOBs than the present day.

The brand, which launched in 1889 as a door-to-door juices and extracts operation, has been peddling spices since 1896. And since then, the recognizable royal blue and red “Mc” logo has graced tins and bottles of paprika, cloves, cinnamon, and countless other staple seasonings. In America, McCormick is ubiquitous, with spices dominating full sections of grocery store aisles before winding up in the backs of pantries, sometimes, as in my mom’s case, for years on end.

But as staid as the brand may seem, McCormick is making a concerted effort to stay (or become) relevant, most recently with a line of entirely new seasonings. In late April, the spice juggernaut dropped two limited-availability seasonings: the first, miso caramel, and the second, vanilla, lime, & thyme. They’re part of the larger Flavor Inspirations line, which McCormick introduced in December of 2020 and which includes such flavors as salted maple bacon sugar, garlic asiago, umami ramen, and creme brulee. These new spices are only available in special-edition small batches, and they sport a decidedly more modern design than other McCormick products. They have a chic black cap with a bold, cherry red seal. The labels come in shades like bone white and pale rose, with typewriter font and printed formula numbers. The red and blue logo is nowhere to be seen.

As a legacy brand, known for its Old Bay and Thanksgiving staples, there’s a certain tension between McCormick’s nostalgic reputation and its attempts to revamp its image — one that raises the question: When other companies can offer exceptionally sweet, floral New Harvest Turmeric (grown by Dr. Salunkhe in Southern India, as Burlap & Barrel’s website notes) and earthy, licorice-y Single Origin Nagauri Cumin, where does McCormick’s Warming Turmeric-Cumin blend fit in?

In today’s spice industry, modern brands like Diaspora Co. and Cinnamon Tree Organics are challenging household names by offering transparent sourcing, more sustainable practices, and, frankly, better-quality products. Grounded in their missions and deliberately small-batch, they speak directly to consumers who crave more than just an item off a recipe list as they become increasingly attuned to the directly proportional relationship between good ingredients and good food. And as the spice industry continues to grow, from $5.5 billion in 2020 to a projected $8.6 billion by 2031, the tectonic plates between established giants and game-changing newcomers will keep shifting — sitting on one’s laurels (or bay leaves) is not an option.

Yet, with $6.3 billion in annual sales and 14,000 employees worldwide, it’s interesting that McCormick, the producer of both Old Bay (the tried-and-true seasoning for a steamed Chesapeake Bay blue crab feast) and the wildly popular Frank’s RedHot sauce, would roll out a line of trendy flavors with label designs that reach for a more artisanal feel. McCormick likely understands that consumer purchases are increasingly value-driven and home cooks are more ambitious than ever; they’re open to experimentation and poised to buy the ingredients to cook the way they want to eat. And while it’s a tall order, the spice company of many of our parents’ pantries seems to think it can satisfy both the customers who care about where their spices come from and the ones who want to be on the cutting edge of TikTok-popular flavor trends.

With 133 years in the flavor business, this isn’t McCormick’s first time at the rodeo of shifting consumer expectations. In the late ’90s, the Baltimore-based company faced a potentially fatal one-two punch. Demographics were changing: Immigration to the U.S. was booming and culinary tastes mirrored an increasingly diverse population. As the late New York Times reporter Constance L. Hays observed in a 1998 article entitled “Trouble in Spice World,” McCormick’s website recipe database seemed “more like a museum of recipes from the 1950s than a reflection of America at the millennium’s cusp.” Recipes like cobbler with canned cherries and mayo-heavy potato salad no longer captured what people wanted to cook. To boot, home cooking was falling out of fashion. Hays wrote, “With more women trading in the ladle for the briefcase, sales of staples like nutmeg, cardamom, turmeric, and mace have suffered badly.”

More than two decades later, the home cook has returned with vigor. To whip up your own thoughtful, restaurant-quality meals isn’t just practical — it carries a certain cultural cachet. And during the pandemic, which forced an even greater return to the kitchen, dried spices, including blends like the ones that make up the Flavor Inspirations line, experienced a renaissance.

McCormick, meanwhile, has slowly acquired the trappings of a modern company. In addition to paying attention to trends — the new miso caramel seasoning, for example, emerged from identifying an increase in searches for miso — McCormick is also following along on Gen Z’s favorite platform. Kevan Vetter, McCormick’s executive chef & director of culinary development, says that when the Flavor Forecast team noticed corn ribs were trending on TikTok, it decided to add its own take to McCormick’s recipe database — cooked with the kitchen tool du jour, the air fryer, and finished with a spicy coconut yogurt sauce.

