On Communicators Needing to Think Things Through

Blitz Magazine, November 2007

thinking2I was watching Leno last night. He did his regular Headlines bit. It’s funny because it contains ads which are hilarious by virtue of careless errors, ignorance, laziness, and that old bane of writers: the do-it-yourself mentality of those who refuse to hire people who can actually write.

Lately, it has occurred to me that, when communicating with the public, more and more professionals are just not thinking things through.

Last summer, the White Spot restaurant chain ran a TV spot (ad nauseam) in which the gag was that the chef was left to clean up after a team of chefs worked all day to come up with new menu items. But, in the final shot showing the messy kitchen, every pot, pan and utensil was spotlessly clean. ‘Little problem with the props and art direction budget, I guess.

In October, I was one a judge on the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario’s Design at Work show. I was judging the publications section and saw some beautiful work. But, being me, I had to read the pieces. And found that there were typos in some and grammatical errors in others. Well, if you’re producing a high-end publication, doesn’t it follow that you should hire a writer who, you know, can actually write? And who might stoop to proof the final before it goes to press?

It broke my heart to have to discard an absolutely stunning catalogue. Well, the first part was stunning. Then I got to the copy, and found that the designer had used silver type on a white background. Well, when you put silver type on a white background, you can’t read the type. And if you can’t read the type in a publication, the publication ceases to be a publication and it becomes a waste of paper.

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‘Same thing with web designers who slap 8-point type against a black background. What’s the point in putting words in view when there’s no hope of those words being read? This is why there’s now an entire mini-industry of Usability Experts—people who spend their lives teaching people to think things through.

A current TV spot for Maltesers shows two lovers cuddling on the couch. The guy is feeding the gal the balls of candy with the help of a straw. Which would be fine (sort of), except that the guy is 17 and the gal looks to be in her mid-40s. It’s actually pretty creepy. It’s as if the creative director wanted to appeal to that massive ‘high-school-kid-sleeping-with-his-teacher’ market.

President’s Choice has a new campaign, in which the tag line is ‘Worth Changing Supermarkets For.’ That’s kinda’ catchy. Or would be, if Canadians used the (American) term ‘supermarket’.

Then there’s the ‘Christmas’ v ‘Holiday’ thing. Here’s a case where communicators are really failing to think things through. ‘Christmas’ is a Christian holiday, celebrating the birth of a man named Jesus Christ. It is a very old holiday containing all kinds of rites that have been practiced for a very long time. And, even in today’s cynical world, a lot of people take it very seriously. To millions, it’s not just a retail bonanza.

But marketers say: “Well, we don’t want to insult Muslims and Jews!” And they point to some survey they did, in the course of which maybe 100 carefully-selected people who happened to answer their phones skewed in a certain direction and that was extrapolated to the population at large. Lame lame lame.

In the first place, I’ve yet to hear a Jew or a Muslim complain about feeling excluded from Christmas festivities. And I’ve yet to hear a Christian complain about feeling excluded from Hanukkah or Ramadan celebrations. Every religion has its own stuff; how hypocritical to praise multi-culturalism and diversity and pluralism and then lump the observances of three religions into a muddy term called ‘The Holidays’.

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Secondly, if non-Christian religious groups are so important marketers, why aren’t large advertising dollars spent on advertising specifically to them? Crafting advertising that is clearly trying to sell ‘Christmas’, while failing to tip-toe around two other religious holidays is not only nonsensical, but arrogant, disrespectful and insulting. To everyone.

Third, marketers are not getting it right. They use the term ‘For the Holidays’, but their stores are decorated with all of the accoutrements of Christmas. At the moment, in most malls and shops, all you can hear are Christmas carols. Why not play the Dreidel Song? It’s still All Christmas All the Time—it’s just that no one wants to say that word.

This is very weird. It’s taking political correctness to a foolish extreme. Marketers say it’s ‘good business’. It’s not. It’s just silly.

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Co-Opted: Culture Makes Off With a Masterpiece

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You’ve seen it. Everywhere. You’ve been seeing it everywhere since you were born.

And it’s probably safe to assume that, when Edvard Munch (1863-1944) painted The Scream, it never occurred to him that his image would become the universal, multi-purpose symbol of terror.

It also likely never occurred to him that, in the 1960s, his painting would cross the line from artwork to icon. That it would go from being a respected object of contemplation to a piece of exploitable public property—standard stock for cartoonists, art directors and advertisers. That it would illustrate editorial in magazines such as M.A.D., Ms., and Forbes. That an American bank would print it on its cheques (er, checks). That the U.S. Department of Transportation would use it to indicate hazardous materials.

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Munch could not possibly have dreamt that his image would make the career of a child actor (Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone). That it would become the name of a Hollywood franchise (the Scream films). That it would appear on greeting cards, shopping bags, coasters and neck ties. Beer labels, clock faces, spoon rests. T-Shirts, balloons, key chains. Gas pain medicine and toilet paper. And whoopee cushions.

scream2Munch published two different versions of his inspiration for The Scream; that he thought of it when he viewed a mummified body in a jar at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, and that the image came to him in the midst of a blood-red sunset. Whichever one is true, given the life he led, the idea would wouldn’t have been much of a leap.

