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Pundit’s Mailbag — PBH/Imagination Farms Alliance Questioned

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 19, 2007

Our piece, Imagination Farms/Disney Garden Score Big Points With PBH And Pixar, included word about a “strategic alliance” between Imagination Farms, the people behind the Disney Garden project, and the Produce for Better Health Foundation that brought a torrent of criticism. Everyone seems afraid to speak on the record but the gist is outrage and a feeling of betrayal that PBH would be willing to declare itself "aligned" with one competitor’s brand. This, from a longtime PBH contributor, was among the more printable comments we received:

Read your piece regarding Imagination Farms and the Produce for Better Health Foundation with great interest. While I think it would be wonderful if Disney would align with PBH on spreading a great message to increase produce consumption and certainly, if they are committed, Disney has media outlets and PR capabilities to reach many more people than any produce company does, it is worth bearing in mind that Imagination Farms is not The Walt Disney Company.

It is a produce company that, along with its producing partners, competes every day with the very companies PBH is always asking for money and support.

The folks at the Produce for Better Health Foundation have a “tin ear” and should recognize how long-time donors feel when they read a press release such as the one the Pundit brought to our attention.

It is inappropriate for PBH to be choosing sides in the commercial battles that make up the day to day business in our industry. But what else can anyone draw from a statement such as this one contained in the release: “We are excited to be aligned with Imagination Farms and the Disney Garden brand,” remarked Elizabeth Pivonka, President & CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation.”

“Aligned” — What could that mean? Aligned against other produce companies, such as our own, that fight against Imagination Farms for shelf space every single day of the year?

We’ve always supported PBH, but our company is not in the habit of giving money to people aligned with our competitors.

I understand PBH being tempted to go for the marketing support but don’t the executives at PBH realize that they risk alienating a lot of companies with competitive brands? In many cases companies that have supported the foundation for years and years? Is this the way their loyalty to PBH is repaid?

PBH ought to look at the big picture and long term future of the Foundation. Jumping on a great promotion with a new company that has the license to use Disney characters may make for some short term gain — but long term PBH is biting the hand that feeds the Foundation.

They should also be careful. The Disney Channel is filled with ads for junk food. Is PBH really certain they want to give Disney “protective cover” as it sells loads of foods not sanctioned by the Foundation? Alliances go both ways and this one may lead to consumer confusion about what PBH is really endorsing.

It is a powerful letter and makes some powerful points. At very least the word “aligned” is inappropriate. The terms of the agreement are unclear but it would have been desirable for PBH to insist on a non-exclusive agreement and thus be open to utilizing characters from other organizations.

The devil is in the details, of course, but it is fraught with difficulties to use what is now a mascot on the products of particular companies to promote the industry in general. Just ask how long Dole would support PBH if Miss Chiquita were to start appearing on the web site?

It also is true that merely putting characters on things is a weak form of marketing, as Frank McCarthy told us in his letter, “Borrowed interest is never an effective marketing tool.” The Walt Disney Company could powerfully boost produce sales by tying in with its theme parks, movies, ABC and other parts of the company. So to some extent the critique that the alliance we need is with that company rather than a Disney licensee is pertinent.

We’ve never really understood why Disney is taking the approach it has anyway. As we wrote in our comments on Frank’s letter:

Which brings to the forefront a question: Why charge a licensing fee? Getting Disney’s various characters on healthy, fresh foods all over the world is a major plus for Disney — think of it as millions in free advertising. Why reduce the scope of the program and its likelihood of success by demanding money?

Why shouldn’t Disney pay Imagination Farms to build out the network and give them the mandate to get the widest possible distribution? The produce industry is too small and the margins on commodity products too tight to return any significant amount of money to Disney. But think about what it would be worth to Disney to affiliate itself with good health for kids and helping Mom feed kids right by holding a press conference announcing that Disney, as part of its efforts to help parents make sure their kids eat healthy food, was going to make its characters available without license fee to encourage children to want to eat them. I think the value of that stand-up attitude would far exceed any amount of license fee Disney will ever get for its brand in produce.

If Disney’s characters were not aligned with one specific brand, but were freely available, like the Fruits and Veggies — More Matters logo, to be used to generically promote all fresh produce, then there would be no problem forming an alliance with PBH, and Disney would get many more consumer impressions of affiliation with healthful food than it can get now. That would more than pay for giving up its licensing fee.

To our correspondent’s final point about Disney selling junk food, they have a point in that for a while 5-a-Day was rejecting recipes for Strawberry Shortcake and other desserts because they didn’t meet stated criteria. But PBH seems to have learned to relax a bit over the years. We are supposed to urge people to eat right, not be the joyless food police. Still, affiliations are always delicate and we have to be careful that our message doesn’t get muddied in our choice of partners.

Many thanks to our correspondent for this valuable letter.

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