Safe Enough to Eat
Japanese soil company Protoleaf was facing a challenge: How could it prove to wary consumers that its product was still safe following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and subsequent concerns that soil had been contaminated. Ad agency TBWAHakuhodo in Tokyo had an idea that brought together Michelin-starred, French-trained chef Toshio Tanabe, his gourmet Tokyo restaurant Ne Quittez Pas and a dirt-inspired, six-course menu. The restaurant developed a $110 a person prix fixe that featured dirty gastronomic delights from potato starch and soil soup to flounder and risotto with dirt. And people came and ate. News of the so-called Soil Restaurant was widely reported in Japan and picked up by outlets in more than 20 countries, including CNN, the Guardian and the Discovery Channel. The campaign garnered $8.9 million in earned media and a 34% increase in sales during the campaign period.
Contagious and Childs Weigh In
Contagious: This campaign is likely more appropriate for food-obsessed Japan than any other country; chefs like Heston Blumenthal may have led the worldwide surge in creative dining, but Tokyo still happens to reign as the Michelin Guide’s World Gourmet Capital. Protoleaf found people willing to fork over $110 to eat dirt, whereas they might have had more trouble if they attempted the campaign in another region.
It’s easy to see the PR appeal here; creating a soil-based menu that takes dirt beyond mud cakes in the playground is a headline-grabbing idea. This is an interesting example of a trend that we’ve labeled Product Demo Evolved, which involves brands showcasing product benefits in innovative ways. Here, Protoleaf is proving the safety of its product in a way that is both easy to understand (it’s safe enough to eat) and doesn’t feature any negative associations of mentioning the Fukushima disaster or nuclear radiation.
Nick Childs: Is a meal of flounder and risotto with soil at Tokyo’s Ne Quiitez Pas so much more far-fetched than sea cucumber with sponge and smoked oil at El Bulli? Protoleaf can vouch that it’s not. But it is a lot more fun to talk about and watch someone eat.
Modern audiences across the globe love to voyeuristically view strange behavior, and Protoleaf capitalized on just that by taking on the “foodie”-frenetic world of high-end dining, where people make multi-day journeys to keep a hard-won reservation at Noma or Faviken and one-upping each other with exotic fare is SOP.
The Protoleaf campaign, which captured – and even one-upped – the zeitgeist of the farm-to-table food movement, managed to simultaneously push all the right buttons. While asking folks to pay $100 a head for a meal of dirt-flavored dishes was an inventive way to create buzz, the powerful idea here was dreaming up a stunt that would be universally understood and shared. And even though the worries over soil safety were restricted to Japan, Protoleaf’s PR-driven, earned media campaign traveled around the world, elevating it quickly from simply clever to inspired.