He was the son of an Oslo doctor and the grandson of a priest (yeah, we won’t go there). His father was obsessively religious—to the point of mania, and insanity ran right through the clan. The family was perpetually immersed in grinding poverty and Edvard, a sickly child, spent endless hours lying in his little bed while his father read to him. Which would have been fine if the material of choice hadn’t been the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

Munch made it to adulthood, but his best friend was a chap called Hans Jaeger, a nihilist who lived by the code “a passion to destroy is also a creative passion”, and who advocated suicide as the ultimate way to freedom. These two knee-slappers became devoted Bohemians which, for them, meant endless binge-drinking and brawling. (No sex for Edvard—the idea of it turned him off.)

But he was able to paint and, in 1892, landed a one-man show at an art gallery. In Berlin. Where his work was found to be ‘too troubling’ for happy-go-lucky Germans, and the show was shut down after one week—much to Munch’s amusement. (He did, however, become a major influence of the 20th-century German Expressionists.)

Eventually, of course, he had a nervous breakdown. But then he rallied, quit drinking and started painting portraits. He died in 1944, in Nazi-occupied Norway. By then, the Nazis had confiscated all of this work—and then they orchestrated his funeral, giving the impression that he was a Nazi sympathizer. He wasn’t, but he would have appreciated the irony.

The Scream exists in four versions: two pastels (1893 and 1895) and two paintings (1893 and 1910) (there are also several lithographs). You can see it in the exhibit Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Popular Culture, which also includes other, less-famous, pieces: The Sick Child, Death in the Sickroom, Two People (The Lonely One), Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, Anxiety, The Vampire and Into the Woods.

But you’ll see a print; all originals are firmly locked away because they are the subject of constant attempts at theft (most recently, the piece in Norway’s National Gallery was kidnapped and held for ransom during the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer). Munch, no doubt, would appreciate the irony of that, too.

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Blitz Magazine, March 1998

Not Worried, Being Happy: Happy Planet Foods Makes a Splash in the Beverage Business

hp6Blitz Magazine, November 2000

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could produce and sell the world’s best juice while promoting sustainable farming and environmental responsibility?”

“Actually, we can.”

This, one imagines, is the conversation that took place in 1994, between Randal Ius and Gregor Robertson. The two shared a deep concern for the environment, a passion for food and a knack for sales. And Robertson owned an organic farm. Happy Planet Foods was born; Ius and Robertson started selling carrot juice.

‘Sounds a little out there, but first-year sales hit $400,000. Today, Happy Planet is the fastest-growing company in BC, with 50% annual growth and 1999 sales of $3.5 million. It produces 18 beverages, introduces new flavours each year and is known as the innovator in the super-premium juice and smoothie category. Its products are sold at 550 locations, including Starbucks, Safeway and Save-On Foods, plus just about any store serving the ‘alternative’ market in Vancouver, Victoria, Whistler, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Seattle and San Francisco.

The organic food movement has grown steadily since the ‘60s, fueled by an ever-increasing horror of chemicals and a more health-conscious society. It used to be, though, that organic foods weren’t very appealing. And they commanded no respect. Happy Planet (HP) has changed that, at least in the beverage category.

Most of HP’s products fall under the category of New Age beverages knows as ‘functionals’ or ‘nutraceuticals’, a segment which is growing faster than any food category in North America, and which accounted for $350 million in sales in the US last year.

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Functionals have something useful and/or beneficial added to them—minerals, vitamins, herbs etc. Happy Planet has five such beverages: Extreme Green (passion fruit, green micro-nutrients), Abundant C (strawberry, guava, Vitamin C), Spirulina Soul Food (pineapple, coconut, spirulina), Thinkgo (raspberry, mango, ginkgo biloba) and Dot.calm (papaya, pear, St. John’s Wort).

It then has ‘Organics’, which are beverages certified to contain at least 95% organic ingredients, and which may or may not be functionals. In Happy Planet’s case, they are. There is Green One (mango, plum, green micro-nutrients), Essential Echinacea (guava, strawberry, Echinacea), Power Plant (banana, strawberry, soy protein). These are just general descriptions—if you look at the full ingredient list of Radical Response, it says Apple, Plum, Apricot, Guava, Banana, Grape Seed, BetaCarotine, Citrus Bioflavinoids, Milk Thistle, Chlorophyll, Zinc, Manganese and Selenium.

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Then there are the ‘Naturals’, which are strictly thirst-quenchers and include Lost Lagoon Mango, Sunset Beach Strawberry, Righteous Raspberry, Lemon Made and O Cranada. These are the lowest-priced Happy Planet products; organics are the highest-priced.

“Naturals are the entry-level products,” explains George Noroian, HP’s President & CEO. “But people want organic and they’re prepared to pay for it. And there has been an explosion of interest in functional beverages, so our more expensive products are our biggest sellers. People don’t mind paying more if they’re getting more. Not only do we have functional ingredients but, unlike SoBe or V-8, which have 10% juice and 90% water, we offer the actual fruit—we don’t add any water. Each 16 oz. bottle contains five whole fruits, so one bottle meets Health Canada’s recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables. Our beverages are heartier and healthier than anything else available.”

What Happy Planet adds to its juice is closely regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada, which set guidelines for what additives are allowable, and at what levels. (Americans are more lax—Odwalla adds far more vitamin C to its products than Health Canada would allow.) As we now know, too much of a good thing can be dangerous, so Happy Planet has to constantly consult with Health Canada, as well as herbalists and naturopaths, and it has a microbiologist on staff. For in-depth information, consumers can find product literature wherever HP juices are sold, and 10,000 people consult HP’s cheerfully uncomplicated web site (www.happyplanet.com) each month.

