Consumer conformity: Why we like thick clam chowder (and other inferior products)

Steven Pearlstein
Columnist July 30, 2011

Steven Pearlstein is a business and economics columnist who writes about local, national and international topics. View Archive

One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting barefoot and shirtless on a stool at a lunch counter a block from the beach in Ogunquit, Maine, gulping down a bowl of clam chowder.

There was nothing particularly special about the chowder — it was pretty much like what you would have found anywhere along the New England seacoast: a generous mound of potatoes, onions and clams sitting in a broth of briny clam juice and whole milk. As often as not, there would be butter and paprika floating on the surface, with a few grains of sand sitting harmlessly at the bottom of the bowl.

Half a century later, however, a summer visitor to New England is hard-pressed to find such authentic chowder. Although omnipresent on menu boards in restaurants and seaside shacks, what passes for clam chowder now is most often a bowl of flour-thickened gruel in which tiny bits of chopped sea clams and overcooked potatoes wallow. The typical chowder is so gelatinous that if you stick in a plastic spoon, it will stand up straight. On average, it’s about as tasty as the paste used in elementary school art class — and, as my friend Mike Wheeler up in Gloucester points out, probably has better adhesive properties. Adding flour adds no flavor — in fact, it detracts from it.


(Illustration by Ellen Weinstein)

John Thorne, a splendid food writer and author of “Simple Cooking,” warns that the tension between the thick and thin camps might be as old as chowder itself. The oldest recipes called for layering pork, clams, potatoes and common oyster crackers in a kettle, filling it with water and letting it stew until the meat was cooked and the crackers disintegrated, providing a certain thickness to the broth. And subsequent recipes called for using a thickener of a butter-and-flour roux. But Thorne is at a loss to explain the current craze for super-thick chowder, which he says has strayed so far from the original chowder traditions and practices that he rarely has the courage to order it.

My own hunch is that the trend might have picked up steam in the 1980s when Legal Sea Foods introduced a tasty but moderately thick clam chowder that almost immediately began outselling Legal’s fish chowder 10 to 1. These days, even Legal Sea Foods owner Roger Berkowitz says he is “nauseated” by what he calls the “obscenely thick” chowders that dominate the marketplace and chowder competitions.

Learned preferences

My search for a decent bowl of clam chowder got me thinking about consumer preferences — how they are established, how they are reinforced by market competition and how they change over time.

One of my first calls was to Greg Carpenter, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Carpenter explained that the way most of us think and talk about market competition is based on something of a mythical model in which consumers know what they want in a product and companies engage in a continuous battle to satisfy those preferences with better and better offerings.

In fact, Carpenter says, most of our preferences are learned and largely formed by social norms and expectations that producers have a strong hand in shaping. Moreover, such preferences are anything but fixed, susceptible to changes in technology, culture, fads and the business strategies of companies competing in the marketplace.

Our notion of what a “family car” ought to be used to be a station wagon. Then it was the family van. Now it is an SUV.

Or take coffee. For a long time, the market and all the consumer research suggested that Americans preferred weak coffee, and there were basically a handful of coffee companies, led by Folgers and Maxwell House, that offered products within a narrow range to provide it. Of course, that was until Starbucks came along and demonstrated that maybe our preference for weak coffee wasn’t as fixed as everyone thought.

Our wine preferences have also developed along lines that have caught the industry by surprise. According to Alexander Chernev, another Kellogg marketing professor, the conventional wisdom was that wine was an “aspirational” product that allowed people to see themselves as worldly and sophisticated. In that context, people tended to prefer wines produced in good years from small vineyards in France or the Napa Valley, where everyone knew the best wines were made.

At some point, however, Yellowtail and a few other Australian wines entered the market not only with new products but with a new social context for thinking about wine. Their idea was to relieve consumers of what for many was really the burden of having to know more about vintages and vineyards and grapes than they really did, or really wanted to, and then going through the hassle of wrestling the cork out of the bottle. Instead, they offered a standard chardonnay or pinot in screw-top bottles. What was once a wine negative — commonness, ubiquity — suddenly became a positive.

Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist, once did an experiment with college freshmen concerning beer. When asked, first, whether they preferred a lighter American beer or a darker, full-bodied German beer, the overwhelming majority of the freshmen said they liked the German variety. But in a blind taste test, it turned out that the freshmen actually preferred the lighter American brew.

