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Food Halos

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Washington State University “is trying to put a brand name on the college’s meat,” reports Kirk Johnson in The New York Times (3/3/13). WSU is by no means the first school to enter the meat market: “Texas A&M Jerky has been a big seller in College Station since the 1980s” and University of Idaho “has been very successfully packing Vandal Brand Meats” (named for its mascot) “since the late 1980s.” Cornell sells a branded ice cream and WSU itself “has been selling Cougar Gold, a white cheddar cheese packed in a can and named for the university mascot, since the 1940s.”

The concept may be gaining steam for a number of reasons, including the “local food” movement, as well as “the commercial branding of commodities,” such as “Washington State apples” or “California avocados.” The biggest reason may be that the schools see branded food items as a way to generate revenues amid “erosion of public financing for higher education.” Either way, Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell, says universities have the opportunity create “food halos.”

A “food halo,” says Brian, is “the aura or glow that a compelling story or some connotation of health, social consciousness or environmentalism can bestow on a product. Colleges, he said, with nostalgic allegiances going back generations and educational missions that go beyond the profit motive, can often grab halos while only half trying.” In WSU’s case, “with nearly 25,000 students on four campus and … tens of thousands of alumni” there is a huge potential customer base. No need to buy advertising, either, as the university already has their e-mail addresses.