It’s Not Natural, It’s Just Simple: Food Branding Co-Opts Another Meaningless Word

What do you call foods which aren’t organic, which may not be natural, and which might not even be good for you? It’s simple.

An American musician by the name of Charles Mingus was talking about tunes, but what he said applies easily to the recent emergence of the word “simple” in the branding of our food products and beyond. Said Mingus, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, is creativity.”


Let’s take a look at exactly what kind of creativity is being nurtured around the water coolers of our cleverest ad agencies and top naming companies. “Simple” is the new “natural”.

The term “natural foods” is used widely in the labeling and marketing of foodstuffs in this country. We see it every time we are in the grocery store – there are whole sections in the local Lucky and Safeway labeled Natural Foods. The term has a number of definitions around the world, but in the U.S., neither the FDA nor the USDA have rules for using the word “natural” in food labeling, and the FDA explicitly discourages the food industry from using the term.

Doesn’t the term “natural” imply that the foods in our shopping cart are minimally processed and that they do not contain manufactured ingredients? That’s reasonable, right? Ah, but the lack of standards in some jurisdictions means that the term assures shoppers of precisely nothing. And marketers have been quick to take advantage of this fact – meaning the term “natural” gets slapped on all kinds of products, including, for example, chickens injected with saline solution to make them heavier.

While all of that is going on, let’s not forget that the term “organic” has similar implications (i.e., being vulnerable to marketers in all their many forms) and – here is the sticky part – it has an established legal definition in many countries. In the US, to be certified as organic, food must meet the standards set by the federal National Organic Program. So, you can only use “organic” if you follow the rules, and the word “natural”, while crunchy and wholesome, is overused and kind of meaningless at this point.

What are marketers to do? “Nothing to it,” they shout in unison. “Just call it simple.” As Leonardo da Vinci decided long, long ago, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The new operating principal – the new mantra – is that good high quality depends on honest to goodness simplicity. Keep it simple, stupid.

The Simply Orange brand boasts that their oranges are left to their devices: not sweetened, not concentrated, no water, sugar or preservatives added – simple, the way nature intended. (They’ve since expanded to other juices, including Simply Apple and Simply Lemonade.) The Simple Food Solutions brand makes dog food that is oh-so simple: no dairy, no whey, no soy, no egg, no preservatives, no coloring and no flour. Taste, I’m sure, remains. Dogs are nuts about it.


Then there’s Simply Go-Gurt, Simply Fruit (fruit roll-ups), Folger’s Simply Smooth (coffee), Simply Fiber (cereal), Simply Asia (prepared Asian food), Simply Organic (line of spices), Quaker Simple Harvest (granola bars); Safeway uses shelf labeling called SimpleNutrition. IHOP has selections on their menu called Simple & Fit. And Simple Green cleaner, a brand that’s been around for years, has upped the ante with their own line of – surprise – Simple Green Naturals.

I think it all got started with the whitest magazine around, Real Simple— or as I call it, Real Expensive. In today’s world, simple doesn’t mean cheap; in fact, you’re probably paying more to have preservatives and HFC *not* put into your food. But someday, the market will tire of “simple” and we’ll be on to the next feel-good word. What do you think it wil be? Personally, my money’s on “non-lethal”, but I’ve always been a cynic.

Laurel Sutton is a partner and co-founder at Catchword, a full-service naming firm.