Monday, July 30, 2012

Cuties (O my darling clementines…)

When it comes to citrus fruits, I’m a navel orange kind of guy, followed by the juice orange cut into quarters. Actually, for guaranteed taste, the juice orange gets my vote. Navels can be problematic – sometimes they’re just plain dry. But they sure are easier to eat. So, the navel orange is my citrus go to, placing just behind my ultimate winter fruit of choice, the McIntosh Apple. (Note to self: should be seeing Early Macs at the farmer’s market in Government Center in a few weeks.)

If clementines (mandarins?) or tangerines are on offer, I’ll gladly eat one, but I’m not one of the folks eagerly shouldering a crate of clementines at the grocery store.  In other words, I like ‘em enough to eat ‘em, but not enough to buy ‘em.

And calling them Cuties will not do anything to alter that.

Then again, I’m not six years old.

If I were, I’m sure I’d be clamoring for Cuties, which is the first real branded fresh produce item to hit the market.

I mean, who asks for Andy Boy when they want a head of iceberg? Who even knows what brand of celery they eat? We might look for Florida grapefruit, but that’s a location descriptor, not a brand. The only branded fruit or veggie that I regularly consume is Happy Apples from Brookfield Orchard. But other than putting the name and logo on a few trinkets, and their bags, nobody really calls Happy Apples Happy Apples to their face. It’s just that anyone who’s been getting her Macs from Brooklfield Orchard since Kukla Fran and Ollie ruled the TV roost knows that apples from Brookfield are Happy Apples. 

But that’s, of course, a local thing. (A Worcester thing.)

Cuties, they’re a national phenomenon and well on their way to becoming a synonym for clementine in much the same way as Kleenex is used generically for “facial tissue.” (When was the last time – if ever – you heard anyone ask for a “facial tissue.”)  Band-aid’s pretty much another one. (“Do you have any plastic, adhesive bandage strips?”)

Although it seems to me that Cuties, those darling clementines, are more of a winter than a summer fruit – honestly, why eat oranges when there are cherries, plums, nectarines, and peaches to be had? – The Wall Street Journal ran a recent article on the rise of Cutie-dom, which is challenging the navel orange for citrus supremacy.

The rise of Cuties heralds the arrival of big-money marketing in a tradition-steeped corner of American industry. Techniques once reserved for promoting consumer products have now made their way into the produce section. Just as people have long asked for a "Kleenex" instead of a tissue, they are starting to ask for "Cuties" when they mean mandarins.

The big appeal with Cuties is that it’s easy for kids to peel them. And as anyone can tell you who has ever watched a child bite into a large piece of fruit – and leave it with one set of baby teeth marks and one bite out of it – there’s something to be said for a tiny, kid-sized fruit. More substantial than a grape. Less dangerous than a cherry with that annoying pit. Perfect for little kid hands and appetites. And oh, so easy to peel…

While Cutie-mania grows, we should watch out for the downside:

Across California's citrus belt, farmers are ripping out orange, lemon and grapefruit trees to switch to mandarins.

A new Gold Rush is on, and it’s orange, little, peelable and cute.

The folks behind the brand are Berne Evans III, the grower (grover?) who presides over the empire he built with the help of:

…Stewart and Lynda Resnick, the Beverly Hills billionaire marketers of Fiji Water and Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice. Eight years ago they launched the Cuties brand.

This has begat a brand war of sorts, as rivals have tried to name their own easy to peel little cuties. (My pick of the crop: Darling Clementines, which I love – other than the fact that, from a marketing point of view it’s a dud. Way too much of a mouthful. No one, but no one, is ever going to clamor for a Darling Clementine. Still, I bet they have a pretty darned good theme song. They’d just have to change a few words. No one wants to eat anything that’s going to make them think of being “lost and gone forever.” That’s one dreadful sorrow you don’t want to munch on.)

Anyway, it figure that the marketing genii who were capable of getting consumers to fork over large sums of money for Fiji Water – pause to take a sip of my Boston tap from my Sigg bottle – can get folks to pay a bit extra for a box of clementines to support a $20 million national ad campaign. Which, of course, won’t just raise demand for Cuties. It will raise demand for cuties by any other name, too. So those Darling Clementines get to enjoy the halo effect.  Are there that may people who are going to pay a premium to get an actual Cutie cutie?

The rising costs are a wedge issue. "We're having an argument," Mr. Evans says. "Are Cuties well-known just because of advertising? My personal view is it's a damn good piece of fruit."

Another wedge issues between Evans and the Resnicks is that he’s trademarked a mini version of the Cutie, dubbed the Baby Cutie. The Resnicks are not amused. In fact they’ve sued, withdrawn their suit, entered into arbitration, etc.

Evans’ decision to work with the Resnicks to begin with was something of a defensive put. The Resnicks were neighboring growers when Evans started to build out the West Coast clementine business in the late 1990’s.

"I thought, 'If Stew [Resnick] hears I'm growing clementines, he's going to compete. He's a big-money guy who can overdo everything,'" says Mr. Evans… In 1997, Mr. Evans approached the Resnicks about cooperating. The Resnicks' Paramount Citrus and Mr. Evans' Sun Pacific agreed to grow and commercialize equal quantities of the fruit under one brand.

Evans and the Resnicks jointly own the Cutie trademark. The Resnicks focus on marketing; Evans runs the sort-pack-and-distribute operation.

The shift to clementines has not been seamless. In fact, it’s been fraught with more than trademark difficulties.

There were those damned bees…

The proliferation of mandarin trees…brought more than money. It brought a bee problem. Being seedless is a main selling point for Cuties. But if Cuties groves get cross-pollinated with pollen from seeded citrus varieties, Cuties start having seeds, too.

The Resnicks threatened to go after the beekeepers for “trespass”, which led to the formation of the "Seedless Mandarin and Honeybee Coexistence Working Group." When this task force failed to find a solution, the growers started covering their trees. And, of course, started looking for a seedless variety that was bee-resistance. That resulted in the Tango tangerine, which is a variation on the clementine/mandarin theme, and which is sometimes sold as a Cutie. (Got that?)

Meanwhile, the Cutie marketing campaign rolled east,, with TV ads featuring the slogan:

"Kids love Cuties. Because Cuties are made for kids."

Anyway, a lot more Cuties/cuties are being sold these days, but Evans isn’t buying the marketing strategy, and has:

…hired a high-powered consulting firm to help evaluate the group's advertising costs. The consultants concluded that the group was actually losing money on the campaign.

So mega trouble in Cutie paradise.

The agreement between Sun Pacific [Evans] and Paramount [The Resnicks]  to pack and sell the mandarins expires in two years.

Raise you Cutie-peeling hand if you think they’ll re-up the deal.

Meanwhile, Evans is thinking seedless cherry.

May need to start that taskforce up again.

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