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Grisolia: 'Mystique' boosts profit margins, even when marketing meatballs

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Though I can't prove it, I suspect that the use of "mystique" – the creation of an air of mystery, not the word itself – originated with Middle Eastern spice and perfume merchants thousands of years ago. There are some who would have you think that "mystique" is a creation of French wine merchants as their way to sell more wine, but the phenomenon seems to predate the French. Regardless, the use of "mystique" has always made it easier to profitably sell a broad range of products – including meatballs.

Yes, meatballs! Those tasty round globes of meat and other ingredients that are traditionally served with pasta. But to appreciate the impact of mystique on the art of selling meatballs, you have to forget about traditional meatballs. Think specialty meatballs. Surprisingly expensive meatballs. Meatballs unaccompanied by pasta.

It's worth noting that meatballs have always come in a variety of sizes, depending on their use and who makes them. Some, when included in a family recipe for lasagna, for example, can be as small as a half inch in diameter. You've seen others, I'm sure, that were two inches in diameter heaped atop a plate of spaghetti. But all that seems to have changed in recent years.

There are new meatballs in town – and new ways to sell them – typically without pasta. Apparently these new ways are very profitable because a growing number of upscale restaurants now offer menu items that include only meatballs, three to six per item, at from $6 to $10.95 per choice. Specialty meatballs also are being sold – not just served free – in a growing number of upscale bars, a new and profitable substitute for their traditional "free bar food." Imagine the profit from selling six meatballs for $10.95. Unsuspecting meatball aficionados are paying almost $2 for each meatball they down. Why?

Apparently each variety has its own mystique, its own mystery, its own secret ingredients, flavor, even its own charisma. Charisma is a word that, until I began researching meatballs, I'd never heard used to describe these delicacies. What kinds of specialty meatballs have charisma? Here are a couple of unusual examples.

Made from pork, other meats and secret seasonings, one restaurant offers its patrons meatballs simmered in pork stock for three days before they're ready to serve. That pork stock, by the way, is the byproduct of boiling a pig's head in seasoned water. Sound appetizing?

Then there are the all lamb meatballs, the signature delicacy of a small but popular East Coast restaurant chain. These delicacies sell for $5 each. At that price they'd better be bigger than baseballs or extraordinarily tasty – or both.

The secret of the so-called secret ingredients used to make such gourmet meatballs depends on the proportion and combination of the ingredients used rather than on the actual ingredients themselves. There's no secret when it comes to blending ground meat – typically some combination of beef, pork, lamb and veal – along with parsley, basil, bread crumbs, mushrooms, cloves, red pepper, oregano, salt and/or other spices, plus any of a half-dozen or so grated cheeses that meatball makers have at their disposal. The secret is to use only those ingredients that create a unique flavor, a taste-tempting aroma, along with an appropriate eye appeal, delicate or massive.

There are at least four marketing truisms these highly profitable modern-day sellers of specialty meatballs have latched on to: 1) The creation of a unique product; 2) The ability to make large number of people want that product rather than merely need it; 3) Pricing that product at a point that enhances its value, and 4) Positioning that product in a novel but appealing way. That's smart marketing – whatever your product.

• An award-winning marketing professional and Certified Business Communicator, Phil Grisolia is also the author of an enlightening new ebook "Shut Up And Listen! – 10 Easy Steps Guaranteed to Help You Communicate Better!" available for just 99 cents wherever ebooks are sold. Visit Phil's website at www.PhilGrisolia.com. If you have a business-related question you would like Phil to answer, email it to PhilsDesk@PhilGrisolia.com, then watch for his answer in a future column.

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