Give Fruitcake a Chance

gr-fruitcake-karen-blogIt’s officially fruitcake season. Yet, in spite of all the goodwill and holiday cheer a fruitcake is intended to convey, it remains the longest running joke of the holidays. As someone whose job it is to rehabilitate reputations, I asked myself how fruitcake could be so mocked and maligned, yet continue to have so much cultural staying power as a symbol of the season.

Traced as far back as the Middle Ages, fruitcake recipes vary, but the modern image of a fruitcake is one of garish, candied fruits and dry, leaden texture. The American talk show host, Johnny Carson, is credited with fruitcake’s fall from grace with his oft-repeated joke, “There’s only one fruitcake in the world and people keep passing it around and around.” The final affront to fruitcake is the annual “fruitcake toss” on January 2, when unwanted loafs are literally thrown, hurled, catapulted and cannoned into the air using a range of inventive devices. It’s practically a cultural expectation to loathe the loaf.

But it’s the holidays—the season of love, not loathing. So I assembled a group of our researchers, planners and creatives to give fruitcake an unsolicited image overhaul. And man did we have fun (click to tweet). We began by testing our hypothesis—that it is literally the word fruitcake that provokes “blind rejection” even among people who have never tasted it. Sampling teams offered a taste of “fruitcake” to one group of consumers, who all refused to take a bite because of preconceived beliefs that it would taste bad. On the other hand, those offered “holiday cake” by our sampling team happily tried it and liked it in almost every case.

RP Kumar, Ketchum’s Executive Vice-President, Director, Strategic Planning, Insights and Research, gave us the human insight we’d need to remember when developing our creative solution—to change minds about fruitcake, we would need to make people aware of their unconscious bias against it, and to get past that bias, present fruitcake in an entirely new way.

In a conference room filled with mail-order fruitcake and reels of man-on-the-street fruitcake interviews, creative leaders from across Ketchum’s global network came together to rehabilitate fruitcake’s reputation. In the end, three ideas emerged as the most potentially breakthrough:

1. First Bite
An experiment-style video contrasting the reactions of first-time fruitcake samplers to those trying it for the very first time and loving it—from toddlers to non-Americans to food finicks—proving that it’s preconceived notions that fan fruitcake aversion and encouraging people to just take a bite.   The “Try Guys” on Buzzfeed can expect a call from us soon.

2. IT ingredient of the Holidays
Have top chefs compete in Ketchum’s San Francisco Test Kitchen to create unexpected, delicious Instagram-worthy recipes like ‘fruitcake french toast,’ ‘fruitcake parfait,’ and ‘fruitcake stuffing’ to give fruitcake the “it” status enjoyed by avocado toast this year. Expect to see shareable stop motion videos featuring mouth-watering fruitcake usage ideas next season.

3. Colorado Mile High Cake
A limited-edition fruitcake baked with canna-butter and added to The Stoner’s Cookbook, placing fruitcake into the cultural conversation in states where “weed edibles” have gained social currency. Talk about updating fruitcake’s image and making it relevant again.

We can’t wait for a fruitcake purveyor to implement one of our ideas—but most of them are pretty busy right now. As it turns out, December is the busiest month for the fruitcake industry because despite all the jokes, fruitcake remains a holiday staple. One busy fruitcake company thanked us for our fruitcake goodwill efforts and thousands of video views tell us fruitcake remains the treat people love to hate. But just you wait, Colorado Mile High Cake is going to be a best-seller in 2016. Happy Holidays. Now give someone you love a fruitcake!

Karen loves winning trophies for clients, believing awards affirm how much strategy and creativity matter. As Ketchum’s chief strategy and creativity officer, as well as co-lead of Ketchum’s 50+ specialty, she is an evangelist for courage and creativity in communication, and she ensures strategic discipline and creative liberation for the firm’s global network of planners. Her devotion to studying human behavior, crowdsourcing creative ideas and working across silos have contributed to Ketchum winning more awards for clients than any other PR firm. Some of her initiatives include the creation of Mindfire, Ketchum’s crowdsourcing site for fueling creative ideas; the Ketchum Creative Community and related Passion Panels to solve client challenges; and the Ketchum Media Optimizer, the first media planning discipline in the public relations business. As a member of the small minority of female agency creative chiefs, Karen is on a mission to inspire and empower more women to take on lead creative roles.