Cupboard Love The cultural resonance of canned and ambient
In these unfamiliar Covid-19 times, data shows us that people are shopping for food like never before. Total UK supermarket sales have risen by 43% (Reuters) with March 2020 being the busiest month on record. According to Nielsen data, ambient groceries have seen a 62% increase in sales, demonstrating that for the past few weeks, shoppers have focused on ambient store cupboard essentials like beans, rice, and canned vegetables.
What is it about canned and ambient goods that’s driving these dramatic spikes in sales?
Most obviously, ambient formats last for ages, and their long shelf-life bears connotations of solidity and trustworthiness. These are not products which require us to ‘look after’ them – not like fresh produce, which is liable to go off in the bottom of our fridge without watchful vigilance. This unflinching consistency is comforting in a time where we are too busy looking after each other to make sure the lettuce doesn’t go limp.
Tinned and ambient products look after us, not the other way around. They are our culinary insurance policy, the lowkey introverts which hide in the shadows, ready to step up and assist us on a wet Tuesday night when we are too tired to cook anything extravagant. Whilst fresh food is needy and fragile, canned food is stoic and reliable. There are resonant echoes here with broader shifts in our cultural atmosphere.
Under lockdown, collective priorities have changed – our gaze no longer fixed upwards on the shiny and rarefied lives of celebrities. Our new heroes are NHS staff and local shopkeepers – the quiet stalwarts of our society who help others and ensure our ability to maintain the rhythms of normality. Our return to tinned soup and chickpeas can be understood through the lens of this broader reprioritisation. We are grateful for the hardworking, fuss-free products that enable us all to keep going.
Another broad change in social perspectives relates to waste and the perceived value of our food. Whilst we have long been aware of the UK’s reckless relationship with food (we throw 6.6 million tonnes away each year), surplus and uneaten food suddenly feels shockingly at odds with our new appreciation of its precarity and lack of availability in supermarkets. Ambient and canned products offer people a powerful source of relief, given this heightened awareness of the need to be responsible with food. With less chance of tinned kidney beans going off, and therefore being wasted, tins of food code dutiful and socially minded household management. Dried and canned packaging is often physically heavy and tightly sealed, and this emphatic protection (the contents protected against air itself) carries important connotations of protection and safety, in a climate of being painfully conscious of our vulnerability to invisible airborne pathogens.
Canned goods also evoke powerful cultural memories of grandparents’ well-stocked larders and pantries, connoting ideas of resourcefulness, independence and self-reliance. Seeing rows of tinned food in the cupboard reminds us of an era in which people (mostly women) carefully stored away homemade chutney, pickled vegetables, preserved fruit and batches of jam. Ambient food codes the preparedness and control that comes with frugality and homespun thriftiness.
If this is sounding a bit Famous Five, it’s because these formats do carry many comforting cultural associations. Baked beans and tinned potatoes carry us back to the ethos and atmosphere of post-war Britain – a time we collectively remember as being more wholesome, simple, and less greedily individualistic. British culinary tastes, shaped by rationing during WWII, were modest. Nostalgic staples like Spam and evaporated milk bring back cultural memories of optimism and being thankful for what we had. Therefore, these tinned and canned values feel powerfully resonant in our anxious Corona times, and in an era where we are more complacent about food being constantly available than ever before.
In order to continue this uptick in canned and ambient sales, brands would do well to emphasise ideas of trustworthiness, endurance and control – but also remember the more emotional connotations of nostalgia for a wholesome British past. There is an opportunity to emphasise these themes through simple pack design which connotes both safety and trustworthiness (strong, heavy packs, robust lids and seals, thick labels and rough/textured finishes) whilst also evoking memories for an era defined by civic co-operation and wholesome self-reliance (1950s colour palettes, simple and humble product descriptors, public-information style language). In these times of uncertainty, our tinned and ambient friends feel like a safe and enduring form of support. We may be living in ‘strange and uncertain’ times, but we can always lean on beans.
Katharine Hill, Project Director