Would a rice by any other name still smell as sweet?

Vicky BoydNumbers don’t lie. For the 2018-19 rice marketing year, imports are expected to comprise more than 24 percent of domestic rice use — a record, according to figures from U.S. Department of Agriculture ag economist Nathan Childs. Of that, most will be Thai jasmine. Just 20 years ago, imports made up about 8 percent of domestic use.

Although some of the increased demand for the imported aromatics is from immigrants who grew up eating it at home, growth also is coming from U.S.-born consumers who like the flavor.

Ask consumers if they favor U.S.-grown foods over imports, and the bulk will likely say they want to buy local. But when they shop, purchases tell a different story. Many consumers still don’t know that the United States grows rice, let alone aromatic varieties. And therein lies the challenge.

Take the 100-plus bird watchers who participated in the recent Yellow Rails & Rice Festival near Thornwell, Louisiana. This is typically a well-educated population, yet many didn’t know the United States had a rice industry until after they listened to Louisiana rice grower Kevin Berken’s “Rice 101” presentation. They also weren’t aware they could buy U.S.-grown aromatic varieties similar to the Thai jasmine until they toured Falcon Rice Mill, which mills, packages and markets Louisiana-grown aromatic varieties.

If you asked these consumers to describe why they liked Thai jasmine, they would talk about the flavor and the good smell while they were cooking and eating it. But how often would you hear the term “aromatic”?

Perhaps something is being lost in the translation. When you describe a variety, such as Jazzman II or the new ARoma 17, as an aromatic long-grain, does the consumer really get it? Or do they hear a term they may be unfamiliar with so they stick with what they know they like — Thai jasmine?

At one time, some marketers described U.S.-grown aromatics as “popcorn” rice because they smelled like popcorn when you cooked them. It was a simple term that most consumers could relate to.

I’m not necessarily advocating we go back to that term, but I think we need to re-examine what descriptors resonate with the consumer. This also may mean reverting to the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle and using easy-to-understand words that capture consumers’ attention and taste buds. With four syllables, aromatic may be just too complicated a word for many end-users to grasp.

In journalism, we were taught to write for readers with a ninth-grade education. Since I graduated, many now recommend writing for seventh- or eighth-grade educations. U.S. rice growers produce a great aromatic crop. But perhaps the marketers need to go back to school to find a simpler approach to connect with consumers.