Tara Schupner Congdon, Copy Editor
Tara Schupner Congdon, Copy Editor

At the U.S. Potato Board’s annual meeting a few weeks ago, John Keeling, chief executive officer of the National Potato Council, Washington, D.C., dumped the verbal equivalent of a bucket of cold water on the attendees.

Reflecting on the GOP’s poor showing in the November elections, Keeling told attendees they could learn from the GOP’s missteps and failure to recognize changing demographics.

“If the election told us anything, it is that there are not enough old white men here,” Keeling said, ticking off causes of the GOP’s implosion. “Republicans are terrible with women … they don’t understand how Hispanics think.”

While Keeling’s message focused primarily on the importance of immigration reform, potato board members (and the wider produce industry) would do well to contemplate the general gist as the board develops future marketing plans — especially after the “Five Seasons of Linda” campaign of its ongoing Linda marketing strategy wraps up.

Even as Keeling and other industry leaders — including outgoing board CEO Tim O’Connor and United Potato Growers of America president Jerry Wright — warn about the need to change, to move with the times, and combat public perception of taters as June Cleaver’s side dish, the board is conducting a carefully crafted marketing campaign that runs upstream, counter to demographic trends.

Its Linda campaign is built around a prototypical potato consumer who is a woman between the ages of 25 and 54, has children at home, is her family’s primary shopper and enjoys cooking. Subtle messaging, including through photos, also implies Linda is married and white. The board’s marketing team chose this composite because, according to its market research, Lindas are more likely to incorporate potatoes in weekly meals.

You know who Linda sounds like? A modernized June Cleaver.

Much of the board’s marketing strategy centers around objectives such as this: “Get Linda to serve potatoes for dinner one more time a week.”

But its research methodology is dangerously narrow. The surveys cited in its 2012 Research Overview booklet focus on the Linda category, almost to the exclusion of other categories of potato consumers. In its quantitative online surveys of shopping habits and use, Lindas comprised at least half the samples. But she buys 40% of potatoes, which leaves 60% in shopping carts that seem to be mostly off the radar.

This focus on Linda overlooks the fact that single people also cook. Married women cook 12 meals a week; single GenX women, 10 meals a week; and single GenX men, eight meals a week, according to a 2012 University of Michigan Institute for Social Research report. That means singletons are cooking 60% of those weekly meals.

This mindset is also out of touch with the broader reality of modern America. Linda is far from comprising 40% of the American population, or even of women in her age group.

Family structures are changing. Marriage rates plummeted almost 20 percentage points from 1960 to 2011, to 51%, according to the Pew Research Center.

In 2009, the percentage of families with children hit its lowest point in 50 years, at 46%, according to USA Today. That leaves not only singletons, but also quite a number of couples — married and unmarried — with shoppers and cooks who are not Lindas.

I don’t even need to detail the sweeping ethnic changes. Even as America is becoming more colorful, all the photos accompanying the “Real Moms/Real Meals” posts on potatogoodness.com are of white women.

Kate Thompson, senior research manager with the Sterling Rice Group, which does marketing research for the board, calls Linda “fairly traditional.” But in these times and climes, “traditional” smacks of June Cleaver — completely at odds with where O’Connor thinks potatoes should be in public perception.

Fragments of the board’s own research suggest where it can make course corrections. Its use survey found that potatoes gained a share of overall U.S. dinners in 2012 (30%, up from 28% in 2011), but held steady for Lindas at 30%.

This indicates there’s fertile ground and a wealth of opportunities for the board to diversify its marketing.

The board has snazzed up its recipes, incorporating international, exotic flavors. But it does so in order to appeal to what it views as Linda’s “changing tastes,” rather than to America’s changing demographics.

The board’s marketing team needs to recognize that potatoes and creative recipes appeal to diverse groups, and market them accordingly.

As O’Connor told attendees at the meeting, it’s important to change how consumers view potatoes.

It’s also important for the potato board to change how it views consumers.


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