Happy Planet uses no concentrates, preservatives, additives or genetically-modified organisms. Two-thirds of ingredients come from Canadian farms and all ingredients come from sources known to use fair trade practices. The company claims to not use any paper from old-growth forests and says it gives 10% of its net profits to environmental and humanitarian causes.

But staying with the organic thing proved to be harder than at first thought. “All-organic is not possible due to availability and price,” says  Noroian. “Organic farming is much more expensive. Pesticides cost far less than natural controls and, where in conventional farming you pick a field twice, in organic you have to pick it four or five times. That means more labour and a substantial price differential—organic bananas cost twice as much as conventionally-grown bananas. If all of our products were 100% organic, they’d be out of the acceptable price range.

“So we take a pragmatic approach. As much as possible, we deal directly with farmers to guarantee quality at the most reasonable price. And as our purchasing power and the demand for organic ingredients increases, we transition ingredients to organic—now, all of our plums and mangoes are organic, as are most of our oranges. Between 40% and 60% of our ingredients are organically grown and as the economics work more in our favour, we’re able to make an even better product at an acceptable price.”

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Happy Planet’s production takes place in 13,000 square feet of space on Vancouver’s east side. Bottles are of high-density polyethylene (which is more environmentally-responsible than glass). All apples are BC-grown and processed in Vancouver; other fruits arrive in the form of purees from trusted sources in places like Fiji, Ecuador and Hawaii. As Noroian explains, the logistics can be nightmarish.

“When you’re dealing with organic fruit, the quality changes from year to year. So there’s a much bigger effort involved in sourcing ingredients, and we have to do a lot of taste-testing and keep buffer stocks on hand. We try to maintain consistency, but sometimes we have to change recipes to accommodate changes in ingredients. Consumers notice if there’s a change in quality. They want their juice a certain way and demand consistency. Our on-going challenge is to keep our ingredients within an acceptable specification, to minimize variation in the final product, and to reflect the reality of variability of organic ingredients.”

Distribution is also a challenge. Because these juices have to be kept cold.

“Our products are fast-pasteurized. The process kills the worst bacteria but it doesn’t totally degrade the enzymes and the goodness in the fruit,” says Noroian. “So the juice is still a live product. If it’s allowed to warm up it will begin to ferment after one day.”

The HP juice has a shelf life of 21 days, and much effort goes into making sure it’s kept cold. There are refrigerated Happy Trucks and, if need be, HP will provide retailers with refrigerators. Noroian says it’s worth the cost. “We sell a unique product and no one benefits if it’s not kept cold. Besides, the fridges, because of their size, get prominent store placement. They’re great billboards.”

The Starbucks approach to selling Happy Planet is even better—Starbucks keeps the bottles in ice-filled baskets beside the cash register. On the other hand, the freshness aspect has backfired. Some grocery stores stock it, not with beverages—where people looking for something to drink will gobut in the produce department, alongside the bags of salad.

Noroian notes that the freshness aspect has also retarded expansion somewhat.

“Our current focus is to expand our geographic reach, to where we’re well-established in the 15 main Canadian markets, and more established in California. But because our products have to be kept at a certain temperature and have to be rotated, we have to take a more hands-on approach to distribution. We have people in New York who want to carry our juice, but we aren’t there yet.

“Our growth it also closely tied to demographics. These juices are expensive to make, expensive to buy and are not considered staples. They appeal to a specific type of consumer. So we look carefully at the demographic and psychographic profiles of every location we’re in. It would be problematic to engage a chain like 7-11 when our product is only suitable for certain of its locations. Our experience with Safeway has been very positive because Safeway knows its customers, understands our product and knows where it will and will not sell.”

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Noroian says that HP’s placement in Starbucks two years ago was an important turning point.

“Starbucks is a credible company and its seal of approval gave us credibility. It was excellent from the marketing perspective as well—people saw us in Safeway, then in Starbucks. We already had the neo-hippy, alternative affiliation; Starbucks gave us the mainstream cross-over. Now, our customer base is broader—it’s people with more disposable income, people who are physically-active and health-conscious, families, and everyone who insists on exceptional quality.”

Unfortunately, squeezing out a marketing budget has always been a problem for Happy Planet. “Our products are expensive to make and deliver,” explains Noroian. “There’s not a lot of money left for traditional marketing. So there’s always been an emphasis on the guerrilla element, just to get the juice in people’s faces. We build awareness and maintain our retailer relationships by doing a lot of store sampling, couponing and specials. We run print ads in holistic lifestyle magazines like Shared Vision and trade magazines such as Grocer Today. Will we ever buy billboards? That would be a stretch. For us, the most potent way to market is to spread the word and get other people to spread the word.”

Happy Planet spends about $40,000 a year on advertising. But, believe it or not, the company has eliminated its marketing director position. Instead, it has taken the PR route.

“Our PR firm helps with strategizing and program implementation, developing stories about the company when we do product launches and reaching people who may want to do articles on the juice or health food industry,” explains Noroian. “PR is a relatively inexpensive way of getting exposure. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to get ink, and you have no control over it, but we think you still get more bang for your buck.”

When he joined the company two years ago, HP’s former marketing director, Steve Everitt, found that his first order of business was to revamp the company’s visuals. 

“We had our juices sitting at the Starbucks tills,” he recalls. “If you asked 100 people if they’d seen the juice, they’d say yes. If you asked them what the name of the juice was, few would be able to tell you. The globe logo wasn’t working. So we brought the name off the logo and created a new wordmark. And we simplified the image by choosing popular colour schemes and a clean font as our headline. Also, previously, the materials carried images of all kinds of fruit, and leaves. We changed that to feature individual pieces of fruit. And we saw a great increase in name recognition. The wordmark is much more powerful because of its simplicity, cleanliness and legibility.”

