We’ve written about Chef Sam Kass and the Eat Brighter program in pieces such as these:
White House Chef Tells Industry To Try Harder; But He Needs To Check His Facts
IMAGINE-NATION: Will The First Lady’s Sesame Street Campaign Reduce Produce Consumption?
When Elmo Is Crying – Will The Sesame Street Brand Be Used To Market Sub-standard Product? Is The Legal Minimum An Acceptable Food Safety Standard When Promoting To Children?
So we went to the Town Hall meeting on the subject at PMA’s Fresh Summit Convention anxious to learn more.
Although it was heartening to hear the sincere enthusiasm for the program, we always think that these town hall meetings would be more valuable if they had a diversity of speakers. If all the speakers are “all in advocates,” it creates an intimidating environment in which skeptics on the program are afraid to speak up, thus the programs don’t improve the way they should.
For us, the whole process is reminiscent of the early days of the national 5-a-Day campaign. Retailers almost immediately embraced the program. Most sincerely wanted to boost consumption, but we also came to understand that retailers, in general, like these sorts of department-wide promotional programs because it leaves the retailer free to structure produce promotions as the retailer prefers.
If a commodity group or branded marketer offers promotional expenditure, it comes with a catch: The retailer has to in some way promote the commodity or brand offering the funds. If that money gets diverted into a more generic marketing campaign, such as 5-a-Day or Eat Brighter, then the retailer has free reign to merchandise and market his stores as he wishes.
For the grower-shipper or marketer, these programs are inherently more problematic. Increasing consumption is a universally prized goal, but it is beyond the scope of most marketers. When Coke advertises, its goal is not primarily to make people thirsty, nor even to get milk or beer drinkers to shift to Coke. Its goal is mostly to beat out Pepsi for some market share.
So the marketing funds that companies have in produce are primarily geared to boosting their own sales and winning market share against perceived competitors. So it is hard to imagine that, say, Chiquita, will see a big upside to deemphasizing its own brand in order to utilize characters that its competitors are free to use. Chiquita’s whole branding proposition is to differentiate itself from its competitors.
This is not to say these companies won’t sign up for the program. It only costs $1,000. They can get some good publicity — perhaps some key retail customers will demand the program just as they demand private label — but, in general, companies want to differentiate their products and this program calls for them to do the opposite of that.
Although the powers that be like to trumpet the number of companies that are signing up for the program, it is important to keep in mind that these signups don’t involve committing to badge all one’s produce in this way — so the significance of such signups won’t be known for some time.
We confess that the whole issue of cartoon marketing gives us, in Yogi Berra’s immortal phrase, a sense of “deja vu all over again,” as we have written extensively on the subject including these pieces:
Produce For Kids Research Shows Opportunity For More Fresh Produce Marketing
Pundit’s Mailbag — Characters And Marketing
Flawed Yale Study On Junk Food Promotes Policy Without Evidence
Is It A License To Print Money?
Is This New Product Destined To Be The Potato Chip Of The Produce Department?
McDonald’s Puts Health Spin On Shrek Promotion
Advocates for the Eat Brighter program repeat over and over that this program will help boost consumption among children, their parents, etc. Yet it is very unclear why they think this. Sam Kass, who was the personal chef to the Obamas and is now Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for the White House’s Nutrition Policy, was part of the Town Hall and he spoke over a video link to a General Session of PMA last year and quoted a spurious study. We debunked his speech in a piece titled White House Chef Tells Industry To Try Harder; But He Needs To Check His Facts. There are simply no valid studies that show that cartoons on produce items, lead to higher consumption by children or anyone else.
Beyond academics, we have lots of real life industry experience. Grimmway, for example, had the rights to Nickelodeon characters and found the results sufficiently underwhelming that it elected to give them up. True, Grimmway had to pay a royalty and the Sesame Street characters are free, but if sales had been booming, Grimmway would have happily paid the royalty fee.
And note — this is only talking about sales. Children are perfectly capable of begging their parents to buy a box of cereal because they want the prize inside — that doesn’t mean they are going to actually eat the cereal.
Beyond effectiveness, we worry about programs such as this because we want the industry to put its best foot forward. Yet there are no standards here. One industry friend told us he was signing up as he thought this label might be a useful way to get rid of his Number Two’s! Is that really what the industry wants? And what about food safety? There are no requirements for GFSI standards or third-party audits to be a participant.
Yes, we certainly hope that despite these problems the program will boost consumption, yet we fear that the way it has been set up basically guarantees that we will never know. Imagine two years pass and consumption inches up a bit. Well advocates of the program will claim credit for the boost, although it might be due to some other cause.
Alternatively, if consumption drops a bit over the two-year period of the campaign, isn’t it obvious that advocates will simply say it would have been worse without the program?
No mechanisms for measurement have been set up and no clear goals have been announced. It is a very non-business-like approach.
There is also a question of what products are actually likely to be promoted. The public health priority is getting children to eat vegetables, yet to the extent this program proceeds, it is hard to imagine it impacting arugula consumption very much.
When we wrote our first piece on the subject, we pointed out that the program could actually hurt consumption. It is simply not clear that 15-year-old boys want to go to the lunchroom with Rosita on their piece of fruit.
Indeed, at the Town Hall meeting, Jin Jui Wilder, Director of Marketing at Valley Fruit and Produce Company, spoke up and mentioned that she had fought to get a school district to approve the program and that what the school wanted was the purveyor to separate out orders for the little kids and the big kids, as the school district was concerned the older students wouldn’t want Elmo on their fruit. She asked if there was any evidence that PMA could provide that the characters were not a turn-off to older kids, so she could provide it to the school and thus save the cost and bother of segregating their shipments.
Cathy Burns, PMA’s new President, responded in the most appropriate way. She said she would call the good folks at Sesame Street and see if they had any such research.
Cathy is smart and professional and was widely praised for her work on the Produce Traceability Initiative, but this very professional response raised the obvious question: How in the world could PMA recommend the whole industry promote this program without having carefully studied questions such as this?
Marketing is not just about finding things that will win over one market segment. It is about carefully weighing who will be attracted and who will be repelled by any given message. We are in the midst of political advertising season, and the dilemma is very clear. A candidate can woo conservatives and pick up votes, but how many votes does the same candidate lose because of the exact same position?
When Cathy was running Food Lion, if a private company came up with the idea that the produce department should throw out all existing produce and replace it with items branded with Sesame Street characters, even if the idea was thought brilliant to Food Lion, we doubt very much that the response would have been to instantly roll it out to all 1,300 stores based on someone’s hunch or beliefs.
More realistically, Food Lion would have done test marketing in a limited number of stores to assess the impact — positive or negative — on produce sales, product mix, etc. If the test was successful, Food Lion would expand the test and, if the test continued to show success, it would eventually be rolled out across the chain, although more new product ideas fail than succeed and others are successful only in stores of certain demographics.
The obvious approach is to take a small city, find a couple of comparable cities, use one to promote Eat Brighter on everything from stickering, billboards, cable TV ads, character appearances and whatnot. On another city, do another type of promotion, just so we are certain it is not promotion itself that boosts sales, and use a third city as a control.
Then we wind up with useful information. We can tweak the program to make it better, we can justify the expense of the rollout, or we can stop before the investment gets too great.
If this approach is too difficult, at least test it in a limited number of stores of different demographics to see what happens.
The industry wants PMA to help boost consumption, but just engaging in promotions without evidence of efficacy may not be helping the industry boost consumption, it may just be wasting everyone’s time and money. We certainly hope the program works, but the evidence that it will do so is scant indeed.