Friday, October 2, 2015

The Business Advice of Potatoes


If you are having trouble selling something, if you want people to do something for you and they won't, sometimes the solution is not to throw away your idea. Sometimes, you need to rebrand- to change how you are describing your product. Perhaps, putting it in a new light will make people more willing to give it a try.

The classic literary example of this is Tom Sawyer in the eponymous book by Mark Twain. If you are not familiar with the book, the second chapter opens with Tom, the main character, being punished by his aunt because he got his clothes dirty. His punishment is to repaint his aunt's white fence. Tom begins to paint the fence, but he is miserable. It is a beautiful day, and Tom is an adventurous boy: he wants to be fishing or exploring or doing anything besides painting the fence. As he suffers and paints, he sees a boy named Ben walk by. Ben begins to make fun of Tom, saying that he's going to the river to swim while Tom has to paint. Tom ignores him for a time, and then pretends to notice Ben standing there. Ben asks Tom, "Wouldn't you rather be swimming? Or would you rather be working?"
Tom Sawyer

Tom, rather astutely, asks Ben what he is calling work? Ben points out that Tom is painting a fence. Tom states that he does not think painting is work, that it is not every day that a boy gets to paint a fence, that in fact, he rather enjoys it. This puts the situation in a new light for poor Ben. After a few minutes of watching Tom paint, Ben asks for a turn. Tom politely declines:

"No — no — I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence — right here on the street, you know — but if it was the back fence I wouldn’t mind and SHE wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done."
By now, Ben has seen the light: he really wants to paint the fence! He offers part of his apple, then the whole apple, for a chance to paint. Finally, Tom generously relents, sitting down to eat his new apple while he allows Ben to paint in the hot sun. Soon, more boys walk by, each one stopping to make fun of the previous boy, and then being sold on the fun of it by Tom. By the end of the day, Tom has become a rich boy- he has been traded:
 "...twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six firecrackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door- knob, a dog-collar — but no dog — the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash."
And Tom has gotten all these "riches" while also convincing others to put three coats of fresh paint on the fence in the heat, while he sat in the shade and accumulated a small "treasure." As the author, Mark Twain, puts it in the story, 
"He (Tom) had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain."
What is the point of this story? I want to introduce a very similar story from history, where the king of a major nation rebranded an unpopular but important food item, and transformed it from something "that dogs won't eat" to a staple food for that country.

The Potato

I write this article with the basic assumption that my readers know what a potato is. I hope that is not too crazy of an assumption. But I do want to describe the history of the potato. My guess is that if I were to mention potatoes, the countries people would associate with them would probably be Ireland and Germany. But the funny thing about the potato is that it was first cultivated in the Americas and then brought to Europe after Columbus "discovered" the New World, meaning the first time an Irish or German person could have possibly eaten a potato was 1493, and probably not until much later than that.

The potato was first domesticated in the Andes in South America around 8000 BCE, some 10,000 years ago. The first verifiable archaeological evidence we have for the potato being domesticated is from a site in Peru come from about 2500 BCE. The Incas would eat the plant, but they would also dehydrate it, making it easy to store for up to ten years. They also believed the potato had medicinal properties, including easing childbirth. But the crop was unknown to Europe, Asia and Africa until at the earliest 1493, and most people estimate that the crop was not brought back to Europe consistently until after the Spanish conquered the Inca Empire starting in the 1550s.
The Andes Mountains, home of the potato.

The name we have for the potato is actually a misunderstanding by the Spanish. The Incas called a different plant, what we now call the sweet potato, the "batata." The Spanish confused the two roots and began to call what we call the potato by that name, which is a mispronunciation of batata.

The importance of the potato in helping the world modernize cannot be overstated. It is estimated that the extra calories made available by the introduction of potatoes to Europe allowed about 25% of the current population to exist. I'll put it another way: the potato was introduced in Europe at about the same time that Europe's population exploded. Having the potato as a source of easy calories allowed hundreds of millions of extra people to be born and live to adulthood. Think of how that changed the world! Millions of extra people were born who invented, improvised, fought, lead, and died of something other than starvation, all because a simple crop was introduced to the world. Because potatoes are so rich in starch and carbohydrates, they are incredibly helpful for keeping people from starving. If you ate nothing but potatoes, you would not be completely healthy, but it would keep you alive. And potatoes are very easy to grow- you do not need a lot of space to grow a large amount of potatoes, they will grow almost anywhere, they are easy to transport and sell.