Everitt joined Happy Planet just as Starbucks started carrying the HP line. This began a year of significant growth, when HP juices increasingly turned up in locations more concerned with branding and style. There was no direct competition; sales were increasing weekly. Then, in 1999, SoBe and Snapple’s ‘natural’ brand extensions appeared.

“All of a sudden, we had direct competitors,” says Everitt. “None of them were 100% juice with herbal ingredients—they were vaguely similar, but thinner and cheaper. SoBe, for example, has herbal ingredients but only 10% pure juice. It won on price—it was SoBe’s 20 oz bottle for $2.19 vs. our 12-oz bottle at $2.99. Our sales went up, our retailer numbers rose, but our growth leveled out. Without lots of cash, it’s hard to combat that competition. We had to just stay the course.”

Where Odwalla would spend between 4%-7% on marketing, Happy Planet allocates 1.8%-2.2% of gross revenue. Everitt stretched this budget by gang-printing vast quantities of p.o.p. materials (posters, brochures, shelf talkers, stickers). Product launches were creative and inexpensive—when O Cranada was launched, 150 media members received buckets filled with ice, cranberries, juice and the relevant literature. Dot.calm was launched with images on CD-Rom, literature printed to fit the CD case and juice packed in ice-filled Tupperware containers. The kits looked expensive, but cost only $5 each.

Everitt also maximized exposure by managing an exhaustive contra program. “You always have to make more juice than you could sell; every week, I would end up with anywhere from 500 to 2,000 bottles of juice to work with. So I would give juice to Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Evergreen Foundation. They’d serve the juice at their events and meetings; we’d get space in their publications. In two years, I negotiated 400 contra arrangements with 200,000 bottles of juice given out in exchange for ad and advertorial space. Vancouver’s a prime market for this type of approach. And when you don’t have lots of cash, it’s a great way to get the product into people’s hands.”

While Happy Planet gives generously to food banks, Everitt also worked, or was involved in, 75 events a year—the Children’s Festival, the Folk Festival, the Carnival of Souls etc. “We used any relevant occasion to reach consumers. We’d see a slight increase in sales following these events but the impact of events is hard to measure. People would see us everywhere but whether or not that translated into increased sales is unknown.”

Everitt was able to conduct some focus groups. “The focus groups were very useful—and produced surprising results. It reinforced what we knew; that our primary market was the health-conscious female age 25-39. What was surprising was that we thought our secondary audience was the age group of 40-55. In fact, our second strongest following is males 17-25.”

That became particularly apparent when Happy Planet was confronted by a large adversary in the form of Coca Cola. For obvious reasons, Whistler is one of HP’s biggest markets. Every store carries it and HP sponsors many sporting events there. But last winter, Coca Cola had Happy Planet bounced off the mountain.

“Coca Cola takes a very wide view when considering its competition,” says Everitt. “Some of its executives were up from Atlanta during the snowboard championships, they’d put a lot of money into Intrawest, they saw our fridges on the hill—next day, we were gone. Then they tried to have us removed from the University of British Columbia campus. The students found out, put pressure on the administration and we prevailed.

“That’s one occasion where the philosophy of the company came into play. For the most part, people don’t care about a company. They care about the product. The only time the philosophy comes into play is when consumers are faced with competing products. If the taste and price are equal, they’ll look down the line for reasons to choose and they’ll choose the company that’s committed to positive things. Happy Planet has that in spades. It will hopefully be a long time before the corporate philosophy has to win out again. In the meantime, Happy Planet has to focus on the fact that it’s not selling a company or an idea, it’s selling juice.

“We’d run into trouble trying to sell the fact that HP juice is the best in Canada and part of a healthy lifestyle—while also telling people about the company message of sustainability and commitment to the earth. That company message clouds the marketing message—the consumer wants to know that the product tastes good and is good and is worth the price. We had three or four totally unique types of users. Some were attracted by the health aspect, some by the organic aspect, some by the meal replacement aspect, some by the corporate ethic. It was always difficult to hammer home all the real benefits to everyone.

“I felt that we had the largest growth potential in the mainstream grocery business, considering that the natural food business is 10% of the market in Canada. And if you want to go mainstream, you have to do consumer advertising. And Happy Planet is still a small company with a small marketing budget and distribution covering a large geographic area.”

For his part, Noroian is undaunted. “So far, we’ve been experimenting and developing the brand. Now we’ll focus on more robust growth, availability and new markets. In the more distant future, we’ll expand into products like baby food, nutritional bars, soup. For now, we’re committed to being the best at what we’re doing.”

 

The Olympic Logo Design Competition: A Definite No-No

vanoc1Blitz Magazine, June 2004

In mid-May, I switched on the TV news and found my art director, Matt Warburton, surrounded by reporters and looking seriously miffed. Why?  Warburton, Past-President of the Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC), was at a news conference hosted by the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Committee (VANOC) and was perturbed by its announcement that it was holding a competition for its logo design.

Warburton is unequivocal. “This is demeaning to the profession. A logo is part of an integrated marketing and branding strategy—not a piece of art that you can stick on everything. You can’t treat graphic design and logo creation as an art contest. This is like a cattle call. It’s not sound business practice and it’s asking designers to waste of thousands of hours and dollars on a lottery.”

