(Oct. 15) It’s Albert Lasker’s legacy to the produce industry, a legacy that has become part of the fabric of America and recognized around the globe. Hot dogs, apple pie, the Fourth of July – and Sunkist.

“There’s no question that the brand awareness for Sunkist, whether in the U.S., Canada or Asia, is something that outside companies tell us they envy in many ways,” said Robert Verloop, vice president of marketing and sales promotion for Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif.

That’s no small feat, said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

“Continuity and consistency,” Stenzel said. “That’s what built the brand over time. In an industry that doesn’t feature a lot of consumer brands, that’s just a real standout.”

Lasker, an employee of the Lord & Thomas advertising agency, coined the word, Sunkist. Actually, the brand in its first stage of life was Sunkissed, Verloop said. The California Fruit Growers Exchange obtained a trademark for the name Oct. 10, 1907.

The fruit exchange was founded in 1893 as the Southern California Fruit Growers Exchange. In 1905, it changed to the California Fruit Growers Exchange to reflect newer membership in the San Joaquin Valley.

HONOR, RESPONSIBILITY

“It’s an honor to be involved with the brand, Sunkist,” Verloop said. “At the same time, it’s also a huge responsibility and challenge to continue to build on that success.”

Tim Lindgren, president and chief executive officer of Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif., said celebrating the century mark is not just about dwelling on past successes.

“We look upon it as only the beginning,” Lindgren said. “We’re constantly searching for ways to make this 100-year heritage more meaningful for our customers and the industry. We look forward to redirecting our efforts, living with the traditions of the things we’ve done well and finding ways to do it better for the future.”

The name still resonates with a former publisher of The Packer, Bill Coon.

“The Sunkist brand is a legend in the produce industry,” said Coon, who retired in 1996 after spending 43 years with the newspaper.

For Harold Edwards, Sunkist has always been there – and for good reason.

Edwards, now president and chief executive officer of Limoneira Co., Santa Paula, Calif., and a member of the Sunkist board of directors, traces his family tree back to the very roots of Sunkist.

It was gold, and not the lure of citrus that brought his great-grandfather to California in 1849. He made a strike and invested in Southern California land in and around Santa Paula and Ventura.

The Edwards family was among those who began experimenting with growing oranges and lemons in the 1880s. When the Southern California Fruit Growers Exchange was founded in 1893, Edwards said the fruit from the family’s groves went to the new cooperative.

“It’s what I call an archetypal brand, a brand on which the U.S. was built,” he said.

The Sunkist brand has become more than a sticker on a piece of fruit.

“It is a very, very strong connection with our consumer base,” Verloop said. “Sunkist is not just a trademark, it’s a trust mark.”

That consumer base is far reaching. During focus group research in Asia a few years ago, Verloop said a Malaysian woman told the facilitator:

“Look, I grew up with Sunkist. My kids grew up with Sunkist, and my kids think Sunkist is a Malaysian company.”

The company’s research finds four names come up globally and domestically: Sunkist, Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita, Verloop said.

“It was amazing to watch the progress of many shippers increase the value of their brands,” Coon said. “But I don’t believe any reached the vaunted stature enjoyed by Sunkist at the wholesale, retail and consumer levels in North America and throughout the world.”

Consumer awareness has made for a profitable side business. The number of nonfresh products licensed to carry the Sunkist brand is approaching 600, Verloop said, including fruit juices, nuts, soda and candy.

In its lifetime, Sunkist has made other companies profitable, too. Lasker was behind the idea of putting the Sunkist name on the fruit and on the tissue wraps in which the fruit was then packed.

Early in the last century, Sunkist gave flatware to shoppers who collected specific numbers of the Sunkist wraps. During that time, Sunkist was the world’s largest buyer of flatware, Verloop said.

Consumer awareness of the Sunkist brand perseveres even after it has withdrawn. More than 20 years ago, Sunkist elected to pull back from Europe and to focus marketing efforts in Asia. To this day, Verloop said research indicates brand awareness in Europe remains above 50%.

HEALTHY ROOTS

In 1920, a national advertising campaign for Sunkist oranges touted the health benefits of vitamin C. Three years later, it would distribute 100 million pamphlets highlighting the health value in eating citrus fruit.

The distribution coincided with the arrival of Russell Eller as the cooperative’s advertising director. He was responsible for the Sunkist Fresh for Health advertising campaigns, according to A Century of Produce, published by The Packer in 1993. A few decades later, Eller would create another American icon, Smokey Bear.

“We have long focused on moms, families, and health and wellness,” Verloop said. “In some regards, Sunkist was ahead of the curve. We were first, and we were early.”

It was not altruism alone that generated those efforts. In the mid-1900s, Sunkist was urging consumers to use their fruit to make orange juice.

“It was to increase consumption,” said Claire Smith, director of corporate communications for Sunkist Growers. “It took three or four oranges to get a glass of juice.”

Citrus began to evolve as an industry in southern California, first in Orange County and then spreading east and north to Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties and up the coast to Santa Paula. Today, the bulk of Sunkist citrus is grown in the San Joaquin Valley.

“The nature of the business has changed significantly,” Verloop said. “But Sunkist has always stood for consistent, premium quality citrus fruit.”