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.”
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.”
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%.”
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.
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!”