COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Even as it faces a medley of challenges, including the loss of longtime president Tim O’Connor and declining domestic consumption, the U.S. Potato Board is charging full steam ahead with its international outreach and domestic marketing efforts.
President and chief executive officer Tim O’Connor, who is departing the USPB for a new marketing group, Avocados from Mexico, set the tone early at the board’s 40th annual meeting March 14-15 by balancing cautious optimism with bluntness.
“I’m not going to filter this. I’m going to say it as I see it,” he said. “Fries and chips … those are on the hot list for causes of obesity. Every day, there are people who are blaming your products.”
After O’Connor’s presentation, board staff and consultants used breakout sessions — a new format this year — to brief attendees on the board’s efforts in public relations, retail programs, foodservice outreach, consumer advertising and marketing research.
Flavor, freshness, convenience
In each session, presenters stressed the importance of an integrated approach centering around the board’s hypothetical target consumer “Linda,” the wife and mother who makes the decisions about what to buy and cook for her family. Those decisions have changed over the years. Consequently, in order to get “Linda” to cook potatoes more often, the board’s campaign has to not only promote the nutritional qualities of potatoes, but also market quick and easy ways to cook them — a message emphasized across most of the breakout sessions.
“There is an opportunity to be more overt with our healthful messaging, especially among Lindas,” said Kate Thomson, senior research manager with the Sterling-Rice Group. “But health is not the only driver — we need to continue featuring flavor, freshness and convenience as well.”
“Awareness about the nutritional benefits of potatoes is still a struggle, and we’re keeping it at the foremost of our communications,” said Meredith Myers, USPB public relations manager.
The board’s investments in marketing and public relations efforts are well worth the money, Timothy Richards, a researcher at Arizona State University, said during a Friday presentation on the results of a five-year evaluation of the USPB, required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“With the development of other types of food, potatoes are always competing for ‘stomach share,’” Richards said, but the USPB programs are highly successful, with a more than 500% return on investment.
In particular, the board’s retail and foodservice campaigns are garnering big bangs for their bucks, with retail programs producing a return of nearly $5 for each dollar the board spends and foodservice programs nearly $12.50 per dollar, Richards said.
Exports of U.S. potatoes also continue to be a bright spot in the industry, with the volume of potatoes leaving the country doubling from 2000 to 2012.
Fresh potatoes recently gained access to Thailand and Vietnam, and more than 30 retail promotion programs in other countries have increased sales of U.S. fresh potatoes by more than 200%, international marketing co-chairmen Rob Davis and Ritchey Toevs told attendees.
However, Jerry Wright, president and CEO of United Potato Growers of America, brought things full circle on March 15 with a warning to members about the need for growers in all sectors (including frozen and dehydrated) to work together instead of encroaching on other sectors.
“Domestic consumption of fresh potatoes is declining … but production is increasing. Growers need to act responsibly in each sector to grow only what they’ve contracted to grow, he said. “Growers often say, ‘I’m not the problem.’ But you are. You’re the problem.”
Growers overproducing and then selling their excess into other sectors is hurting the industry as a whole, Wright said.
“Don’t produce extra potatoes and plan to sell them into other sectors. This is our industry’s problem, and we need to work together to fix it,” he said. “We need to unify behind common strategies and sacrifice together — everyone has to sacrifice our profits, sacrifice our autonomy, sacrifice our pride, and sacrifice our independence and freedom.”
Outgoing chairman Sid Staunton wrapped up his tenure on a positive note before turning over leadership to new chairman Rob Davis.
“We’re on the right path,” Staunton said. “We have many challenges, but with the right people, we can really change things.”
Staunton said he anticipates the search for a new CEO will take about 12 to 16 weeks.
O’Connor was also optimistic, saying he believes he leaves the USPB in good shape.
“We still have three years left on our Long Range Plan,” he said. “It’s already delivering meaningful results, and the new CEO will be able to come in and continue with those goals.”
Davis made it clear he plans to pick up where O’Connor and Staunton are leaving off.
The board’s administrative committee plans to meet Aug. 6 in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, The next annual meeting is set for March 12-13, 2014, again in Colorado Springs.