The Olympic Emblem Design Competition is, according to its web site, “in the spirit of Olympic competition”, and open to “anyone with the talent and discipline to pursue their dreams.” Only Canadians need enter—students of graphic design, and those working in the design field. The judges have not yet been named; VANOC says that the winning logo will be chosen by a group of Canadian and international professionals. The prize is $25,000.00 plus two tickets to the 2010 opening ceremonies. Once the logo is chosen, an RFP will be issued.

VANOC’s Executive Director for Communications, Jane Burnes (perhaps the most hostile PR person I’ve ever spoken with), says it’s “unfortunate” that the GDC “hijacked the news conference” and defends VANOC’s contest, claiming that such competitions are Olympic tradition.

“Athens, Torino and Beijing all did the same thing, but they held international competitions. We’ve limited our competition to Canadians. This is a level playing field and the best and brightest idea will win. We see it as a great opportunity for the design industry in Canada. The competition is in keeping with IOC guidelines, and GDC guidelines. It’s too bad the GDC doesn’t agree.”

The GDC’s position is that its “members may compete for projects of a general, community or public interest if they are of a non-profit nature.”

VANOC is, in the eyes of the law, a not-for-profit organization. In fact, there is no more well-oiled money-making machine than the Olympic Games and, given that BC taxpayers are not inclined to foot the bill, the staff of the 2010 games will be working very hard to make sure that the BC games make a profit. And it had better be substantial or whatever political party is in power is 2011 is going to have a helluva headache. ‘Bottom line is, the GDC doesn’t view VANOC’s as a non-profit organization. The two sides have now agreed to disagree. The GDC is not supporting or endorsing VANOC’s competition, but it is not prohibiting its members from competing.

While Burnes claims that several designers are “embarrassed by the GDC’s behaviour”, a look at the letters on the GDC website indicates that it’s VANOC who should be embarrassed. Letters from across Canada, as well as from Seattle, San Diego, Chicago and Mexico City, condemn VANOC’s competition as “tacky”, “amateurish”, “insulting”, “counter to the fundamentals of business,” “inexcusable”, “unacceptable”, “unprofessional”, “potentially economically harmful”, “exploitative” and “unethical”. Respondents believe that the contest can “lead to copyright infringement, negative competitive practices” and “devalue the profession.” One writer is “Incredulous at the not-for-profit claim and at the idea that designers should consider it an honour to work for free.” Another wants to know if every service contract for the 2010 Olympics will be determined by the same type of competition, including legal and financial services, PR and advertising, architecture and construction. What about staffing?

As one designer put it: “The IOC believes that emblem competition open to the public is a good way to generate Olympic spirit, unity and participation. The general public should participate—maybe with t-shirt, mascot or pin design, but not in creating an essential piece of communication that will be licensed to the world. The best designers and marketing analysts should be consulted and paid for their time.”

The VANOC website says that it believes that Canadian designers are the best in the world. If that’s true, Warburton says that: “VANOC should be an intelligent client. It should issue an RFP. Do its research. Identify which firms are most able. Brief them thoroughly regarding the logo’s requirements and applications. Arrive at a short list. Then pay them for the concept work.”

When you take all of the above into consideration, this contest appears to be a colossal blunder. Because, while ad agencies may be able to devote some time to the logo competition without losing money, most of Canada’s best designers are not at agencies. They’re on their own or have their own firms. Because they’re the best, they’re busy—too busy to waste time and money on spec work.

We all know that this is true. I know it’s true from my own experience. Over the years, I’ve written countless ads, minutely detailed proposals—even marketing plans, on spec. Inexplicably, I once got roped into writing an award-winning annual report for $500. Now I know better. I don’t have to do anything on spec. And I won’t.

Neither, I suspect, will those who have what it takes to create the perfect logo for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. For proof, look at the number of entries to the last three logo competitions. These were international competitions, open to every designer in the world. The Beijing competition received 1,985 entries, the Torino competition 1,400, the Athens competition 690. Now that’s embarrassing.

 

 

Salad Days & Juicy Secrets: BC Hot House Foods

hothouse6Blitz Magazine, December 1997

Sodya hear the one about the Canadian farmers who go up to the California grocer and say “Lettuce sell you some vegetables?”

You may groan. And we might assume that, five years ago, skeptics scoffed at the idea that Canadians could successfully market produce to the salad bowl of North America. But BC Hot House has done it, in spades. And, along the way, it has become of one Canada’s great success stories.

The story began in 1973, when a number of BC tomato and cucumber greenhouse growers realized that they needed economies of scale for grading and packing; and that they’d be better served by a single marketing and sales entity. They formed the Western Greenhouse Growers Cooperative. The cooperative worked well until the early ’90s, when it faced increasing pressure from imports. This competition had driven some growers to the financial brink; others wanted to expand. All knew that they could not compete on price, since the cost of greenhouse growing is about 20 times that of field growing. And all knew that, if they were going to survive, they had to do something different. So, in 1993, the Western Greenhouse Growers Cooperative became BC Hot House Foods Inc. (BCHH). The company hired a PR firm—the Barkley Gazeley Group; and an advertising—Lanyon Phillips & Partners.

“We had to change the way we were doing business,” says Jim Lightbody, the BCHH VP Sales & Marketing. “We had to get away from the usual approach to selling commodities. In the produce industry, there are very few brands, but there are many labels and many producers selling on price alone. We can’t compete on price. We compete on quality.”

