Imagination Farms Decision
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 26, 2007
We’ve been paying close attention here to the Produce for Better Health Foundation and, specifically, to its announced “alliance” with Imagination Farms.
Most recently we published Complaints From PBH’s Board Members Point To Weakness In Governance, which explored ways in which PBH’s governance structure might have contributed to the current issue.
This followed on Pundit’s Mailbag — PBH/Imagination Farms Alliance Questioned which featured a letter from a longtime supporter of PBH that questioned the propriety of PBH announcing itself “aligned” with a particular brand.
This all started with our piece Imagination Farms/Disney Garden Score Big With PBH and Pixar, which was mostly about other accomplishments of Imagination Farms but included the announcement of the “strategic alliance” with PBH.
Wednesday afternoon, PBH sent the following notice to all of its board members:
TO: PBH Board of Trustees
Many of you have expressed concern about a recent alliance that was announced between PBH and Imagination Farms. I appreciate those of you who contacted PBH directly to express your concern. I’d like to frame the issue for you and update you on what we’re doing about it.
Imagination Farms, through a brainstorming session we had with them in January, agreed to develop — at their expense — some fun, educational materials for children on our website using Disney characters, with PBH involvement and approval. At no time was it considered that Imagination Farms would show their products or mention their Disney Garden brand on the PBH website. We saw this as an opportunity to provide excitement (value) to moms and her children and help drive traffic to the new Fruits & Veggies — More Matters web site. That is the most immediate tangible piece from our initial discussions with Imagination Farms, but there was potential for more, thus my approval of the words “strategic alliance” in their press release.
Last week some of you raised the concern that any use of the Disney characters by PBH provided some trustees with a competitive advantage, at the expense of other trustees who are not themselves aligned with Disney. I confess that I was initially surprised by this reaction, although now I certainly understand it.
My concern at this point is the development of parameters to guide us with collaborations, alliances, or partnerships in the future. If there were issues with Imagination Farms, then some of our past activities should have also been called into question. It would be inefficient to have you approve everything that we do; that is why we have a Board Positions, Policies & Procedures Manual and an executive committee to act in place of the board when the board is not in session. This particular case brought to our attention the need for more extensive parameters — beyond what has already been requested by our health partners — in PBH collaborations.
So, yesterday your PBH executive committee had a very lengthy conference call about this issue, with extensive dialog both before and after the call. They’ve taken this very seriously and are working on a policy that will provide guidance in such situations in the future; guidance that will prevent an unfair competitive advantage to some at the expense of others, but will still allow for collaborations that will benefit our collective effort to increase fruit and vegetable consumption.
Suffice it to say that we will not be placing Disney characters on our website. I think Imagination Farms deserves credit for trying to do more to support our cause of increasing consumption. In fact, in further conversations with Imagination Farms this week, they have expressed their continued commitment to support in-kind PBH web development within the final policy parameters that are set forth, despite the dialog of the past week. They share our commitment to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. They happened to be the “lightening rod” example that brought to light some parameters that needed more extensive discussion.
The PBH executive committee is planning a follow-up phone call to discuss this early next week, after which I’ll update you again. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions and I welcome your continued comments.
Finally, I remain convinced that our new Fruits & Veggies — More Matters initiative will have a lasting impact on consumers. As many of you heard at our recent board meeting, Moms need help in translating their positive attitudes and intentions about fruits and vegetables into action. With your help, we can make that happen!
Thank you for your ongoing support!
Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D., R.D.
President & CEO
Produce for Better Health Foundation
Elizabeth is smart to praise Imagination Farms because anyone who offers to support the foundation should be praised. She also is smart to not put the Disney characters on the web site because it would alienate the many foundation supporters who compete against product festooned with the same characters.
On the substance of the issue, this was a more difficult issue than typical because although Disney characters are used on fresh produce, the characters have independent identities that are part of the culture and pre-date the founding of Imagination Farms.
In other words, had McDonald’s proposed to put Ronald McDonald on the PBH web site, it would instantly have rung some bells that this would alienate other restaurant chains.
In this case, Elizabeth and her staff were looking to use the Mickey of Steamboat Willie to promote the cause. Such a tiny proportion of Disney character exposure is on fresh produce that PBH staff focused more on the benefits of using the icon than the implications of having it also on some produce items. They were viewing things as marketers, not as produce people.
Part of the problem was semantics. There was really no need to use terms such as “strategic alliance” in discussing what, at this point, was a simple deal of getting in-kind services to develop the web site.
It is also important for an institution such as PBH to remain open to getting help from many sources. Another non-profit group produced a video a few years back called “Kids for Character.” It used a whole group of characters from different companies, everyone from Barney to Babar, to promote the cause of building character in every child. The junior Pundits, Primo and Segundo, aka William, age 5 and Matthew, age 3, can sing every song and tell you all about the six pillars of character from memory.
There are dozens of characters in the video but, notably, Disney refused to get involved. Still, if PBH established a policy that it would like to use all characters and was open to arrangements on a non-exclusive basis, it is not obvious that the industry would object to the use of Mickey Mouse and SpongeBob SquarePants and the Sesame Street folks, etc., on the web site or elsewhere.
The simplest policy would just be to say that if a character is used to sell a brand of produce, it can’t be used with PBH.
Yet we may need to reflect. Suppose The Walt Disney Company wanted to rededicate The Land Pavilion at EPCOT to increasing produce consumption in partnership with PBH? Suppose The Walt Disney Company wanted to put a short feature in front of its newest animated movie urging children to eat more fruits and vegetables? Should we say no because Mickey Mouse in a farmer’s uniform is part of the signage at Epcot or a character in the short film?
These are complicated issues. Clearly, many board members just didn’t see an in-kind offer to help with a website as sufficient inducement to risk alienating longtime supporters of PBH who compete with Imagination Farms.
Our sense is that this is a difficult issue to deal with through a policy decision. That a firm “No. Not now, Not Ever” might foreclose opportunities undesirably.
We’ve heard from members of both the board and executive committee who both say that the issue of a ‘strategic alliance’ with Imagination Farms was not brought before either body. If true, it means that the decision was made by staff. The policy change might be that any proposed alliances should be brought before the Executive Committee with their making a decision whether referral to the full Board is required.
It is also important that PBH maintain a certain openness to receive help from others. So if Disney wants to contribute, then the door has to be kept open for contributions from Universal, Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon, etc. Talk of strategic alliances implies that doors are being shut to others.