From pie to health food
The tart cherry industry is gradually transforming its image.
New, healthy products include dried cherries and tart cherry juice.
If you hear the words, “tart cherries,” and a nice oozy red, lattice-topped cherry pie springs to your mind, you’re going to really disappoint some people. The tart cherry industry has spent five years, and nearly $2 million a year, trying to make you think of other things.
You might just have been left out. A lot of the action to change the tart cherry image is taking place on social media, like Facebook and Twitter, and on celebrity-laden daytime television foodie talk shows.
Tart cherry growers, three-quarters of them clustered in Michigan, have always known that a slight boost in consumption could make a big change in demand for their product, and they could easily produce more. Tart cherry consumption was less than a pound per person last year, coming from annual production of about 250 million pounds.
Compare that to apples, where annual consumption is nearly 50 pounds a person.
Tart cherry consumption had been trending down—largely because it was tied so closely to cherry pie, which people eat less of every year.
Six years ago, the tart cherry industry—led by Phil Korson at Cherry Marketing Institute and a group of dedicated growers—decided to loosen their tie to pie and try a new tack.
The new idea was to reinvent tart cherries as a healthy food—a superfruit—and to rely on new tactics to get there. The superfruit idea was created in 2004, and it’s a marketing term, not a regulatory or scientific one. Blueberries and cranberries were the first to capitalize. The tart cherry industry wanted to be included.
They hired the services of Weber Shandwick, a highly regarded public-relations company, to develop a public-relations campaign that went beyond the old approach of placing recipes in print media. Funds were limited, so rather than relying on paid advertising, they decided to use the newly emerging social media, like Facebook and Twitter, and rely on free publicity and person-to-person communication to create a new image in the minds of people—especially younger people, to whom both health and social media are important.
They would focus on new products like cherry juice and dried cherries or products containing dried cherries.
Funding comes from assessments on growers. Growers had been paying a half-cent a pound for many years for research and promotion, but that was doubled for this new effort. About half was collected under the federal marketing order, by the Cherry Industry Administrative Board, and the Michigan Cherry Committee and other organizations in other tart cherry-producing states contribute the other half.
During the Cherry Marketing Institute’s annual meeting at the Northwest Michigan Orchard and Vineyard Show in January, three of Weber Shandwick’s key creative people described the “evolution of tart cherry positioning” that started in 2006 and continues to this day. Michael Wehman, Cathy Calhoun, and Janet Helm made the presentations.
Early on, Calhoun said, it was clear that people liked tart cherries—better, perhaps, than cranberries, blueberries, or pomegranates, which had already gained reputations as superfruits. “The question was, how do we get invited to the superfruit party?” she said. And, the challenge was to do it without the big budget that Ocean Spray lavishes on cranberries.
Wehman described the gradual process. The year 2007 was “relaunch year,” he said, and cherries were treated as if they were a brand-new commodity. Each year thereafter, a new element has been added, building year to year. He described the process as “clear and measured in evolution, focused on strategic growth.”
In 2007, when the campaign began, the key word was simply “cherries” and the goal was to create the idea that they were also a “superfruit,” one of those very healthy fruits that contain high levels of antioxidants. In 2008, the slogan was “Eat red. Choose cherries,” stressing that the redness comes from anthocyanins, and these are heart-healthy antioxidants.
In 2009, the message was “Choose cherries, America’s superfruit,” stressing that they were local, American,
not some foreign berry like acai or goji— “a friendly superfruit, politely competitive,” as Wehman put it.
In 2010, the theme moved to “Powered by red,” adding claims, backed by scientific research, that cherries have anti-inflammatory properties and can reduce pain. Other messages talked about cherries’ melatonin content and its relationship to healthy sleep.
That year, as the industry presented its message, it coordinated with 13 large city marathons, in which celebrity athletes talked “red recovery,” how eating cherries or drinking cherry juice helped runners to more rapid and less painful muscle recovery after intense exercise.
The “Powered by red” theme continued in 2011, and was extended into advertising in trade publications that urged manufacturers to adopt a “red hot idea” and “go red instead” when choosing ingredients for baked goods, trail mixes, energy bars, and other food products. The idea, Wehman said, is that cherries are a naturally functional ingredient, not an additive or a fortification.
My Plate guidelines
The “go red instead” idea is being translated into consumer publicity, starting with USDA’s new My Plate eating guidelines.
“Four-fifths of Americans are not eating enough fruits and vegetables,” Wehman said. “And half the fruit consumers do eat is apples, oranges, bananas, and watermelon. How boring is that? Why not go red instead? Fight fruit fatigue!
“It’s a great time to be a fruit,” Wehman added. The new dietary guidelines from USDA devote half the plate to fruits and vegetables. People are looking for “naturally functional” foods to fill that half.
The primary competitors in the market being carved out for tart cherries are cranberries, strawberries, and blueberries, he said, and the plan is to take market share from them—while building total demand for all with the new attention and publicity. Grapes are following suit, joining the fray.
So, if you’ve noticed the change in image, “it probably seems like this all happened on its own,” Wehman said. “That’s good. It’s more believable that way. But there was a whole lot of hard work behind it.”
The industry now maintains several Web sites that contribute to the overall buzz. For more information, go to www.choosecherries.com, www.cherryresearch.com, and www.cherryprocessor.com.