The following article from The Packer's “A Century of Produce,” was published in 1993.
As The Packer prepares to publish our 125th-anniversary edition later this year, we are posting some of the writing from previous anniversary publications.
Here, writer Donna Vestal tells the history of marketing strategies used to sell produce throughout the 1900s.
Fresh Strategies Mark Industry's Campaigns
By Donna Vestal
William Garfitt, executive vice president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, knew desperate times called for smart, well-thought-out measures. And if ever the fresh fruit and vegetable industry needed a helping hand it was in the depths of the Depression.
With the financial condition of the industry growing steadily worse, he outlined a national advertising plan to the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association membership in 1940.
“We need crack publicity men to start John Q. Public thinking again of the succulent qualities of green vegetables and ripe fruits. We need a new public attitude -- one which will remove the traditional American fruit bowl from the antique shops and make it again part of the family scene,” he said.
Garfitt proposed raising $1,250,000, with shippers contributing $1 per car; receivers 50 cents; and brokers 10 cents. All for the purpose of promoting the goodness of fresh fruits and vegetables directly to the consumer.
He may have gotten his wish, if not for a little thing like World War II.
In the 1960s, the produce industry was down again, hurt by what seemed like overwhelming demand for frozen and canned food.
“Processed foods are being given the hard sell to the consumer as never before, with new products of unimaginable variety being introduced and promoted every day,” said Milton Fadler, president of Fadler Produce Co., Tulsa, Okla., in 1965. His solution to the problem of declining fresh consumption was remarkably like Garfitt’s call 25 years earlier.
“To ensure our future, our industry will have to establish a real consumer promotional educational program hitting at the young and old consumer alike,” he said. “This promotional and hard-selling campaign can take many forms, but it will take cooperation from the industry as a whole to sell and promote to the young consumer.”
Cooperation. Seems easy enough. But it would take another 25 years before a national promotion program would take a unified form ... 1993’s “5 a Day” plan.
Such are the problems of this diverse, always competitive industry. Sure, promotion has been a common part of the produce industry for many, many decades. From Sunkist oranges to Foxy lettuce, the consumer has been getting the message of goodness and fresh appeal. But total unity in the goal to increase produce consumption has been another story altogether.
Since the beginning of produce marketing, the industry has faced the same basic challenge:
Research the buyer, devise a means of appealing to that buyer using the methods that are available and appropriate, and follow through on that sound plan. Though the consumer profile has changed innumerable times, and though production, shipping and advertising methods have expanded and improved, marketing executives in the 1990s face the same challenges as their predecessors.
In the early 1900s, The Packer articles illustrated the desire for standard grades and an effort to ship as much top-quality produce as possible, so that the pleasure of eating excellent fruits and vegetables would be a successful means of promotion in itself.
But despite the many efforts throughout the decades to encourage generic promotion of fruits and vegetables, there still has arisen a number of issues to resolve, including the debate over who should generate and maintain these promising campaigns. Should such activities be handled by the grower, the shipper or the retailer? There has traditionally been discussion about who would pay for the promotion, and how much it would cost.
Then, add in the fact that we are talking different commodities here and different growing regions. In short, competition.
John Martin of Martin Produce Inc., Salinas, Calif., in 1966, noted that growers, shippers and wholesalers tended to “sell and forget.” He said that attitude partially explained the tremendous gains made by processed foods at that time.
“Either everyone in our industry becomes concerned about promotion and merchandising, or fresh produce will be relegated to an insignificant role in the supermarket of tomorrow,” Martin said. “Everyone involved in the distribution of fresh produce to consumers has a responsibility beyond traditional distribution practices. All of us have to be concerned about the end use of our produce or sit back and watch the fresh industry slowly but gradually fade into insignificance.”
Well, the fresh produce industry didn’t fade into insignificance ... thanks in large part to promotion efforts of individual commodity groups and companies. Then there was that little development in the 1970s: the health movement.
Good for you?
The goodness of fresh fruits and vegetables has been a key selling point since the serpent promoted a piece of fruit to Eve in the Garden of Eden. Little surprise then that one of the first big advertising pushes for fresh fruit featured the slogan “Oranges for health; California for wealth.” Sunkist Growers -- then known as the Southern California Fruit Exchange -- not only tied into the health issue in 1907, but also managed to take advantage of the lure and mystique of California.
Southern Pacific Railway offered to match dollar-for-dollar the organization’s advertising budget of $10,000, and the state of Iowa was selected as the test campaign. Fruit went forward in special bannered trains; prizes were offered for articles that could be used in advertising California oranges and lemons; billboards throughout the state carried slogans; and a prominent lecturer employed by Southern Pacific toured the larger cities telling of California’s advantages.
