Onion & Carrot Conference: Good PR gets Brits eating more vegetables

The event in Peterborough on 18-19 November demonstrated the effect of advertising on consumption levels and saw experts discuss curing and supermarkets' attitude to premium products. Reports by Rachel Sixsmith.

Both the British Onion Producers' Association and the British Carrot Growers' Association have hailed their PR campaigns a success - directly linking an increase in sales with their promotional activity.

Sputnik Communications account manager Hannah Nicholson told growers at the Onion & Carrot Conference how the company has been working with British Onions since September last year on working out ways to leverage the economic downturn as an opportunity for the British onion industry - promoting the price, taste and versatility benefits of onions.

"The purpose has been to keep onions in the front of people's minds and to promote them as a vegetable," she said.

Sputnik recruited Rose Prince, author of The Savvy Shopper, to devise a range of bespoke onion-based recipes that were used in an onion cookery masterclass for food journalists, who were shown how onions are crucial in all cooking. The cookery demonstration led to the recipes being featured in popular magazines such as Taste Britain and Hello!.

Sputnik also managed to recruit England international cricketer Graham Onions to be the face of British Onions this summer.

John Patrick, group manager of the Suffolk-based grower group 3 Musketeers, named his onion field in honour of the sportsman as a way of thanking him for his support and told conference delegates that there has been a 17 per cent uplift in sales volumes over the past three years.

Volumes have increased from 166,454 tonnes in 2007 to an estimated 195,000 tonnes in 2009. Patrick explained: "The underlying trend is that there's been an uplift in sales volume. We are quietly educating our consumer base."

For next year's campaign Sputnik is recruiting celebrity chef and author of What to Eat Now Valentine Warner. Again, there will be a range of bespoke onion recipes and cookery masterclasses as well as an onion-themed summer picnic for food writers.

Tim Mudge from the Processed Vegetable Growers Association is the administrator for the Great British Carrots campaign, which started last year and is funded by packers and growers through the Horticultural Development Company. He told the conference that consumer expenditure on carrots has also increased since 2007 and linked the revitalisation of the sector to its increased PR activities.

Expenditure has increased from £215m in 2007 to £255m in 2009. Yet the campaign's budget of £80,000 is just 0.032 per cent of the value of all carrot expenditure.

"The fact is, from experience in the fresh produce industry, it is clear that PR does have an impact and this can be measured by evaluating the amount of coverage generated in the press against the amount of money spent on the project," said Mudge.

"Well-timed, well-presented messages in key publications have a significant impact. Consumers trust editorial more than they do advertising as they perceive that they can believe the magazines that they read - more so than adverts."

Wendy Akers, managing director at Mustard Communications - which is carrying out the carrot campaign - told growers that she has been working on getting consumers to value carrots "a bit more - making carrots fresh and successful and not just a low-value commodity item".

This year she focused on the start of the British season at the end of June - arranging media interviews on carrot farms and sending new season carrots to food writers to emulate the sort of anticipation that surrounds the arrival in store of the first Jersey Royal potatoes and asparagus.

Akers commented: "The fact that they are harvested in the dead of night to protect the crop's tender skins provided a fun news hook for the media, particularly because they really do help you see in the dark." Grower Ian Hall was filmed harvesting the carrots and the short film subsequently featured on Anglia News.

Akers added that the campaign has made a point of showing people how carrots fit in with key events on the calendar. In February, for example, a story was run in The Daily Telegraph on how carrot sales increased when it snowed because people used them for their snowmen's noses.

An "X-ray vision" Halloween Carrot Party menu, designed to help children guard against "things that go bump in the night", and a Countdown to Christmas Carrot Menu were also released to the media.

Akers revealed that, to date, the campaign has generated an advertising value equivalent of just over £500,000, which has a perceived editorial value of £1.5m - giving a return on investment of 36 to one.

"So for every £1,000 invested, £36,000 worth of editorial has been secured," he explained. "And there are still four months of the campaign left to run."



Guest speaker Wayne Mininger, executive vice president of the US National Onion Association, addressed British growers at the Onion & Carrot Conference.

He emphasised the importance of promotion and claimed that publicity directly influences people's consumption choices.

Mininger explained that his organisation spends half of its time promoting and revealed that, in the US, onions have seen a per capita consumption increase of more than 60 per cent over the past 25 years - with the average American eating 21lbs of onions each year.

"US production has increased significantly over the past two decades. But without promotion, consumption would stall and decline," Mininger insisted.

"We live in an advertising age. We feel that we have to take a message to the consumers. If you are quiet you will be forgotten."

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