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Initial feedback from focus groups, however, was less than encouraging. “The results of that research scared the daylights out of us,” says Lightbody. “Our vegetables look the way they do because they’re healthy. They’re healthy because we don’t use pesticides. Well, consumers believed that our produce looked as good as it does because we use lots of pesticides. So BC Hot House products were not their first choice and we had to change that.”

Lanyon Phillips CEO Chuck Phillips recalls that it wasn’t all bad. “We found that the name ‘BC Hot House’ carried a lot of positive equity and was associated with better vegetables. We had 95% of the sweet bell pepper market and 100% of the long English cucumber market. The combat area is tomatoes and, of the three BCHH products, tomatoes had the highest degree of awareness. People were buying them, but there was no real brand identity. So we wanted to brand the company, brand its values and tell this great story about hot house produce.

Designer Bill Downie created the new, less industrial-style logo. And ‘vegetable boutiques’ were installed in grocery stores. “Normally, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are stocked separately,” continues Phillips. “But we created mini-greenhouses, stocked with recipe cards, and all three BC Hot House products. So the tomatoes, which had the most competition, benefited from the halo of the cucumbers and peppers, which had no competition. And that strengthened the brand.”

At the same time, BCHH launched an aggressive PR campaign. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so we had to get our message out through the media,” says Lightbody. “We addressed misconceptions by conveying the message that we do things differently. And we made the campaign fun—to get people excited enough to want to read about vegetables.”

The mandate for BCHH’s two agencies was to tell the inside story and the ‘Juicy Secrets’ campaign was launched. This consisted of transit, newspaper and television teasers which implied a racy sexuality, did not reveal the sponsor and instructed the public to check newspapers for details. Colourful, tomato-shaped inserts were then dropped into the major papers in Victoria and Vancouver. When recipients opened them, they read that BCHH tomatoes were more flavouful because they’re left to fully ripen on the vine. That hothouse vegetables have more Vitamin C and A than field-grown produce. That, because greenhouse are climate-controlled, pesticides are unnecessary. That any bad bugs which do get to the plants are controlled by lady bugs, bees and birds. The campaign was a huge success. Response was tremendous, awareness and attitude improvement figures soared and BC Hot House was the BCAMA Marketer of the Year for 1993.

“The Juicy Secrets campaign went a long way, but we still had work to do, especially in the sweet bell pepper market where we were starting to see more competition,” recalls Lightbody. “The thing with peppers is that most people think they’re hot or bitter. They’re not. Green peppers are unripe peppers, much like green tomatoes, which is why they can be bitter. When they’re grown in the field, they can’t be left to ripen fully because they’ll be ravaged by the bugs and the elements. With greenhouse growing, those green peppers mature to their full ripeness and true colour—orange, yellow or red. And they’re sweet, not tart. So we communicated that to the public with the Eat Your Sweets transit and television campaign, which displayed peppers placed in ice cream cones.”

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Things proceeded nicely. Tomato awareness was at 92%. Cucumbers and peppers were doing well. But by 1995, competitors were riding the BCHH coattails by representing their produce as BC Hot House product. It was time to strengthen the brand through another campaign.

“Our focus groups had always shown that there was very high awareness of the BC Hot House stickers,” says Phillips. “They’re hard to get off and that was a minor irritant for everybody. So we decided to use it.”

The ‘Stuck on for Good’ campaign was two television commercials—one of a hand chasing a jumping sticker around a yellow pepper; the other of a jumping sticker trying to avoid being chewed off a cucumber.

The campaign was a huge success and the competition was stymied. But 1996 saw a different challenge. The BCHH growers who, four years earlier, had to be convinced that an advertising agency and PR firm could be at all useful, now wanted growth. They wanted to build more greenhouses to satisfy demand in BC. And they wanted to be able to satisfy demand in the US—in California.

“California may be the salad bowl of North America, but it had become our second-largest market,” says Lightbody. “And demand was growing in Washington State and Oregon.

“We’d always been marketing to Americans. We attended industry trade shows, advertised in trade publications. Mostly, we were down their knocking on doors. They were impressed. The two main reasons for a consumer’s choice of a supermarket are location and the quality of the produce department. Those retailers wanted top-notch quality. So they were already buying but, to support growth, we had to advertise.”

The strategy was to start with Seattle. “Seattle has the right demographics for our product and, since it’s so close to BC, it made the most sense,” continues Lightbody. “We used the Juicy Secrets campaign again. And we added the Pennies from Heaven campaign.”

The ‘Pennies from Heaven’ campaign built on the fact that, in the US, the use of pesticides, and consumption of their residue, is a huge issue with consumers—80% of Settle residents were shown to be concerned about it. Obviously, there was a story to tell. So Lanyon Phillips created television spots showing a field of tomatoes. While the song ‘Pennies from Heaven’ played, a spray plane appeared and sprayed the field. The accompanying caption was ‘You can pick from the great outdoors or the great indoors,’ and that was followed by a shot of a tomato in a greenhouse. The spots ran for two weeks, the ‘Juicy Secrets’ inserts went into the papers, and awareness shot to 25%.

“No other tomato, cucumber or pepper brand even comes close to registering on that scale,” says Lightbody. “In this business, if you take away Dole and Chiquita, the average awareness level for a branded product is 2%. The retailers were thrilled that we were building awareness of a premium product. It allows them to give consumers what they want, differentiate themselves from their competition and build customer loyalty. And it helps their profits. As a result of this campaign, our distribution in Seattle went up 20%.”