How successful was the campaign? Careful calculation of sales before and after showed a gain of 50 percent in Iowa. Advertising had proven its worth.
However, the promotion was hardly under way when it was realized that a suitable trademark would be required for more effective use of advertising funds, and to enable the consumer to identify the exchange’s products in the marketplace. Soon, the name Sunkist was adopted as a trademark to appear on boxes and individual fruit wrappers. The problem of keeping the wrappers on the fruit was solved by a premium offer, the first one being 12 wrappers and 12 cents for one orange spoon. Sunkist soon became the world’s largest purchaser of tableware.
The Roaring ’20s really brought the benefits of promotion home to the produce industry. Americans’ taste for automobiles and other goods and services was whetted by advertising. By 1929 total advertising expenditures had reached $1.78 billion, nearly as much as was spent on all types of formal education. And by 1929 more than 10 million families owned radios, which bombarded them with advertisements. And Sunkist was among the biggest advertisers in the country, spending about $1 million a year.
“They were dominating the medium in those days, which was things like the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers,” noted Barney McClure, who has worked with the produce industry on communications since the early 1950s. “To spend the equivalent of our money today and dominate the television medium, you’d have to be a General Motors or a McDonald’s.”
In Canada, a 1920s campaign instituted by the Canadian Horticultural Council encouraged Canadians to “Eat More Fruit.”
In the United States, National Apple Day and National Apple Week were put into action in 1923, backed by the International Apple Shippers’ Association. In 1923 this work cost the association $4,000 for administration and organization. An association brochure offered a list of ideas for promoting National Apple Week: prize essays in schools, apple talks broadcasted from wireless stations, and apple stunts in theaters. The group was encouraging activities that would appeal to the public at that time. The overall effort was such a success that in 1925 it was decided to incorporate National Apple Week Association Inc.
And, as always, health was an important selling point -- particularly for the apple. In 1926, in fact, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that Kellogg), recommended a widespread campaign for the promotion of the dietetic use of apples and fresh fruit juice.
“An apple between breakfast and lunch, another in the afternoon, and two or three apples at bedtime are an excellent remedy for constipation and render material assistance to badly crippled colons which require more vigorous colon stimulants,” he said.
With the benefits of advertising and promotion fully documented, the late 1930s saw the passage of legislation in three Western states -- California, Idaho and Washington -- that allowed growers to vote to tax themselves in order to fund advertising campaigns and marketing support. Successful ventures arose out of this action, including a plan to distinguish the California avocado, then called “alligator pear,” as a highly desirable consumer item. And with that, the Calavo designation was set up as the mark of avocado quality.
Similar success involved the Idaho potato industry, which worked on a complete marketing program of advertising, merchandising and public relations. The program worked so well, however, that russet growers in other states were getting premium prices for potatoes in bags marked “Idaho.” Legislation came to the rescue, halting the illegal labeling.
Grassroots marketing and sales techniques also have found a niche in the history of produce marketing. In 1930, a Packer article reported that apples sold on the street corners of New York this week will possibly reach the 15,000-box mark. Approximately 11,500 had been sold to Thursday night. Depression-era produce salesmen -- taking advantage of a National Apple Week innovation -- came from all walks of life, in particular from investment professions, and did what it took to sell their fruit. Similarly, the consumers needed the corner salesmen and the opportunity to buy low-priced apples.
Despite the Depression, promotion was a hot topic -- as witnessed by William Garfitt’s comments and the increasing consumer awareness of Blue Goose, Andy Boy and yes, Sunkist labels on fresh produce. It was not without controversy, though. The Packer in a 1937 editorial admonished the trade for trying to teach the housewife to ask for a particular brand.
“While we agree that advertising is effective, it might be observed that force is not good salesmanship,” The Packer said. “If a dealer does not have a particular advertised brand of turnip or spinach, his smart salesmen will sell some other turnip or spinach when the housewife calls for the brand she has seen in magazine or daily newspaper advertising, which products, in all likelihood, really is ‘just as good’ as the brand advertised. Thus, the effects of a consumer advertising campaign so far as any particular brand is concerned, can be lost.”
The Packer advocated selling the idea to the wholesale and retail trade before placing it before the consuming public. That would prove to be the road taken by many.
Though for much of World War II there was a lull in marketing, a couple efforts are particularly noteworthy during this time.
General Mills in 1943 announced a comprehensive Wheaties-and-apples consumer promotion tie-in. This novel approach brought together produce and breakfast foods -- what a combination.