This is how Jeff Chapman describes potatoes in his essay, "The Impact of the Potato":
The tuber was remarkable for both its adaptability and its nutritional value. As well as providing starch, an essential component of the diet, potatoes are rich in vitamin C, high in potassium and an excellent source of fiber. In fact, potatoes alone supply every vital nutrient except calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D. The easily-grown plant has the ability to provide more nutritious food faster on less land than any other food crop, and in almost any habitat.
This small, humble root has tons of essential nutrients, it is full of energy, it is easy to grow in large numbers. And yet, when it was first introduced in Europe, the potato was looked down upon as disgusting and bland. No one wanted to eat them. People were starving, relying on one or two crops to keep themselves alive. Thousands of people were dying every time famine would hit. And yet everyone was rejecting the potato. Why? And how did that change? Because it did change: it is estimated that over 200 million tonnes of potatoes are eaten by humans each year.

Hating the Potato

Why was the potato ignored and even hated when it was first introduced to Europe? Several reasons are commonly cited:
  • First of all, just look at potatoes! They look like rocks, they are filthy when you pull them from the ground, and they are lumpy, pockmarked and misshapen. Many people also thought the potato plant looked like the nightshade plant, which is poisonous, and assumed potatoes are poisonous too. In fact, potatoes ACTUALLY ARE related to the nightshade family of plants, although the family also includes the tomato and eggplant as members. Just look at the pictures below to see how similar they look.
Nightshade plant and berries.

Potato plant and berries.
  • Funnily enough, the people that thought potatoes were poisonous were right! I would assume that some early Europeans found this out the hard way. The glycoalkaloids found in the potato plant are located mostly in the plant that grows from the part of the potato we eat (remember, the potato we eat is the root, not the fruit, of the potato plant), with the highest concentration of toxins in the flowers and leaves of the plant. But even the roots (what we eat) have trace  amounts of the toxin in them, although breeding by humans has significantly lowered the levels of toxin in the root. Wikipedia informs me that there has been no reported cases of people being poisoned by potatoes in the United States in the last fifty years. It is fairly easy to understand why people would be hesitant to eat potatoes though, right? Why would you eat a plant where part of it is poisonous? And who eats a plants roots?
  • The third reason some Europeans refused to eat potatoes is a pretty interesting reason. Some people refused to eat potatoes because they were not in the Bible. Ignoring the fact that a lot of the foods popular in Europe are not in the Bible (pasta, anyone?), the fact that the potato was apparently non-biblical was a major turn-off. Judging it by it's look, it's relation to nightshade, and the fact it was not in the Bible, it just had to be the Devil's work. It also did not help that the potato had come from the heathen, non-Christian Inca Empire.
  • The fourth reason (and probably the most important reason for daily life) is that potatoes were kind of boring, and they were unknown. There is a German proverb:

Was der Bauer nicht kennt, das frisst er nicht."What the peasant doesn't know, he won't put in his gob."
The people were unfamiliar with the plant. They did not know how to cook it, how to make it taste good. Let's be honest, potatoes are pretty boring with nothing on them. The town of Kolburg in Prussia agreed. When their King, Frederick II, ordered towns to grow potatoes as insurance against famine, Kolburg replied:
The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?
Can you blame the people of Kolburg? They were being forced to grow these unknown, boring vegetables they had no experience cooking. They were so bland even the dogs wouldn't eat them. But they had not had the chance to discover that if you put butter, or sauce, or lots of other things on a potato, they are pretty freaking delicious! What the people of Kolburg, and all of Europe needed, was a leader with good justifications for why Europe should accept the potato. What did the potato need? It needed to be rebranded.

Accepting the Potato

In most of Europe, the potato was accepted by the wealthy before it was accepted by the more superstitious poor. In England, it was recommended that people grow potatoes as early as 1662 by the Royal Society, although this had a small impact until the Glorious Revolution (briefly described in my recent Gin and Tonic article), when food shortages forced the peasants to start embracing the potato or starve. In France, the peasants began to overcome their hatred of the potato when King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette began to wear potato flowers in their lapel and hair, respectively.

