The REAL Problem with the ConAgra Dinner Debacle

This week blogs from the New York Times to the Huffington Post covered a story that most bloggers had already been talking about for days in Skype chats and private Facebook groups.  Ketchum PR – on behalf of ConAgra – invited bloggers to attend an exclusive dinner with TLC’s Chef George Duran at a mysterious restaurant called Sotto Terra.  They were promised a four course meal, time to discuss food trends with supermarket guru Phil Lempert, and a surprise at the end of the night.

As the entire social media world now knows, the surprise was that the “delicious four course meal” they were promised was not prepared fresh by Chef George Duran as they might have anticipated.  Instead they were served frozen food from Marie Callender, a ConAgra brand. The blogging world was outraged!  The marketing world was ashamed.  What were the agency and the brand thinking?

Unfortunately, the real offense has been completely overlooked by most. While many are saying that it was a bad move on the part of ConAgra to try the bait and switch/surprise! method that has worked for other brands (people eating pizza in a field, anyone?), I disagree.  The English teacher in me loves a good plot twist, and shock value should never be underestimated.  The idea at face value was clever.

However, the team planning the event must have forgotten a key rule that every blogger certainly would have remembered – know your audience. Treating the typical Marie Callender consumer or even bloggers in a demographic that might be considered frozen-food friendly to this type of evening would likely have brought a completely different result.  Inviting vocal food bloggers, whose strong opinions against frozen foods with high sodium and preservatives are easily found on the very blogs that earned them a dinner invitation, was far more than just a roll of the dice. Any marketing or public relations professional who deals with food brands knows the angry divide between the “foodies” and the packaged food brands that market to a completely different demographic than that represented at these “exclusive dinners”.  Why not invite frugal living or quick meal prep bloggers instead?  How about parenting bloggers who have been determined to be brand friendly based on the other brand interactions on their blogs?  The event was less a misfire and more a missed opportunity.

Yes, social media marketers should be outraged by the ConAgra dinner debacle, but not because of the marketing ploy that was used.  The real travesty is how poorly it was executed.

Footnote: This evening I read another post about the the ConAgra event written by my friend and social media peer, Fadra Nally, that echoes the same sentiments.  I can’t help wonder if there were more of us in the room when these decisions were being made if the outcome would be different…

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  • The Domino’s pizza “fresh tomatoes in a field” thing was the first thing that came to my mind when I heard about this story. And, you know what Domino’s did right? Had people who were actually there to talk about pizza (and Domino’s in particular) to pull the “surprise” on. You’re so very right, Amy. This was executed very poorly on behalf of PR. Had they chosen bloggers who would actually eat the frozen lasagna to start with, this would have had a much better outcome (and most likely a positive one). And, it probably would have helped to not talk about healthy eating, reading labels, and fresh foods when you’re touting a lasagna loaded with salt, preservatives, and who knows what else!

    • You hit the nail on the head. So often brands and agencies reach out to bloggers based on a list they’ve been handed instead of careful, thoughtful outreach. In this case, they clearly chose carefully…and they clearly chose wrong. The way they approached this type of event was in error, not this type of event itself.

  • Wow – how did I miss that this all happened? I can tell you I would have been beyond miffed had I been invited to a dinner with a chef that sounded like it would be really nice and gotten frozen food instead. Not because I am against frozen food, but just because it is not what they made it out to be. I actually like Marie Callendar pot pies, but it’s not fine dining.

    • Maybe it was also about setting appropriate expectations for the brand, as well. It’s a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes. It sounds like they convinced the client that their product really COULD pass for fine dining in one of the most restaurant crazed cities in the world. So how about this…a bait and switch in an appropriate location with the appropriate audience? The flaw is still not in the marketing theory, but in the execution.

  • I completely agree. If the bloggers were against using frozen foods because they thought they tasted bad, that would have been one thing. ConAgra could have surprised them with great tasting frozen meals. However, most people oppose frozen meals because of sodium levels and preservatives. About the only way this could have succeeded would have been if ConAgra was introducing a new line of healthy frozen meals with very low sodium (no higher than a freshly made meal) and no preservatives. Somehow, I doubt that they would serve a group of Kosher bloggers dishes secretly made with bacon fat or vegan bloggers dishes that secretly contained real egg and cheese.

    • Jason, I love your comment. This sentence alone nails it: “Somehow, I doubt that they would serve a group of Kosher bloggers dishes secretly made with bacon fat or vegan bloggers dishes that secretly contained real egg and cheese.”

  • Oanh

    This sounds like the Pizza Hut commercials for their TUSCANI PASTA only with bloggers getting served frozen food.

  • Peekababy

    Amy, you took the words right out of my mouth regarding Jason’s comment. I wonder how much of this can be attributed to brand hubris, though. Much along the lines of the icky guy who thinks his prowess in bed can turn a lesbian straight–do you think that they thought the fabulousness of their product and the cleverness of their ruse would cause their foodie guests to switch teams?
    I don’t know whether that would be worse or better…

    • If that was truly the agency’s belief despite their years of experience and understanding of both the target audience and their very vocal processed food opponents, then I think ConAgra has some serious discussions ahead of them regarding their own decision making process.

  • In addition to all the other good points, I also wonder if there isn’t some level of disrespect here because the audience was comprised of bloggers. They didn’t dare try this on Tony Bourdain, Alan Richman or Jeffrey Steingarten, but they thought it was okay to do this to a group of bloggers. I could be imagining things, but I have to wonder.

    • Terri, I definitely agree with that on a certain level. It seems that one of two things happened. One, they invited food bloggers mistakenly thinking of them not as professional food critics who would not be fooled by the pomp and circumstance of the event, but as just the average person – like me – who could be told that an onion is an apple, blindfolded, and made to eat it with a smile on my face. Or two, they invited them as food bloggers and believed so much in the product that they truly thought some great transformation would take place, like Paul on the road to Damascus. The skies would open, the sun would shine down, and a voice would tell them – yes! frozen cuisine can be delectable and healthy! Either thought process, in my opinion, defies good sense.

  • island girl

    I think it was very disrespectful that this even happened, not to mention our country is in a food war. To even “glamorize” prepackaged frozen meals is absolutely disgusting! This is yet another example of food companies playing Americans for fools. Pay attention. @littleislandstu

  • Brilliant s usual, Amy. A simple focus group of bloggers would have helped them avoid this entire debacle.

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