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.
Roger Sims tells of the development of produce labels and how consistency and good quality will bring repeat sales.
Shippers' Labels Leave Lasting Mark
By Roger Sims
Although advertising budgets to support labels have grown as the produce industry has, the intended effect of labels has been the same throughout the century: Create an image to sell the product and attach a name to identify the source, fostering repeat sales.
A company’s logo in a festooned display over a selection of tropical fruits is remembered the next time the customer visits a display case and sees stickered fruit. Building an identity--it has been a common tool in marketing fruit and vegetables since the late 1800s as shippers sought recognition.
During the 1890s, California citrus packers and tree fruit growers began printing labels for their crates. Printing was still a laborious process. Label designs were etched by hand on stone with pinpoint dots to form designs. The development of metal plate engraving in the early 1900s made the process faster.
It was during the 1920s, however, that labels began to come into their own.
In his book, Fruit Crate Art, Joe Davidson attributes the proliferation of artfully designed and strikingly colored labels on crates not only to improved lithography techniques, but to competition at fruit auctions. It was the label that caught the eye of the auctioneer’s assistant, who would choose the provocative drawing over the plain, and the attention of the buyer as well.
With only moments to decide on fruit stacked high on buying floors, buyers were beckoned by labels that spoke quality, but also rendered themes of sex and bravado and, in some cases, royalty.
The Victoria Avenue Citrus Association, Riverside, Calif., sold its Sunkist oranges behind the passive gaze of the 16th U.S. president on the Lincoln label. An equally passive drawing of a stouter Queen Victoria graced other crates.
For those buyers with more classical training, the Marc Antony brand, another Sunkist label, was packed by Yorba Orange Growers Association, Placentia, Calif. The Placentia Orchard Co. of Fullerton, Calif., however, relied on a drawing of three friars, undoubtedly discussing the merits of the company’s Chapman’s Old Mission Valencia oranges. Who better to use for an endorsement?
Women apparently could sell a label as well as monastics. Or from the proliferation of brands bearing their likeness, it appears they could sell better.
Majorette, a Pure Gold citrus label packed by Woodlake Packing House, Woodlake, Calif., featured the drawing of a girl in full drum majorette regalia, including an abbreviated skirt. Bikini brand vegetables, grown and shipped by Phelan & Taylor Produce Co., Oceano, Calif., also relied on its printer to have its flesh tones just right in its drawing of a seductive young woman on a palm-shaded beach.
Sports themes also were abundant. The Dupuis Produce Co., Breaux Bridge, La., shipped sweet potatoes under the Champ brand, a football player running by a tackler with a sweet potato cradled in his forearm. One Texas vegetable shipper packed a Safe Hit label, combining the appeal of baseball with the assurance of quality produce.
Native American themes also appeared on labels from Florida to California. Walter Hawkins’ Fancy Indian River Fruit from Jacksonville, Fla., used the drawing of a chief and a maiden. The chief bore a stylized headdress common to the Plains Indians, paddling a canoe down the Indian River, of course. The Boydston Bros., a citrus shipper in Porterville, Calif., combined romance and a native theme, only slightly less stylized, in its Indian Belle label. In that brand’s scene, an Indian couple embrace each other on a cliff overlooking a citrus orchard.
Children and fruit apparently were regarded as an effective selling combination as well. Don’t Worry Apples, a brand distributed by George F. Joseph, Yakima, Wash., printed a label with the smiling but disembodied face of a blond boy looking upon a floating hand, presumably his, holding a Red Delicious apple with a bite out of it. “When buying--Don’t worry” read the slogan on the crate.
The Waverly Growers Cooperative, Waverly, Fla., was more realistic. Its Dixie Boy label showed a picture of a boy with his mouth sunk into half a grapefruit large enough to require both hands to hold it.
Many of the colorful labels disappeared with the wooden fruit crate during World War II, author Davidson said. Labor to build crates was in short supply as was metal to make lithographic plates. Cardboard boxes were found to be reasonable substitutes and growers stayed with boxes after the war ended. At the same time, the war meant the end of the proliferation of labels, estimated to be as high as 2,500 separate brands, as smaller packers consolidated under larger labels.
In the ensuing years, labels generally lacked the ornateness of the brands developed in the ’20s, but still identified grades and quality to buyers. Large corporate distributors have pushed successfully to get their names in front of the public. And in the early 1990s groups of growers or individual shippers have realized the potential for floor display in an attractive box. High-quality graphics have become an important part of the paperboard carton industry.
Stephen Grubb, an Encino, Calif., attorney who specializes in trademark law, said labels have always been important to the produce industry, but that they gained considerable weight in the 1980s and early ’90s. Grubb has dealt with labels for about 40 years.
With precut salads coming directly from the shipper to the consumer, the brand obviously follows that package, he said. And that trend will only build.
U.S. shoppers are buying smaller quantities of produce, but buying it more often, Grubb said. If a label has consistent good quality, shoppers will support it with repeat sales, he added.