Then Ariely administered the same test to college seniors. Again, they professed a preference for full-bodied beer. Only this time, what the seniors thought they preferred was confirmed by the blind taste test.

The conclusion Ariely draws from this experiment is that we learn to conform our preferences to social shaping. Even young freshmen were aware that they were supposed to prefer German beer to American, but it took a few years of hard drinking to develop a taste for the more bitter variety. In the same way, he says, people develop a taste for heavy-metal music, caviar, or spicy food — or even the kind of sex that they see in pornographic movies.

These learned preferences can just as easily involve characteristics that, from an objective standpoint, do not make a product any better and might even make them worse — particularly when it relates to texture.

Ravi Dhar, a marketing professor at the Yale School of Management, notes that although Heinz ketchup does not reliably win in blind taste tests, it has established itself as the gold standard in its category because it is thicker — which also means it is a nuisance to try to get out of the bottle. For the same reason, Dhar says, consumers prefer detergents that are chunkier over those that are powdery because of the perception — false, as it turns out — that they are more potent and effective.

In the marketing world, Dhar says, “meaningless attributes often lead to meaningful differentiation. “

Which brings us to chowder. Joe Marino, owner of the Lobster Pot in Wareham, Mass., has been fighting the trend toward thickness for years with his popular chowder, which he describes as “on the thin side of average.” He suspects that people now mistakenly equate thickness with luxury or full-flavor heartiness, or use it to rationalize thinking of a bowl of chowder as a main course. If you give people the choice between a thin soup or a thick one, the natural instinct would be to say thick.

Thicker is easier

What began as a mild preference or a rational instinct, however, has turned into an irrational and self-reinforcing consensus that has consigned an entire generation of diners to what by any objective measure is an inferior chowder. Restaurants were only too happy to accommodate this trend, if for no other reason than it has made it easy to get away with using fewer clams. Try that trick with a thin broth and your chowder fraud would be obvious. It also makes it easier to use something other than real clam broth, which is the big hassle. Because it is less delicate, thick chowder is also more amenable to being prepared in large vats at central locations, refrigerated or frozen and then shipped out to restaurants in plastic bags to restaurants that call it their own.

This trend has been allowed to go on for so long that there’s barely anyone left who even remembers what authentic chowder tastes like, or many restaurants that serve it. So when restaurant owners tell me that thick is the way the customers prefer their chowder, it has an air of plausibility to it.

“There are huge incentives in consumer markets even for competing companies to make everything the same,” says Dan McGinn, president of the McGinn Group, a research and strategy consultancy in Arlington. Established, dominant firms crave the predictability of doing what they are already doing, making only minor tweaks and modifications and fighting to take small increments of market share from competitors who are basically doing the same thing.

To be sure, businesses are always ordering up marketing studies to search for changing tastes or new opportunities, but McGinn says that unless the research is done well, it inevitably winds up confirming that consumers have a strong and immutable preference for the products now offered. The old joke — that companies use market research the way drunks use a lamppost, more for support than illumination — would be funny if it weren’t also so often true.

The curse of bad market research is that it lulls companies into the kind of complacency that eventually makes them vulnerable to an upstart challenger who comes along offering a more fuel-efficient car, a stronger cup of coffee, a more healthful soft drink, a more interesting hotel room or — let us hope — a tastier and more authentic chowder.

As it turns out, just as I was despairing of finding an authentic bowl of chowder, I found one just up the street from where I’m staying in Wellfleet, at PJ’s. Every day during the summer season, owner Don Reeves makes up 10 gallons of his own clam juice using freshly chopped sea clams from a local supplier. He adds onions and potatoes and finishes it with some light cream and butter.

“We like to say that we thicken our chowder with clams,” said Reeves, whose family has owned and operated the family restaurant for 40 years after moving from Texas.

Despite the tasty authenticity of his chowder — perhaps because of it — the always-packed PJ’s today sells less chowder than it did years ago. In a whispered aside, Reeves allowed how even his 19-year-old son prefers the thicker version that his mother cooks up for him at home during the off-season.

Wine: Text goes here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here

Coffee: Text goes here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here

Chowder: Text goes here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here

Key to the recipe inside goes right here and here and here G5

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