Positive to Negative to Positive: Rebranding California Food Stamps


This item was originally published on October 30th, 2010 at Fast Company.

It should be the most popular state government program: credit for groceries, so you can feed your family when times are tough. Unfortunately, there’s a huge social stigma attached to the program, and especially the name food stamps. This, of course, is due to America’s obsession with the “just world” fallacy, that people get what they deserve, despite massive and frequent evidence to the contrary.

You’re on food stamps? It must be because you’re too lazy to get a job. And if you are, you’re probably using them to buy Max-sized bags of Cheetos, to feed your kids for breakfast.

That’s the stereotype, based on, well, stereotypes. But the stereotype has real-world results. Lots of people who are eligible for food stamps don’t receive them (less than half!), and those that do have to put up with glares from fellow shoppers. This is definitely a situation that could be improved by some creative marketing.

So in October, the new name for California’s food stamp program was announced: CalFresh. The goal of the renaming is to shed negative associations with Food Stamps and increase the participation rates in food insecure households. (What a great phrase! The food in my house seems pretty secure: it’s not falling off the shelves, and it doesn’t seem to have any self-esteem issues. But I think I need to stop putting the Kraft slices next to the aged Swiss Gruyere; I don’t want the poor cheese food to feel any worse about itself.)

The federal government had the same goal in October 2008 when they renamed the food stamp program to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP. Program participation increased 40% from October 2008 to July 2010. So, it seems to have worked, to a certain extent. SNAP is still bogged down by welfare associations rather than the idea of nourishment for health. Fortunately, states can put their own spin on the program name. California’s choice of CalFresh launch includes a clean new logo and tagline.

I like it. Obviously the main message is about choosing fresh food over Cheetos. And the use of “Cal-” in the name ties it to many other state programs like CalPERS, Caltrain, CalJOBS, Caltrans, etc.

It’s short and catchy and really seems to impart a positive spin to the program. A card with the CalFresh name on it is a lot more friendly and, dare I say it, classy than food stamps, which reeks of charity and second-class-citizenship. (Remember Green Stamps? Those were for people, like my family, who bought everything on sale and at Sears. It’s also a throwback to the rationing stamps of WW2, and no one wants to go back to that.)

“Better food for better living” is not the most ingenious tagline I’ve heard. Still, it is a tagline. I don’t recall food stamps ever having a tagline (although “stamp of shame” seemed to be the growing perception). And the tagline does reinforce the message of healthy eating for life.

I like the logo too. The berry-colored bubbles with the green nurdle running through them are pretty, and very fruity-vegetablely, although the colored blobs remind me of the ceiling of the Las Vegas Bellagio Hotel lobby. If I tried to stay on topic, it also reminds us that eating lots of different colored fruits and vegetables provides your body a wide range of nutrients. Hence, the recent saying “eat your colors.”

The key question is whether the new name will be more effective for enrolling eligible families. The name CalFresh is definitely a move in the right direction. However, there are still other hurdles to overcome: paperwork, stigma, outreach, fear of the eligibility interview, just to name a few. For the sake of all the people in California suffering from the recession, I really do hope that the rebranding is the exact push the program needs. If Californians put as much effort into CalFresh as we put into marijuana legalization, this should be no problem. By the way, is pot a fruit or vegetable?


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