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Pundit’s Mailbag — Characters and Marketing

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 14, 2006

One of the industry’s veterans in the realm of marketing has both kind words for the launch of the pundit and also doubts about programs that we discussed to apply cartoon characters across a broad range of products.

First, Jim, thank you so much for spreading your abundant common sense on a daily basis. It is most refreshing. As a fellow pundit and sometime curmudgeon, I’d like to comment on cartoon characters and marketing to children. Specifically, an effective brand spokesperson must epitomize the product. Thus Bugs Bunny can sell carrots, Popeye can sell spinach, but Garfield can’t sell apples. “Borrowed interest” is never an effective marketing tool.

— Frank McCarthy
Vice President
Albert’s Organics

Frank’s point is persuasive; efforts to extend brand equity beyond core values are always difficult. But, of course, it is difficult to sell products without any brand either. That is, doubtless, why a company such as River Ranch, which has long sold spinach under the Popeye brand, is extending that brand to other items with its Popeye Fresh Line. Clearly it would be preferable if they had a perfect match for each item but they don’t, so one suspects it is easier to sell retailers, and maybe consumers, on a line extension than on a new name or their corporate name.

After all, the biggest player in the industry, Dole, once just meant pineapple, and Hawaiian pineapple at that, to consumers. The last several decades have been spent expanding the meaning of that brand.

A lot depends on the commitment of the company that sells the rights to its characters. If the company just wants to license out the brand and not really care if it succeeds, that brand extension is quite difficult unless the character, as Frank says, is already closely aligned in the mind of the target audience with that product.

It is hard to know how anyone will act when the chips are down. Although Disney has officially denied it, supposedly, though, this is part of a strategic shift by Disney. It pulled out of its longtime alliance with McDonald’s and wants to ally itself with healthy eating choices for children. If this is true:

Key Questions For Disney:

Will Disney actually use its characters and resources to promote healthy eating? The Junior Pundits, three and four years old, are big fans of The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Putting a sticker on a package of an unrelated character is, to Frank’s point, not the strongest marketing tool. But if Disney will have the characters take a daily fresh fruit break on TV, well that will much more powerfully influence children.

What about on the website? Same thing with the theme parks. Shouldn’t The Land Pavilion be tied in with the program? How about changing the name of the farm you ride the little boat through to “Disney Garden”? If my children could see a connection between what we did at Epcot and what we propose to eat, that would add emotive power to the offer. In other words, is Disney, as a corporation, really committed to the idea of boosting children’s consumption of fresh produce? Or is this just a way to make a few shekels.

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.

Is Disney ready for a disaster? This is a perishable food. One day there will be pictures taken of its logos and characters against pictures of rotten, moldy product on national television. One day someone may even die, as food safety or food security precautions break down. Disney needs to show an understanding and commitment to what they are dealing with.

Years ago on The Mickey Mouse Club, Jiminy Cricket was highlighted in a series called “I’m no Fool”, and it taught children lessons such as how to ride a bicycle safely. My kids watch the series on DVD today and still love it. Disney should make the point that it is aware of these possibilities and create a new set of short programs to teach children about healthy eating and proper care and handling of food. A lot of people suspect that companies such as Disney will have no stomach for a problem in an area so peripheral to what they do and so will cut and run at the first scare.

Of course, Disney isn’t the only one that has to make a commitment to getting children to eat healthy. The real problem with all these character schemes and produce is that most stores only sell one line of an item. This is profoundly different than in, say, the cereal aisle. In cereal, the large number of brands carried can be used to segment the market. So, even if everyone is buying corn flakes, we can have Mickey corn flakes for little kids, Disney Princess corn flakes for a little older girls, Power Ranger corn flakes for slightly older boys… on and on up to Lawrence Welk corn flakes for his fans.

The problem with cartoons is that if we sell plums with Goofy on them, even if they do encourage sale to parents with young children, how do we know what they will do regarding sales to other demographics? Do 14-year-old boys want to go to school with a Minnie Mouse banana in their lunch?

I can’t help but think that for cartoon marketing to really work, we need to test out a separate kids section. In other words, sell both a primary display of plums and a secondary display of plums stickered for kids along with other kid-friendly items. This might be a way to seeing an increase in sales due to stickering. Would the additional sales justify the space — I don’t know.

Which brings me to my personal pet peeve: Only in perishable food is it acceptable to do large-scale product launches without doing any research. There is no doubt in my mind, right now, that there are significant advantages to a shipper who doesn’t have a consumer brand in creating an alliance with one of the cartoon programs. The big advantage is that in hope of getting a 2% boost in sales of any item, the supermarket turns over 100% of the business in that item. So this is a big win for shippers.

But we, as an industry, need to know if this actually boosts sales and consumption, and what is the best way to get that boost? We need not only studies of store purchasing but also studies tracking families at home after they purchase these items to see if consumption rises. And they have to go on for months because we have to make sure the novelty effect doesn’t influence results.

As part of Disney’s commitment, they should put some of their marketing brains into these tests. They could partner with Kroger, with whom they have a separate deal, but Disney also has very close relations with Wal-Mart, through whom much-licensed toys, sheets, party goods and whatnot get sold, and Wal-Mart could use a little good publicity. Bet they would cooperate on this research project designed to evaluate how to best market fresh produce to children. Bet, working with Disney, they would be willing to release the research report to the whole world just to be in the vanguard of this effort to sell healthy food to children.

Then we could have some real data about what works for selling healthy fresh produce to children and getting them to consume it. That would be a truly magical day.

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