The most interesting way that a country was convinced to accept the potato was achieved by the previously mentioned King Frederick II in Prussia, in modern Germany. Frederick the Great, or Frederick II of Prussia, reigned in Prussia from 1740 until his death in 1786. He is renowned for his military prowess, including the reorganization of the Prussian army; his patronage of the Arts and the Enlightenment, including being a pen pal with Voltaire; and his victory in the Seven Years War, (what we call the French and Indian War in the United States) which some historians cite as the beginning of modern Germany. What he does not get nearly enough credit for is his rebranding of the despised potato, which he transformed from something that "not even the dogs of Kolburg would eat" into a staple of the German diet.

Frederick the Great

Frederick II, like many of his contemporaries, recognized the value of embracing the potato. He saw that having a second major source of calories would protect his people from famine and starvation. He also recognized that having a second major crop would help lower food prices and decrease volatility of grains like wheat. In 1754 he made his first attempt to get the Prussian people to eat potatoes, by issuing an order, the Kartoffelbefehl, or "Potato Edict," which said that his subjects must begin to grow and eat them. The result was responses like the previously cited one from Kolburg. The people of Prussia were unhappy with being ordered to eat and grow potatoes. Apparently there are even records of people being executed for refusing the order. But after a few years of people stubbornly refusing to follow Frederick's order, he decided that if the potato was actually that important to him, he needed to find a new way to convince the Prussians.

Frederick's solution would have made Tom Sawyer proud. Rather than more strictly enforcing his order to eat potatoes, which would have angered his people, Frederick instead decided to change how his people looked at the potato. Frederick declared that potatoes were a "royal vegetable", and that from then on, no one could eat them but Frederick and his family. He also created a royal potato patch, where all of the King's potatoes were to be grown. He had a fence and a large number of soldiers placed around the field, to protect it. Or, in the words of Mark Twain, he had "made them difficult to attain."

The people of Prussia had a natural take-away from these suddenly protected spuds- if something is valuable enough to protect with soldiers, then it is probably valuable! Or, as Rory Sutherland puts it in his excellent TED talk about Frederick, the people decided that, "If it is worth guarding, then it is worth stealing." But the best part is this: while Frederick gave a public order to his soldiers to guard these "royal vegetables," it is also believed that he gave them a secret order: "Do not guard the potatoes very well." The Prussian peasantry quickly began to sneak into Frederick's poorly protected garden and steal his potatoes, and very soon after a black market of potatoes was thriving in Prussia, growing in the thieving peasant's gardens and cooking in their kitchens. Which, of course, was in line with what Frederick had wanted all along-the adoption of the potato as a staple in Prussian diets. Frederick was able to convince his people to eat potatoes without forcing them to, making his people better-fed than the rest of Europe without making them unhappy.

So if you are ever having trouble convincing someone to do something for you, maybe you should consider flipping the script. Change your angle, redirect your attack. Doing so might help you to convince someone that they want to do your chores for you. Or it might convince people that a disgusting, flavorless root from Peru is actually a delicious, nutritious meal that revolutionized how an entire continent ate, and even allow a continent's population to triple. We cannot all be Tom Sawyer, but we can all learn to brand things differently to change how they are perceived. Frederick did, and now the people of Germany leave potatoes on his grave to thank him.


  • Check out the TED Talk by Rory Sutherland on this topic. It is incredibly interesting as well as very funny.
  • For a children's version of this story, animated with potatoes, go to


  1. Chapman, Jeff, "The Impact of the Potato," (accessed 3 October, 2015).
  2. Groffman, Adam, "Leaving a Potato on Frederick the Great's Grave," (Accessed 3 October, 2015.)
  3. Sutherland, Rory, "Life lessons from an ad man." TED Global 2009, TED Talks, Filmed July 2009.
  4. "The King of Prussia and the potato Edict of 1756." Published May 30, 2014. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: Earth Edition. (Accessed 3 October, 2015).
  5.  Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (New York: P.F. Collier and Son Company, 1920).
  6. Wikipedia contributors, "Frederick the Great," Wikipedia- The Free Encyclopedia. (Accessed 3 October, 2015).
  7. Wikipedia Contributors, "Potato," Wikipedia- the Free Encyclopedia. (Accessed 3 October, 2015).

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