Barney McClure ( The Packer )

A lot had happened to produce promotion programs in the two decades preceding the formation of The Potato Board. The early media selections continued to be women’s magazines as the primary vehicles, but radio was a strong second medium that proved to be effective in support of fresh fruits and vegetables. It was flexible as to timing and could be modified to fit unexpected last-minute changes in shipping volume and it turned out to be an excellent addition to the merchandising efforts.

I do not consider myself to be an innovator, but I believe the first use of retailer tagged radio was by Evans, McClure and Western Research Kitchens (working jointly on the account) for the California Peach Advisory Board in 1953. The total budget was $10,000, but in those days it gave us strong radio coverage in the two top markets for California peaches, Los Angeles and San Francisco, during three of their peak shipping periods. Tagged radio has been an integral part of just about every produce commodity ever since. (Publicity releases to newspapers throughout the state and point-of-purchase distribution completed the already “traditional” promotional approach for that early peach program, by the way.)

The 1970s brought commodity programs to what was their finest hour. Television finally became a practical reality for produce budgets. With only three or four stations per major market, with today’s “clutter” not yet in evidence, with color sets in most homes and with strong audience ratings and special daytime food shows on all stations (watched by stay-at-home “housewives”), Television became the dominant medium for many commodity programs: The Potato Board, the Washington Apple Commission, the Idaho Potato Commission, the California Table Grape Commission, the California Tree Fruit Agreement and the California Strawberry Advisory Board were among the leading organizations using this potent medium that had come of age.

With larger budgets and programs that were designed primarily to reach and influence consumers through advertising, research also became the fourth leg of the promotional “stool” for most commodities, in addition to advertising, merchandising and public relations. It was research that led The Potato Board to concentrate its efforts on consumer misconceptions regarding the nutritional values of the lowly spud. It was research that led the California Table Grape Commission to position its product against the huge snack food market rather than against other fresh fruits. And the Washington Apple Commission confirmed through research what everyone suspected: The big Red Delicious apple was America’s favorite, and its consumption could be increased substantially by sound advertising. (Washington and Idaho both researched the suitability of spokespeople to sell their products on television at this point, to show how sophisticated the research function had become. Washington’s selection of Will Rogers Jr. and Idaho’s use of the governor of the state both proved to be successful, after research findings indicated both men would be effective as TV personalities.)

The 1960s also brought the California Avocado Advisory Board into existence, and sophistication reached a new high as that program was guided by the flamboyant Ralph Pinkerton. “Pink” knew he had an exotic product to sell, not one that would please every palette, so he engineered programs that would build volume and profits for the distributive trades, but would continue to position avocados as “fancy fruit” served at special occasions. Half avocados stuffed with lobster meat would be a typical example of a use suggestion at that point.

To follow through on this sophisticated approach, Pink put on the most lavish convention parties of any commodity group. To make sure the top industry people who were on the invitation list would not have a conflicting invitation, he frequently scheduled the party the night before the opening of the convention, starting at midnight. This generated enormous good will for the avocado industry (and sent dozens of people to the convention floor the next day with hangovers), but when the California State Department of Agriculture (Bureau of Markets) got the bill, there usually was hell to pay. (It was rumored in the industry that one of the Pinkerton parties cost more than the most recent governor’s inaugural ball, but that undoubtedly was a rumor started by one of the poorer and less flamboyant California marketing order managers.) As a consequence, the avocado industry voted the marketing order program out of business and was able to get special legislation passed setting up a commission (which paid its own bills), strictly to get out from under what was perceived as small-mindedness on the part of the California state auditors!

The California Table Grape Commission and The Potato Board both appeared on television with commercials that won national and international awards for excellence in television advertising. The classic grape commercial showed (in a black-and-white sketch on the screen) a bunch of grapes that gradually disappeared as a man and woman discussed the snack value of grapes. As the last grape disappeared off the stem, the announcer’s voice came on and said: “Grapes, the natural snack.” The commercial was simple, entertaining and memorable, and the results helped build per-capita consumption in a decade from less than a pound to nearly 4 pounds consumed by every man, woman and child in America. (By the early 1990s, with 25 percent of U.S.-consumed grapes coming from Chile in the winter months, consumption was slightly less than 8 pounds per capita, with a lot more “capitas” consuming grapes than there were in the early 1980s.)

The Potato Board was another almost instant success story. In a few short years the misconceptions about potatoes being fattening, filling and lacking in nutritional values were completely turned around as a result of both television and print advertising and a public relations campaign that resulted in feature articles in Readers Digest, Good Housekeeping and many other national magazines, and leading newspapers in all parts of the country. At the same time, an extremely effective merchandising program (built around a seven-point program that encouraged larger and more attractive potato displays) put potatoes back in the retail spotlight where they once again became the No. 1 tonnage and dollar volume item in produce.

