American Vegemite and the “In-Group”: Consumer Ethnocentrism Part 2

Vegemite is a culinary shibboleth of Australian-ness. Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal write that ‘Vegemite may be the best predictor of national identity of any food in the world. That is, if you eat Vegemite, you are almost certainly Australian’.

The cultural significance of Vegemite for Australia is demonstrated by the awkward, yet seemingly obligatory question put to foreign dignitaries – “do you like vegemite?” A quick Internet search reveals that Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama were recently asked for their opinion on the spread, and it formed part of wedding gift to Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge.

Despite this intimate bond with the Australian national identity, Vegemite has been owned by the US-based Kraft Foods since 1935. Partly in response to its American ownership, Australian entrepreneur, Dick Smith launched Ozemite in 1999 as an Australian-made alternative.

The Dick Smith Foods brand replicates other brands and products considered to be Australian, yet are now foreign owned. In outlining the rationale for this endeavor Smith asserted that ‘Australians are patriotic but at the moment the labelling is so deceptive you don’t know what’s Australian. What I can say to people “if you buy a product with a Dick Smith Foods on it – it’s as Australian as you can get”’. “As Australian as you can get” has become the slogan for the Dick Smith Foods brand.

Over the past 12 years Smith has built his brand on a form of ethnocentric consumerism. By appealing to patriotic sentiment, Smith uses and reinforces an “in” or “we” group to direct consumer behavior away from “them” – foreign owned foods, particularly Vegemite – and towards an identification with Australian made and owned foods. The economic success of Smith’s brand is questionable; it is not close to the size of Kraft and many of the products are more expensive.

Smith claims that he is not interested in making money – ‘I have enough money. I’m not greedy, I have adequate money’. Rather he explains that he is ‘doing all this work so a consumer can go into a shop and if it says Dick Smith, it literally means, it’s as Australian as you can get’. A clear focus of Smith’s initiative is to encourage Australian consumers to buy Australian brands and products for domestic economic security, but there is a strong underlying theme of national identity and pride.

With debates continuing over introduction of country-of-origin labelling in Australia, especially in relation to berries from China, the case of Dick Smith and Vegemite demonstrates that in addition to being a mechanism that protects domestic markets, knowledge of the country of origin (and country of ownership) has a potential to tie national or geographic identity to a brand, such as Vegemite. However, country-of-origin knowledge also provides an opportunity to build a brand and gain market share, as in the case of Dick Smith Foods.

While Dick Smith draws on the “in-group” aspect of consumer ethnocentrism, appealing to nationalism to establish a brand and market share, the example of “freedom fries” demonstrates the use of “out-group” to shape consumer behavior.

Part 1 – here

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