DENVER - Seizing the marketing offensive for what promises to be a long-term campaign, Blair Richardson of Potatoes USA wants consumers to see potatoes and potato products as a high performance food.

Speaking March 15 at the annual meeting of Potatoes USA, Richardson, president and CEO of the group, issued a rousing challenge for the industry to embrace the effort to recast the potato's image.

Rather than playing defense against perceptions the potatoes are bad for you, Richardson said Potatoes USA wants to flip the script and play offense.

Richardson said the industry can start by leveraging the influence of elite athletes, who recognize potatoes as an excellent source of carbohydrates. (see sidebar)

"If we are going to change the way people think about potatoes, we have to get out of the trenches," he said. "We have to fix bayonets and charge."

Richardson stressed that the promotional effort would be long-term and would need broad industry buy-in.

"It is not Potatoes USA, it is everyone," he said. "We all have to start working together to take a different approach to how we are presenting our product to consumers."

Whether the message is on a bag, box, corporate logo or website, or a consumer message from Potatoes USA, he said the industry's voice needs to be consistent.

"We have to get out in front of consumers and tell them potatoes are good, but we have to have a reason why," he said.

Richardson said the performance power of potatoes message is taking beginning to take shape, with more details to be revealed over the next year.

Benefits restated

Richardson said the industry has tried to communicate the health benefits of potatoes to consumers over the years. Those benefits include high Vitamin C, fiber and potassium levels.

While potatoes have been battered by the low carb and paleo diet trends, Richardson defended the nutritional value of potatoes and potato products.

"They are a very healthy choice," he said. "I challenge anyone with any credibility that a baked potato with bacon and butter and salt and pepper on it is any worse than a green salad with a bunch of Ranch dressing," he said. "I challenge anyone to say that potato chips are worse than a Snickers bar."

Richardson said the industry needs to embrace what makes the potato great - the fact that potatoes are an excellent source of good carbohydrates.

"Why do carbs have to be bad?" he said. Even with the most restrictive low carb or paleo diets recognize that for your brain to function properly you need 40% of your diet to be carbohydrates, he said. "We believe the opportunity is owning what we are best at, that we do have a fantastic carb choice," he said.

Potatoes can draw inspiration from other commodities, he said. Richardson recalled that the now-popular avocado was once considered bad for you, nuts were perceived as fatty, eggs were out of favor and chocolate was frowned upon.

"All are good for you now and part of a healthy diet," he said.

Potatoes are the No. 1 vegetable in the world despite being cast in a negative light, he said.

"Imagine what we can do if we embrace what we are best at and start working in an aggressive way and we start prescribing to people to eat more potatoes," he said.

A look ahead

Richardson said the industry needs information and research to back up its message and is committed to funding research efforts conducted on the industry's behalf by the Alliance for Potato Research and Education and its nutrition research agency, FoodMinds.

"This is a challenge to think differently," he said. "It is a challenge to be much more proactive about our business," he said.