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PMA's EAT BRIGHTER Campaign Trumpets Success But The Data Tells Us Nothing About Any Consumption Boost

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 21, 2015

We’ve written before about the “Eat Brighter” program in pieces such as these:

As PMA Promotes Eat Brighter, Questions Arise About Brand Efficacy And Measurements Of Success Or Failure

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?

Now that the Muppets are back on TV, with some controversy as it is an “adult” show, John Pandol, frequent contributor to Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS asks, Are the Muppets “Too Adult” to promote fruits and veggies to little kids?

I was never much of a Sesame Street watcher and neither were my kids.  I do have fond memories of the Muppet Show of 35 years ago.  The division of Disney, which manages the Muppets, has been very aggressive recently in re-launching the Muppets to a new  generation.  This includes making the characters available for free to fruit and vegetable companies to promote trial and consumption among children. A noble cause.

A media activist watchdog group called One Million Moms is warning parents not to let their kids watch the Muppet Show, as the humor is not suitable for the little ones. I have not seen the show, so I must remain silent regarding its age-appropriateness. Having said that, it would not be the first time a too-scary character from a movie ends up in a kids fast food happy meal or a 'sexy beyond their years' Halloween costume.

OK, produce people, what say you?  Are the Sesame Street characters no longer appropriate for little kids? Is Sesame Street promoting produce or is produce promoting Sesame Street?

John is a little inaccurate here, as there has been a split in ownership of Jim Henson’s creations. The characters used in the “Eat Brighter” program are licensed by Sesame Workshop. The television show features the Muppets, which are owned by Disney.

But John does point to one of the dangers of licensing. The licensor is at risk: Suppose, G-d forbid, there is a food safety outbreak and a child were to get ill or even die as a result of eating some Elmo-logoed product. And the licensee is dependent on the licensor protecting the integrity and reputation of the mark.

Fortunately Sesame Workshop is quite vigilant about that, and so that is not a problem – at least so far.

The bigger problem is just whether or not the program boosts consumption. On that the evidence is weak.

PMA published a press release titled, Quarter 2 -- 5% Sales Increase Reported by Long-tern Eat Brighter! Participants:

Newark, Del. — Quarterly research surveys administered by Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) Research Center show positive results for Eat Brighter! sales in Q2, including a 3 percent average increase in sales year-over-year as reported by participants.

Some participants reported increases as high as 11 percent. Eat Brighter!, the initiative that grants produce industry members access to Sesame Street character images royalty-free in their go-to-market strategies, has been extended through 2018, largely due to the success created by the 110 participants.

Since the launch of the program, the PMA Research Center has conducted 3 quarterly surveys; a compilation of results include the following additional insights: 

• Of the suppliers in market, 75% have reported an increase in year-over-year sales. 

• Of the suppliers who have been in market for three quarters, the average increase is 5.3 percent. 

First Lady Michelle Obama commented on the data, “With produce sales rising three percent on average for participating companies -- and with some reporting increases as high as 11 percent  it's very clear that the Eat Brighter! campaign is working brilliantly. I am so thrilled to see Sesame Street and produce suppliers and retailers coming together to get our kids excited about healthy eating, and I look forward to seeing more companies come on board to grow the momentum. Thanks, Elmo and Big Bird!”

PMA President Cathy Burns commented in a letter to members, “This is an encouraging sign, and we’re thrilled that participants are able to take the Eat Brighter! assets, available through an unprecedented program agreement with Sesame Workshop, and turn it into results like these. Now that the program has been extended through 2018, we look forward to seeing positive growth in this trend as more kids and families experience Eat Brighter! in stores.”

The movement’s success also led to the expansion of the program in Mexico, allowing produce marketers, retailers, school foodservice and promotional organizations who sell product there to participate. The announcement was made at the PMA Fresh Connections: Mexico Conference and Expo in May.

In regards to the program overall, Chris Veillon, Director of Marketing for NatureFresh™ Farms, said, “The Eat Brighter! program has been a great promotional vehicle for us since signing on in early 2015. We saw an opportunity to broaden our reach with branded packaging that would have an immediate impact at store level. We have watched customers with kids gravitate to the Sesame Street packaging and put back non-branded packaging they had in their carts. The kids are definitely the decision-makers!”

Several Eat Brighter!™ champions, including First Lady Michelle Obama, Sesame Street’s Big Bird and NBC Parks and Recreation comedian and FunnyOrDie.com regular Billy Eichner of Billy on the Street, were recognized with an Emmy nomination for their work on the Eat Brighter! comedic video launched in February. From the time the Emmy nomination was announced, the video garnered tens of thousands of additional views.

“Healthier options are now trending in the United States,” said Lawrence A. Soler, PHA CEO. “PHA partners like PMA and Sesame Workshop are leading the way by making fruits and vegetables more fun for kids, and increasing consumer demand for these healthier options.”

*******

It is, of course, useful that individual shippers participating in the program are seeing sales increases, but that has very little to do with total consumption. In fact, the study doesn’t have a control group, so it is not even clear that firms using Eat Brighter are growing faster than firms without.

But even if sales are increasing, that could be accounted for by retailers who support the program, shifting purchases to suppliers who participate, but leaving net sales and consumption both flat.

It will be interesting to see if some bright grad student picks up on the program to study its impact on grower returns. If a shipper has a proprietary brand – say Driscoll’s – and consumers prefer that brand, then retailers have to pay up to get the product; in fact, consumers have to pay up to get the product.

But if the same shippers abandon their proprietary brands and use the Sesame Street characters as their brand, then retailers can pound them on price because there can be several companies that have the same branding to offer.

Back years ago, the Pundit was a big exporter of Florida grapefruit, having many customers on, for example, the Rungis market in Paris. We had to create several different brands as each wholesaler on the market wanted to promote his own exclusive brand. It reduced price competition and allowed each wholesaler to get a better return.

It will be interesting to see the research results:

1) Do the Sesame Street characters boost sales? We have done a lot of writing on cartoon characters and haven’t found much evidence.

2) Do they boost consumption? This is not exactly the same as sales. If children nag their parents, they might buy product with characters that children want — but will the children eat the product?

3) Does the program lead to higher returns to growers?

The program has been extended through 2018, so let’s get some of the academics focused on answering these questions so we can know what kind of marketing the industry should pursue.

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