Marketers are betting that popular cartoon characters have the power to make fruits and vegetables more appealing to children - and their parents.
While animated characters have appeared on packaged items in the grocery aisles for years, their arrival in produce departments happened only recently. Many retailers are carrying fruits and vegetables with licensed cartoon characters from Disney and Nickelodeon on the packaging, or rolling out programs with these characters promoting healthy eating. The trend is playing out as the food industry recognizes the growing problem of obesity among children, and the power children have to influence what their parents buy.
"Retailers wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't a successful marketing strategy and it wouldn't have caught on," said Kathy Means, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. "It's very popular."
Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., just finished a major promotion this summer with Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers that hooked up the Elmo character from Sesame Street with packages of sweet cherries. Plenty of parents and kids noticed the eye-catching displays in the stores, said Mark Vanderlinden, vice president of produce for Price Chopper.
The retailer plans to break a Produce for Better Kids promotion in partnership with several of its vendors, Vanderlinden said. The retailer will try to educate parents and children on how to make better choices in meal selections and get them to consume more fresh produce through display kiosks, informational brochures and advertising.
"For example, we're going to be offering a junior banana through our partner Turbana," Vanderlinden said. "It's a smaller banana that's a perfect lunch
box treat or after school snack. We'd much rather that the children eat fruits and vegetables than some of the other products that are available to them. Dora the Explorer will be one of the characters involved with this promotion."
Price Chopper is also looking into some of the Disney Garden promotions where Disney characters appear on produce packaging.
"We haven't officially signed on yet, but we're looking at Disney Garden apple slices and they have characters called the Incredibles," Vanderlinden added. "So basically, the best items we feel are conducive to this sort of thing are these snack pack items. We're looking at a few other things now, perhaps with mini-pack raisins and dried fruit items that we could possibly offer promotions on as well."
Landover, Md.-based Giant Foods launched its Kids' Corner program this year, in partnership with Nickelodeon and characters like Blue from Blue's Clues, Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants. The interactive program uses activity sheets offered in the produce department and focuses on promoting the importance of incorporating fruits and vegetables into the daily diets of children. The sheets offer activities for kids to work on, a fruit or vegetable of the month, including a recipe kids can make with their mothers and fathers, and tips for parents as well.
"The reason why we're focusing on fruits and vegetables is part of our effort to help parents and the community combat the obesity crisis that currently exists among young children," said Andrea Astrachan, director of consumer relations, Giant Foods. "We also want to help parents help their children make healthy choices. We know that healthy choices and eating start at a young age, so if we can teach children to make healthy choices in our produce department, that will certainly help their diet. These are all good things we're hoping to help parents with."
Astrachan said it's still too early to know what impact the program has had on produce sales, but stores have received a lot of positive feedback.
"The activity sheets are so popular that keeping them in stock is more of a problem than having them sit around," she said. "We also receive customer feedback by phone, email and letters daily saying how needed this is, how much they appreciate that as they're shopping, their child has something to look forward to and that we're helping teach their children about healthy choices.
"I think it also signals to parents that at Stop & Shop and Giant, we care about the health of their kids. It sends that message that the company cares and that we're also providing tools for parents to incorporate fruits and vegetables into their kids' diets in a fun way. And that's what parents want, they want it to be fun for their kids and we help make it easier for them."
In addition to the Kids Corner program, Giant Foods also conducts in-store programs where Astrachan visits stores and speaks to parents from parent/teacher organizations about how they can foster healthy eating in kids. She also highlights the Kids Corner program and welcomes school groups interested in taking tours of the stores.
Like Giant, Sprouts Farmers Market, Phoenix, also conducts store tours for students, in addition to working with the local Boys and Girls Clubs and schools.
"We're giving store tours to students and showing them how and what to eat," said Sprouts co-founder Kevin Easler. "It sounds kind of boring but you'd be surprised - the kids love it. Our biggest concern now is the obesity factor with children and the fact that kids have been eating so much boxed carbohydrates for so long now that their intake of fruits and vegetables is nonexistent almost. We're providing classes to parents to let them know, look, if you keep feeding this stuff to your children, this is what's going to happen."
Besides fighting the obesity epidemic, there are several benefits to marketing produce to kids, Means said.
"The obvious benefit is increased consumption," she said. "A company might do it to increase sales, but another benefit would be kids eating more produce, which would lead to better nutrition and all that goes with that. There's also a higher visibility for the company and the positive image of marketing healthful products to children.
"We hear a lot about marketing junk food or candy to kids and that food marketers aren't doing the right thing. Here's an example where they are doing the right thing."
In addition, industry experts also believe marketing produce to kids builds a relationship with them and creates a life-long consumer.
"If you think about the fact that produce companies are helping moms who really struggle with getting their kids to eat healthy foods and fruits and vegetables, you're fostering that relationship with mom, but you're also establishing a long-term relationship with the kids, both in terms of perhaps recognizing the brand, or at least using the product," said Michelle Poris, director of quantitative research for Just Kid Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based market research company that develops new product concepts and advises food companies on product lines. "If you can get that young child to eat broccoli, for example, you'd hope you're developing a long-term broccoli consumer."
Cultivating customers should start early, Means agreed.
"We need to make sure we're getting kids hooked on fruits and vegetables as early as possible so we do not only give them a better chance at learning in school and growing up strong and healthy, but also, we're going to build consumers for life," she said. "Paying attention to children's marketing is important. It's a great investment of time and money if you can build somebody who will be eating your products for 60, 70, 80 years. I think that's an important point."
Making fruits and vegetables fun seems to work best when marketing produce to children, said Marcia Mogelonsky, senior research analyst, Mintel International, Chicago.
"Given the bright colors of fruits and vegetables, I think you could work out all sorts of games," she said. "Kids are allowed to eat vegetables with their fingers, so the tactile ability to manipulate the food and then eat it would be great. That's what Cheerios has always done. It's allowed you to manipulate, hold and even string the food. It's that kind of thing that they can do with vegetables. They have a lot of dips packaged with baby carrots and such, which I think is great because it's playing with your food legitimately."
In the fresh produce arena, cartoon licensing has grown significantly in the last two to five years, Means said.
Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing for Coral Gables, Fla.-based Del Monte Fresh Produce agreed, but pointed out the increase can be attributed to the migrating of cartoon characters out of grocery aisles into the fresh produce department.
"Packaged goods companies have used this tool for many years but it is only a recent phenomenon in the produce industry," Christou said.
Del Monte recently joined with Disney in promoting the release of the new "Leroy and Stitch" DVD.
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