The brand has a hearty following on Instagram (currently 330,000). It’s active on Twitter, sharing wholesome recipe inspiration peppered with occasional cheeky non sequiturs: “Imagine dating someone who doesn’t season their food,” it tweeted in May. Its YouTube channel caters to ASMR stans with videos like deliciously noisy “Baked Taco Chicken Fingers.” It has created at least one viral TikTok. Taken together, McCormick seems committed to facing off against its smaller, younger competitors on their turfs — online, where the lion’s share of their sales occur, and on the platforms, because a dynamic social media presence is par for the course today.

McCormick has also come a long way in terms of globalizing its offerings, both through acquisitions of brands like Cholula — the iconic Mexican hot sauce — and the development of its spice repertoire. But the brand’s first dilemma remains: Many home cooks are hungry for a greater variety of spices from around the world and want to know more about where they’re coming from. And now more than ever, they want more equitable terms for the farmers who produce those spices.

To begin to respond to that growing consumer desire, McCormick has launched initiatives to engage with the farming communities where its ingredients are sourced. “Our goal is to increase the resilience of 90% of smallholder farmers that grow our key iconic herbs and spices, as measured by increasing skills and capacity, income, access to financial services, education and nutrition, and health,” says Vetter. “Currently, we’re working with nearly 23,000 farmers to improve livelihoods, with a goal of increasing resilience for 35,000 farmers by 2025.” These commitments certainly sound ambitious, but it’s anyone’s guess whether they materially impact the opportunities and working conditions for those farmers, as is whether or not any of this will cause McCormick’s new line to resonate with consumers.

Because branding is evermore integral to a food company’s success (or failure), I asked Anna Polonsky, founder and creative director of Polonsky & Friends, a strategy and design studio specializing in the food world, for her take on the revamped look. “The new design definitely feels cleaner and more low-fi but had you not told me about it, I would have easily missed the McCormick association,” she said in an email. “I guess the ‘low-fi’-ness and faux-stitched sealer-sticker are meant to convey a more artisanal vibe but I don’t think it is very successful, to be honest; the labels feel more under-designed than actually artisanal, and the flavors listed feel very processed.”

Polonksy noted that many older brands look to clean up their branding after a few years or decades — Heinz and Pepsi, to name a couple — but in the case of McCormick, which has trotted out new branding only for Flavor Inspirations, she was confused about the intent. “Is the plan to refresh all McCormick labels down the line so as to look more contemporary? Or is the plan to look more artisanal in order to compete with [newer companies], in which case the actual flavors don’t seem to make sense?”

I had the chance to sample a few of the Flavor Inspirations myself, and confusion at least partially describes the experience. I didn’t want to like the cheeseburger seasoning, which I showered over a hot order of McDonald’s french fries, but I did. It captured the essence of a fast-food cheeseburger — pickles, special sauce, and all. But then again, a cheeseburger with a side order of cheeseburger french fries felt a little redundant. The maple bacon sugar had the intense smokiness of a Texas barbecue joint at noon — too strong for my liking — but the miso caramel seasoning was a happy marriage of umami and sweet. I could easily imagine sprinkling it over lightly buttered popcorn.

Maybe the target audience for the Flavor Inspirations line is neither the Diaspora Co. customers nor the loyal McCormick users, but rather, a broader, less specific audience somewhere in the middle. Regardless, McCormick’s attempts to cast itself as a modern brand can sometimes feel clumsy. In April, it announced the opening of a “Flavor Suite” — a pop-up hotel experience, with “whimsical but flavorful amenities,” like global snacks pinned to a wall-sized world map and a sundae service on speed dial, with toppings like gomashio, a Japanese condiment made from unhulled sesame seeds and salt. Guests sleep in a king-sized ice cream bed, replete with a scratch-and-sniff headboard.

It can be hard to reconcile the familiar red-capped bottles of spice cabinet bingo with the brand pulling these cheeky PR stunts. In that same 1998 Times article, the author notes that McCormick was considering aligning itself with the Spice Girls to capitalize on the girl group’s “spice” cachet and expand its reach. Skewing toward tradition, McCormick’s then-CEO vetoed the idea. But today, the company seems more willing than ever to shake up its old way of doing things in order to reach more consumers and spice up their lives.

Caitlin Raux Gunther is a Paris-based freelance journalist with words in Bon Appétit, Saveur, T+L, Food52, and more. She’s worked in restaurants in Bilbao, Paris, and New York, and is currently working on a memoir about her time in Spain.

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