By Sean Ellis
EAGLE, Idaho -- The Idaho Potato Commission has its eyes on a rapidly expanding international spud market and believes it has found an ideal person to help drive overseas potato sales.
Traci Hiebert, an Idaho native with two decades of experience launching and expanding consumer product lines in international markets for Mercedes-Benz, recently took over as the commission's international marketing director.
Her focus at Mercedes, and during a two-year stint at Scentsy, an Idaho-based candle company, was on opening new markets, which included analyzing international markets and conducting market analysis to prepare for the launch of new products.
The $186 million fresh potato market is growing at an average of 9 percent annually, and the entire potato export market, including fresh, frozen and dehydrated, is growing at a 10 percent rate or 3.4 billion pounds a year.
Because Idaho is land-locked, it's at a price disadvantage with other potato growing regions when it comes to shipping costs and the industry relies heavily on brand recognition to command a premium price.
The commission hopes Hiebert's work at Mercedes gives her the experience necessary to help Idaho's spud industry step up its global marketing efforts, said IPC President and CEO Frank Muir.
"She understands premium-brand marketing," he said. "Traci brings a unique background that will help us in expanding our export business."
Hiebert, who grew up in nearby Meridian, said she is amazed at the job the commission has done branding the Idaho potato, which is instantly recognized in any country, even those that don't have Russets.
"I went from an elite car to an elite potato," she said. "You're a step ahead of the rest when you have that elite brand. That brand ... is often times a shoo-in when you're talking with buyers in different countries."
Seth Pemsler, vice president of IPC's retail and international divisions, said Hiebert's experience in international marketing and business development was very important to the commission.
"She has the experience to be able to look at markets, assess opportunities and develop entry strategies," he said. "There has been significant growth in the international potato market. Her extensive experience allows the Idaho Potato Commission to be strategic in how it approaches this growing global market."
Hiebert is immediately setting her eyes on countries that recently opened their markets to U.S. potatoes, especially the Philippines, Panama and Colombia.
Another goal is to increase the number of buyers in countries. "Right now we have maybe two or three buyers in these different countries and we really want to try to capture more distributors and buyers," she said.
She will also focus heavily on Mexico, where Idaho owns a third of the market share of U.S. product, because it's projected that when that country completely opens its borders to U.S. potatoes, the market will grow five-fold.
"Idaho is optimally positioned to capitalize on this opportunity due to our proximity and our knowledge of the customer base," Hiebert said.