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By now, the BCHH grower expansion was well under way. One grower, while remaining in the co-op, had moved to Oxnard, CA and built a 20-acre, state-of-the-art greenhouse. Not only does this new facility allow BC Hot House to supply the American market but, because greenhouses need sun, and sunshine is mostly absent in BC from November to January, it can supply the BC market in winter. So the growers were ready for California, and San Francisco was the target.

“We had made strong inroads with retailers in 1996 but, going into 1997, we knew that if we wanted to double our business, we had to do something major,” continues Lightbody. “We had our success in Seattle, and we had the same demographics in Northern California, so we went after the Bay Area. But going after that market is a whole different ball game.”

The first step was to hire a San Francisco PR company, Porter Novelli. Local celebrity chefs were recruited. A media kit—complete with a snow cone containing a spray plane—was produced, and media members were treated to tours of the Oxnard greenhouse. The result was massive coverage about this new way of growing vegetables. Then, last April, the two-week ‘Pennies from Heaven’ campaign ran again, followed by the ‘Juicy Secrets’ insert drop. Lightbody says that, once again, the success was spectacular.

“Prior to the campaign, our research showed that Bay Area awareness was 3%. After the campaign, it was 22%. Monthly hits on our website went from 5,600 to 60,000. It was amazing.”

Not everyone was thrilled. The California Tomato Commission was a little miffed. “We were prepared for some controversy,” continues Lightbody. “But all we were doing was telling the truth and allowing people to understand what we do. It’s no big secret that farmers use pesticides. We just told our side of the story.”

“It was a delicate situation,” adds Phillips. “Pesticides are a hot issue in Northern California and we were using an image which triggers a lot of controversy in the US—the spray plane. We did not want to imply that unsafe produce was being sold in California’s grocery stores. So the commercials made no claims—they just showed the great outdoors verses the great indoors and let consumers take their pick.

“We had a receptive media and an interested, safety-conscious market. And we had some unhappy farmers. But the point was to create foreplay for the Juicy Secrets newspaper inserts, which tell the BC Hot House story. All we want to do is make people curious and interested in vegetables.”

So the American were in. It was back to Seattle for the next stage of the strategy, which was branding the BC Hot House name in the consumer mind while introducing new products. The ‘Stuck on for Good’ campaign ran in Seattle for five weeks. Again, it was a hit.

“After the initial boost from the 1996 Seattle campaign, awareness went from 25% to 18%, but that was expected,” says Lightbody. “After the 1997 campaign, it went form 18% to 46%. That’s simply unheard of. Our researcher, Roger Barnes, who has twenty years of experience in researching advertising results, had never seen a post-campaign jump in awareness like this.”

Vancouver and Victoria were hit again last summer, this time with a new transit campaign focusing on two under-developed products—peppers, and the latest product, tomatoes which are sold still attached to the vine.

The transit campaign consisted of four posters, two of which bear ‘borrowed’ creative. One shows a bunch of peppers and is tagged ‘Do You Eat the Red Ones Last?’; the other shows a row of peppers and the line ‘United Colours of BC Hot House’. (Benetton and Nestle happily consented.) Now, all markets are seeing heavy in-store presence—including POP materials, demonstrations and displays—with the goal of making consumers seek out the hot house-grown produce, while knowing that it will cost more.

“Consumers now understand that those vegetables cost more because greenhouse growing is expensive,” says Phillips. “And we have to maintain the profit margin for our clients—the growers. So the current focus is to make the product look great in the stores, and to make sure that retailers are happy.”

Retailers are extremely happy. Where they were previously selling tomatoes at .50-$1.00/lb. to make a profit of .25-.50/lb., they’re now selling tomatoes at $2.00-3.00/lb. for a per-pound profit of $1.00-$1.50. It is safe to assume that the 52 BC Hot House growers were also pleased. In 1993, sales were $36 million. In 1996, sales were $67 million. Projected sales for 1997 are $110 million.

There has been more expansion—a new $18 million,230-employee facility in Surrey opened in February. The company is looking at new markets—New England, Quebec, Ontario, Texas—and new retailer networks and distribution centres are being established.

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So it’s blue, spray plane-free skies for BC Hot House.

“I can’t say enough about how important the interaction of public relations, consumer advertising and retailer communications has been to our success,” says Lightbody. Our quality comes from the expertise of the growers, but our marketing strategy has done the rest. We don’t have a lot of money to spend, so if it all doesn’t work together, and if we’re not being smart, strategic and focused with our limited budget, we can wash it all down the drain.”

And what about that budget? Lightbody will say only that it has increased dramatically in the last year, but that it is much smaller than we would think. Phillips says that, fiver years ago, the account was $250,000.00 and now it’s his second-largest. And the most enjoyable.

“Of everything I’ve done, this has been the most fun—and the most satisfying. We had to prove ourselves to growers, but I can state with certainty that the advertising and marketing programs have driven this client’s growth. BC Hot House is a great client. They’re smart, they’re one-on-one, and we have an excellent relationship. This is the most fulfilling and gratifying account of my career, and it’s the best work we’ve done. And definitely, from the agency perspective, the lesson is that if you focus on what you have and nurture it, instead of constantly going after new business, the agency and its clients benefit.

“And what a great story,” Phillips concludes. “This was a little band of vegetable growers who got together to share a packing facility. Now they’ve passed $100,000,000 in sales. In terms of where they started from, and the time-line, it’s the most exciting thing ever done by a Canadian company. And it’s the first time that a BC private-sector company created a campaign for the American markets, and met with huge success.

“Come on! Canadians selling tomatoes to Californians? The vegetable patch of the United States? And succeeding? Think about it!”

