Walla Walla sweet onions are in the marketplace for only about three months each year, and growers, shippers and marketing agents say they make the most of that short window with a variety of promotions.
The forms promotions take can vary widely, from aggressive advertising campaigns and store demonstrations to almost passive, word-of-mouth strategies.
“I guess it depends on your target audience,” said Mike Locati, chairman of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee in Walla Walla, Wash., and owner of Locati Farms.
Keeping promotions relatively close to home is a common tactic, Locati said.
“Typically, our promotion program targets areas we feel we can sell into,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to have a big promotion in Vidalia territory when the quality of their onions that are grown right there are high.”
Locati’s operation has a sweet onion mail-order business.
“A couple of others do it, too,” he said. “It’s a slow progressive category.”
Sometimes, orders are shipped with offers dangling buy-one-get-one-free discounts, Locati said.
“If they get a free box, they find out more information on our box and the next year, they come back and get their next box,” Locati said, adding that his company’s Web site, www.locatifarms.com, has a shopping cart link.
Walla Walla River Packing & Storage LLC in Walla Walla has used an array of ad formats, said Harry Hamada, the company’s manager.
“We’ve tried different billboards and radio ads and stuff,” he said. “I think the best (strategy) is consumer awareness. That’s where you want it to come from. I tell people to talk to the produce manager. I don’t know how far that gets us. If enough people do that, the stores will start carrying them.”
The company also has run in-store demos.
“I think they’re a good way to make the consumer aware of what you have,” Hamada said.
The marketing committee has set up demos and conducted other in-store promotions, said Kathy Fry, executive director of marketing.
“Or, a produce market has commercials in the background,” she said. “It’s point-of-purchase advertising, where their attention is called to the display.”
The committee also promotes the annual Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival, which this year is scheduled for July 17-18 in Walla Walla.
The festival is itself an effective promotional tool, Fry said.
“We have demonstrations, an onion-eating contest — we have onion sack races and onion bowling for the kids — just some of your typical festival-type things,” she said.
“We encourage food vendors to bring different things they can use onions in. This year, we’re going to see who can make ice cream from onions.”
Some promotional ideas are more expensive to pull off than others, growers said. But there are some that come with no cost.
“I get on TV (newscasts), and that helps me out a lot, and it’s free,” said Ben Cavalli Jr., owner of Walla Walla-based Cavalli’s Onion Acres.
“If you give them a call when we’re starting, they like to cover that,” Cavalli said. “They’ll put a 30-second segment on. I usually have two or three stations. You can’t pay for that kind of advertising.”
Cavalli added that it’s also good to go where potential customers are.
“Some of the growers are going to the farmers market, and lot of people are going there,” he said. “A lot of it is word of mouth. If they can get one onion, it’s different. It’s got the taste and juice.”
Walla Walla-based Keystone Fruit Marketing always has an eye out for new promotional ideas, said Dan Borer, sales manager.
“That’s the $64 million question,” he said.
“We’re always looking for new ways to do that. We’re fairly broad-based in our marketing efforts. Some are fairly nontraditional for produce marketers. It’s an edge we feel we have over some people. But we will continue to market and advertise Walla Walla as broad-based as we can to make consumers more well aware of this great product.”