The California Strawberry Board, with a very small budget to start with, discovered about that time that 10-second Television spots in which the screen was filled with the brilliant red color of luscious, ripe strawberries (tagged with a retail identity) were effective as both merchandising tools and the most effective way to announce to the consumer that their favorite spring fruit was available once more -- but not for long.

(It is with pardonable pride that I must admit these three campaigns were produced by my commodity group at Botsford Ketchum. The creative effort was directed by Hal Riney, then creative director of the agency, who became recognized as one of the top creative advertising people in the United States. Among his campaigns in the early 1990s has been the introduction of the Saturn automobile, just one of many other equally familiar campaigns.)

However, by the early 1980s, the cost of television, the proliferation of advertisers using the medium, the increased number of stations and the fracturing of the audiences through UHF and cable stations all but took marketing order advertising budgets out of television. The marketing order programs got back to basics-- tagged radio, strong public relations programs and merchandising support programs for the retail and wholesale trades that encouraged retailers to feature the promoted products in a bigger and more important way in their own retail advertising in newspapers and in the broadcast media.

Hence, another shift: The retailer became the primary promotional vehicle, and the fact that fresh produce was getting strong support from dietetic, nutritional and medical organizations (backed by the nation’s media) made the produce department the No. 1 draw for most supermarkets. Full-page, four-color ads on a single produce item were not uncommon.

The 1980s also produced the first substantial program launched in support of imported fresh fruits and vegetables: Chile, New Zealand, Holland, Israel, Mexico and others were important factors in building produce sales. I am particularly proud that I helped initiate the Chilean program starting with a $110,000 budget behind table grapes in the 1980-81 season and helped that program grow to the multimillion-dollar budget that supports the sale of stone fruit, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries and kiwifruit shipped north from Chile every winter. The volume grew from 7 million cases to nearly 60 million cases of fruit in the 1982-83 market season; and rose to about 132 million cases by the 1992-93 season.

The New Zealand promotion support started with Granny Smith apples, and a new and important apple variety was introduced to the American market through that effort. By the early 1990s, of course, the Granny was considered one of the top domestically produced apples, taking its place alongside old-line favorites Red and Golden Delicious, McIntosh and other regional varieties that have been around for decades.

New Zealand in the 1980s also created a new product category with the introduction and promotion of the Chinese gooseberry, renamed the kiwifruit by an American importer, and sold to the U.S. produce industry by the indomitable Frieda Caplan. In just about 10 years, the kiwifruit advanced from a small volume, unknown specialty produce item to a broadly accepted and consumed staple in virtually every produce department in the country.

It is ironic that the name of New Zealand’s gift to the world was never given copyright protection. Now every temperate-climate, fruit-producing country in the world (the United States, Italy, Chile, Japan and many others) all produce and sell “kiwifruit.” Had New Zealand copyrighted the name, all those other nations would be trying to sell Chinese gooseberries, while New Zealand would be the exclusive marketer of the product that carries its own national nickname!

The 1990s ushered in another major emphasis in the way fresh produce was promoted-- and leadership once more shifted to brand promotions. With Chiquita Brands International Inc. and Dole Food Co. back on television with strong, multimillion-dollar programs (Dole in 1992 was reputed to have spent $40 million on its consumer advertising programs, much of it concentrating on fresh fruits and vegetables) and with value-added products, presented in branded packages, proliferating, brands once again were leading the way. Not only are the old brands (Sunkist in addition to Dole and Chiquita) increasing their advertising expenditures, but the new guys were getting into the picture in a big way.

This does not mean that the commodity programs are out--far from it. The Washington Apple Commission in 1992 assessed its growers 25 cents per package, the highest of any commodity, and Dole contributed to more than 30 commodity programs with enthusiasm.

By the early 1990s, it appeared as if there was a good promotional “balance” between brand activity, generic activity and that of the retail trade. The growers, marketers and retailers of fresh fruits and vegetables finally seemed to have come to the realization that they are totally interdependent and no part of the fresh production/distribution complex in the United States can afford to be anything but a full partner with the other parts.

The success of the 5 a Day generic promotion program was a strong indication that this promotional balance had been achieved.

The produce business has been built on trust, honesty and loyalty. The kind of people who make their careers in the produce business reflect those qualities that may be best illustrated by the produce company that started it all, Sunkist. The advertising agency that Sunkist hired shortly after the turn of the century, Lord & Thomas, was sold to its key employees by its founding father, Albert Lasker, in about 1944. The name was changed to Foote, Cone & Belding to reflect the new ownership. The agency for Sunkist in 1993 was Foote, Cone & Belding. Enough said!