The new USDA guidelines are prompting Americans to make fruits and vegetables the mainstay of their diets rather than something they try half-heartedly to force upon young children. The government push and the clamor over obesity are driving every major food company to develop a nutrition message. So Dole is seeking to stand out from the bunch with a decidedly sexier approach that includes creating an in-house TV studio and glossy Self-styled magazine to push fruits and vegetables as beauty foods. The company is also developing a five-star Dole Wellness Center, Spa and Hotel to further that notion.
"Ultimately, we hope to make Dole synonymous with health and nutrition," said Marty Ordman, VP-marketing and brand development at Dole. But with an annual marketing budget of less than $3 million-far less than the hundreds of millions spent by some of its package-goods counterparts-"we need to be more creative in how we get the message out," he said.
To that end, Mr. Ordman has worked closely with executives at the Dole Nutrition Institute, a nonprofit foundation formed in 2002 by Chairman-CEO David Murdock, in an effort to translate the Institute's educational mission into retail sales. Having taken Dole private in 2003, Mr. Murdock-a vegetarian for whom nutrition is a personal passion-is not under the scrutiny of Wall Street to drive immediate sales returns. But growing the $5.3 billion fruit and vegetable company through a variety of creative, strategic initiatives-whether to sell off or keep-is definitely his plan.
Last summer, Dole began running glossy two- to three- minute video segments on Sky In-flight TV on America West, United and Northwest Airlines, offering trendy nutrition information such as understanding the difference between good and bad carbs, making nutrition easy and fun for kids and identifying disease-fighting "superfoods." That programming has also appeared in doctor's offices, has recently been added in streaming video form to DoleNutrition.com and is soon likely to be carried in health clubs.
TV AND MAGAZINE
As part of the 20-acre wellness center across from its headquarters in Westlake Village, Calif., Dole will build a 43,000 square foot TV studio intended to develop similar educational videos and cable TV programs that features the medical and culinary experts it expects to draw to the facility.
TV programming, like Dole's biweekly consumer newsletters, free brochures and health kiosks in development, are all tools that the Dole sales team can offer to retailers to co-brand as a plug to carry and promote their products. According to Mr. Ordman, Dole in January began testing the placement of a glossy magazine, Dole Fresh Choices, in the banana section of Kroger Co.'s Houston and Dallas stores. Modeled after Conde Nast's Self magazine, the lush-looking title offers women-targeted articles on health and nutrition (a recent article in the "Dole Spa" section focused on how to fool your eyes and stomach into eating less, along with recipes and Dole coupons). Encouraged by the results, Dole plans to distribute the magazine more widely at retail as well as through mailings and at its wellness center.
Especially in fresh bananas, its largest category, Dole and competitors Chiquita and Del Monte have struggled unsuccessfully for years to develop points of differentiation for the consumer, which is why many of their branding efforts are focused on the retailer.
"Historically there will be two [banana] brands in the grocery store and people buy whatever is cheaper," said Tim Ramey, a food industry analyst with D.A. Davidson. "The promise of quality and consistency and on-time deliveries matters more to store managers than to consumers."
Branding in its value-added arenas such as packaged salads and packaged fruit has been slightly easier, but still a challenge due to lack of true differentiation. While the Fresh Express brand recently picked up by Chiquita dominated in the early days of the fresh-packaged-salad category it pioneered, Dole quickly entered the arena and now the two are neck-and-neck in the $2 billion category, each with a 37% share, according to Information Resources data for the 52 weeks ended March 20 in food, mass and drug retailers excluding Wal-Mart.
"If Dole's whole theme is that I should have fresh fruits and vegetables in my diet, it may mean I'm buying Bonita bananas," said Matt Patsky, portfolio manager at Winslow Management Co. Mr. Patsky pointed to Gardenburger founder Paul Wenner's efforts in the mid-`90s to tout vegetarian eating habits in general in order to grow his business, a move that in the end, he said, proved fruitless because all of their competitors-including category leader Morningstar Farms-benefited from their nickel.
But the Dole Nutrition Institute is not worried about that. "At the end of the day, we hope we can add our voice to the chorus of others who have pointed out the health benefits of a plant-based diet and if that education leads to behavior change, there would be an increase in sales for all producers of healthy foods, including Dole as a category leader," said Jennifer Grossman, director of the Dole Nutrition Institute.
Alan Adamson, managing director at Landor, New York, applauds Dole's approach. "There is so much clutter out there ... that marketers have to look beyond traditional tactics like advertising, promotion and package flags that say `now good for you' to more substantive, integrated efforts."
Mr. Adamson said Dole has the added benefit, unlike some of its package-goods counterparts, of starting off with few health "handicaps," barring the recent low-carb focus that pointed to the high-sugar content of many fruits (a trend that created a brief lull in sales but has now turned around, Mr. Ordman said). "In general, a fruit and vegetable platform is better than many others," he said. In fact, Kraft Foods, like other marketers desperately revamping its portfolio and marketing to reflect a more nutritious positioning, has signed on with Dole for a variety of promotions to get the halo of healthiness. To that end, Kraft is promoting Dole bananas with cereal and Dole canned fruit with Jell-O. Dole often uses stickers on its 100 bunches of bananas a month to promote such tie-ins.
But Mr. Patsky points out that if Dole hopes ever to get consumers to pay a premium for its products, on-trend or not, they'll have to develop proprietary varieties. And, in fact, Mr. Murdock's Institute is focused on doing just that.
"We are constantly on the lookout for new potential `superfoods,"' said Ms. Grossman, the Institute's director. Just recently, the Institute was testing the exotic dragonfruit in its phyto-chemical laboratory to determine if it has significant levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants-what Dole believes is the next frontier of nutrition science. Mr. Murdock, who grows dragonfruit on his own personal farm, would probably be happy to begin selling it more widely. After all, Ms. Grossman said, "He wants to have a legacy, helping people live as long and fruitful a life as he is living." And, in the process, of course, get them to buy more Dole.