California Fruit Growers Exchange (Sunkist), meanwhile, launched an advertising campaign featuring the entire produce line in addition to Sunkist oranges. “In this campaign we are lending our support to the program of national health,” explained Russell Eller, Sunkist advertising manager, at the time.
When World War II ended, California broadened its marketing orders to permit communications -- consumer education.
“So at that point we had the peach and the plum and the asparagus and all these other California commodities get organized,” McClure said. “And now almost every production area promoted their own products, teaching whatever they can about it.”
Alongside these efforts, a new approach in consumer advertising was successfully undertaken by United Fruit Co. Miss Chiquita Banana took the country by, well, radio.
By making the Chiquita name its corporate symbol and the animated Miss Chiquita its advertising spokesperson in 1944, United Fruit connected the consumer to a particular brand in a unique way. Miss Chiquita was one of the most recognized and popular creations in advertising history. Her primary function was to teach nutrition and demonstrate proper eating habits in a light-hearted vein, including the place of fresh fruit in a balanced diet.
An “I’m Chiquita Banana” jingle, sung to a catchy Calypso beat, educated consumers about the proper care of the increasingly popular fruit. The song became a national jukebox hit as a non-commercial song. At its peak, it was being played on radio 376 times a day in the United States. As time went on, Miss Chiquita commercials, shown in movie theaters across the country, offered creative serving ideas for bananas, in addition to carrying an important nutrition message.
There has always been the desire to take a new approach to marketing. According to Caryl Saunders, of Caryl Saunders Associates, who in 1993 directed U.S. promotion of Chilean winter imports, “Every once in a while, someone would do something quite daring. I remember when the California avocado ads were female centerfolds -- pinup types in bathing suits. The idea was for the produce managers to hang them up in the backroom so they would think of avocados. Boy, did that create quite a flap.”
A rather unusual twist on point-of-purchase, you might say. Well, as the pinups stayed in the backrooms, the commodity groups began to really push the use of information -- point-of-purchase material -- in the produce racks.
It was in 1954 that McClure started working with California fruits. He remembers a budget of $10,000 at that time.
“We had what we called a 30-30 radio program to support the sale of peaches in California, and we distributed point-of-sale materials, and we sent informational things to the food editors throughout the state,” he said, noting that they were doing the same thing in 1993 only on a national and international level.
The emergence of the retail merchandiser brought about the wave of in-store display activity that has been prevalent for decades. According to Joe Brownlow, who led the merchandising efforts of the Washington State Apple Commission, “Until the war, the most important man at the retail level was the buyer. In the 1950s, more emphasis was being put on selling. So the merchandiser became more important. If we gave them a good idea, they were glad.”
But, unfortunately, the produce industry was faced with a most formidable competitor: frozen and canned products.
As John Fox, executive vice president of the United Fruit Co. (Chiquita) noted in 1962: “The produce industry is missing opportunities because the rest of the food industry is out displaying, out packaging, out promoting, out advertising and outselling it. The industry has great products to sell but they aren’t selling them, and they have a flavor advantage and eye-appeal edge over canned and frozen products, but they aren’t exploiting it. Everyone is too preoccupied in wheeling and dealing on the buying end of the business.”
The key obstacle was the industry’s fragmentation. Instead of joining together to counter the advertising efforts of the frozen and canned food companies, the produce industry mostly stuck to commodity-by-commodity efforts. Point-of-sale was a popular method for groups with limited funds.
The Texas Fresh Promotion Board benefited from the point-of-sale merchandising trend by conducting a number of lucrative contests in the 1970s to merchandise grapefruit. During that period, the board found that extravagant prizes, including cars and trips, encouraged participation. “We had 770 entries in the Island For An Island contest, in which the winner would be able to select a trip to the Virgin Islands, Jamaica or Hawaii. Entries were a photograph of island displays in the produce department,” said Mary McKeever of the promotion board. The board later moved to cash prizes, which have been met with similar enthusiasm.
Marketing organizations have been the promotion salvation for many commodities for the past few decades. For example, in 1980 Canada’s Fresh For Flavour Foundation was faced with the task of promoting an oversized apple crop. With only two months’ lead-time, the foundation was able to prepare an industry campaign and help move the volume that otherwise might have gone unsold.
Consumer and retail response to various promotion campaigns really took off with the health movement in the 1970s and 1980s.
From diet professionals to the medical community, it seems everyone was touting the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables. Vitamin mineral intake, calorie control, fiber intake, cholesterol control and cancer prevention have been some of the health-related concerns that motivate fresh fruit and vegetable consumption.
This health-consciousness has been linked to the consumer interest in a wider variety of items at the retail level, and it has benefited everyone -- grower, shipper, retailer and consumer alike.