 

Frederick Varley: Visions of Paradise

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Group of Seven founding member Frederick Horsman Varley, who lived in Vancouver from 1926 to 1936, saw British Columbia as Paradise on Earth.

In BC, the Post-Impressionist was inspired to apply colour, composition and Buddhist theory to landscapes and individuals in new, wondrous forms. BC was Varley’s muse; once he left, he never again experienced such exciting and sustained creativity.

Varley was a romantic and sensualist who loved the ideal of the freedom found in nature, and the spiritual and physical beauty of women. Though not a devotee of any one religious or philosophical code, a curiosity in mysticism and Asian philosophies evolved from his anxiety toward modern life—he regarded Eastern notions as an antidote to the Western focus on mechanization and moral conservatism. During his time in Vancouver, he believed that objects and individuals emanated an aura and he developed a theory attributing specific psychological means to each colour, casting his paintings around one or two specific hues.

An Englishman who emigrated to Canada in 1912, Varley began his career in Toronto as a commercial designer, working with most of his future Group colleagues. After completing his commission as a war artist, he returned to the Group and, upon its triumph, became known as one of Canada’s leading portrait and landscape artists. But his restless nature, and his desire to escape debtors and crossed friendships, prevailed. He moved to Vancouver in search of a new life and fresh ideas.

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He became a teacher at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Art (now Emily Carr University), where he was adored by his students. But when the Depression hit, he received the highest pay cut. He indignantly resigned and, with Jock Macdonald, opened the BC College of Arts, taking half the student body with him.

Although the school was regarded as being at the forefront of progressive art and his creativity was prodigious, Varley was forever in debt. His family had been twice evicted; they had no furniture, no food. Varley, who had fallen in love with one of his students, left his wife and four children and moved to North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley. Then the school went out of business, it was time to get outa’ Dodge and he moved to Ottawa.

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When he died near Toronto in 1969, Varley left behind 500 oils, watercolours and sketches—a stunning body of work, and now a cherished part of Canada’s national heritage.

Blitz Magazine, November 1999

On Bad Websites by the People Who Should Know Best

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Blitz Magazine, November 2006

I admit to an obsession with the Blitz mailing list. It has to be perfect and up-to-date. To achieve this, though, I have to spend endless hours surfing the Net. I’ve now visited thousands of web sites and the fact is that most are just plain awful. The surprise is that some of the worst offenders are ad agencies.

Let’s say that I’m a French manufacturer. I have decided to launch my product in Canada, and I need a Canadian agency. So I start surfing.

Site #1: The first thing I see is that this agency has the gall to greet me with the words ‘Patience Please’. This is followed by animation. Lots of it. I’m thinking:  When I want an animation company, I’ll look for one. Do I want to work with an agency that thinks nothing of wasting my time? Non.

Site #2:  No introduction. I’m right in. But, huh? Its homepage has light blue type on a yellow background. The next page has red type on a dark green background. I’d need a new prescription before I could read this stuff. Ciao.

Site #3:  Ease of access, easy to read, well organized. I read about the company’s service offerings and awards. Bon. Now I want to find out who’s running the show. After some searching, I find the name of the president. But that’s it. I can’t find the name of the creative director. The agency says it has a media department, a production department and PR expertise. But there’s no listing of names. It seems to me that this is a one-guy agency. If it is, non merci. If it isn’t, do I want to do business with someone who won’t reveal the names of his staff? Adieu.

Site #4: This is a full-service ad agency in Alberta. The site is easy to use and well-designed. I want to find out who the president is and click on ‘Who’s the Boss?’ I find this: “Our Lord Jesus is the Boss!” Mon Dieu!

Site #5: This agency’s site has a staff listing. And look! Employee pictures! But the agency couldn’t afford a professional photographer—the images are low-res and grainy. One employee didn’t bother to wash her hair that day; another is wearing a dirty shirt, another looks like he slept in his suit. One has submitted a baby picture. Sorry, but I’m looking for grown-ups who bathe regularly. Nettoyer.

Site #6: This one looks OK. I think I’ll contact this agency. Oh—in order to do that, I have to fill out a Needs Assessment Form. Fill out this.

Site #7: Oh this is nice. Looks professional. Tres bien. I will write to this agency, and send it some information on my company. But what’s this? No address! Do I want to do business with an agency that doesn’t tell people where it’s located? Non.

Site #8: This one looks good. But look at all this copy. Pages and pages of copy, all written by a PR person, who says everything and nothing and who wants to fully enlighten me on the elements of successful marketing. What’s with all this ‘outside the box’ and ‘synergy’ stuff? Au revoir.

Get the picture? If a company is in the business of supplying perfection for clients, and if said company would never dream of producing promotional material for itself that is anything less than perfect, why would it mess up what is, in this day and age, its most important marketing tool?

The same applies to other companies who should know better. The sites for many PR firms don’t include client lists. Photographers either don’t put any work on their sites, or they include every shot they’ve ever taken. Graphic designers often use so much visual gunk that you forget why you went to the site in the first place. And a lot of sites for web designers painfully illustrate that they are not, in fact, designers.

The problem, it seems to me, is that many people still haven’t wrapped their heads around what websites are for. Websites (e-comm sites excluded) are meant to put out, to a worldwide audience, the facts about a company and its activities. They are marketing tools and should, therefore, be clear, concise and easily accessible. And as I head back for another round of surfing, I’m wishing that people would quit with the bells and whistles, think about what their visitors actually want, and just get to the point already.