This interest in health and how produce fits into the new healthful attitude spread into the pop culture during the 1980s, as illustrated by the successful efforts to persuade the TV show “L.A. Law” to replace its greasy doughnuts with highly visible fresh fruits served during the attorneys’ morning meetings. Produce, by virtue of its political correctness, was a star attraction.
According to Susan Sutherland of the Fresh For Flavour Foundation, “In the early 1980s, retailers were starting to realize the importance of produce in getting consumers into the stores. So, they were very receptive to generic advertising.” The Fresh For Flavour Foundation in the 1980s positioned itself as a credible source of information to the public. This allows Canada’s regional groups to take the reins in setting up regional-specific retail promotions.
The advent of a variety of media types and a greater reach by those media allowed marketing as a whole to expand its scope. Produce marketing began to use radio and print extensively, and later made inroads via television. TV advertising allowed the very successful positioning of many items, including potatoes, California grapes and strawberries and Washington apples.
A key item glamorized by television advertising was the California grape. In 1973, before the California Table Grape Commission adopted its Natural Snack TV campaign, crop value measured $143 million. By 1983, after 10 years of consistent promotion, crop value had increased to $402 million.
And just consider the marketing phenomenon of the California Raisins. Using popular music and clay animation figures, the California raisin industry in the late 1980s virtually brought its product to life -- all thanks to television. Individuals like Joe Carcione also made use of the media to promote the good word about fresh produce directly to the consumer.
Carcione, who was known as “The Greengrocer” in the mid-1970s, enjoyed tremendous national popularity thanks to his blunt advice to the consumer during his nationally syndicated TV spots shown during newscasts. Though some in the industry thought his jibes hurt prices or he pushed commodities that didn’t need pushing, consumers savored his “best buys.” Carcione talked often of the need for the industry to consolidate its advertising monies and promote fresh fruits and vegetables on a collective basis.
“After all, fresh is fresh, and that should be the point of concentration,” he said.
Across the country, many other produce industry members also took to the airwaves, with appearances on TV talk shows, radio shows and newscasts. The consumer was hungering for information on fresh, healthy foods.
The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, long active in publicity, was doing its part as well. Since 1953, the association’s Fresh for Health Foundation had worked to promote the image of fresh fruits and vegetables, with staff home economists making appearances on local TV stations across the country. However, in 1973 it was determined that in the face of declining revenues for Fresh for Health, greater effort was needed to increase sales of fresh fruit and vegetables. Membership dues in United were increased to permit transferring a portion of every member’s dues to a new program, The Fresh Approach.
Relying heavily on industry contributions, the effort focused on public relations, with market visits and public service spots on television and radio. Eventually, The Fresh Approach produced a TV show, “Cornucopia.”
In retrospect, the efforts to use the media and reach consumers directly had a tremendous impact on consumption trends. A little exposure in the right direction went a long way.
However, TV ad costs in the early 1980s forced most produce advertising back onto the radio and into print. This change occurred at a time when imported produce also was getting into the marketing arena in the United States. Particularly with the introduction of specialty produce, consumers were urged through advertising and public relations activities to think of New Zealand goods when considering kiwifruit, Holland product when shopping for peppers, etc.
Brand advertising re-emerged in the ’90s. There probably isn’t a consumer in the country who wouldn’t associate Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole with bananas, Dole and Del Monte with pineapple and Sunkist with oranges. The new brand advertising programs have rounded out the produce industry’s marketing efforts. Associated with specialty items in general is Frieda’s Inc., easily recognized in produce departments by trademark purple stickers. Frieda’s produce is appreciated by consumers in large part for the detailed descriptions of the unusual items, and the recipes supplied with the products.
On more general footing has been the National Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Month effort from United’s Fresh Approach. The effort targets June for increased consumer awareness of the goodness of fresh fruits and vegetables.
And finally, there is “5 a Day,” which got off the ground nationally in 1991, aiming to double per capita consumption by the end of this century. The simplicity of the message -- encouraging consumers to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily for better health -- is startling. Fadler, Eller, Garfitt ... they, along with many others, carried the message 20, 30, 50 years before 5 a Day began its national campaign.
The underlying message of all the marketing issues, after all, is pretty basic. It may have been said best by Le Heller, former secretary of the Idaho Advertising Commission:
“For success, (marketing) requires a good or superior product; careful planning and merchandising; and above all, continuity of effort. Whether it is grower or shipper financed, the program must be continually ‘sold’ at home until the results from the marketing centers are felt. This will take a period of time, possibly several seasons. But when it is attained, the strain and stress of pulling an industry up by its bootstraps will be well worth the effort.”
Do you wonder when Heller wrote it?
It was 1949.