Public relations firm suggests shift from health-focused marketing

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

Health messages have traditionally whetted consumer appetites for blueberries, but the industry shouldn't go overboard talking about antioxidants and vitamins.

The blueberry industry should continue promoting the crop's health advantages, but it must also find other ways to connect with consumers, said Michael Whitlow, executive vice president of CRT/tanaka public relations firm. The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council hired the firm to help boost consumption of the crop.

"If you use that message exclusively, it may crowd out messages that are attractive to your audience," he said.

Whitlow and other public relations experts recently outlined their agenda for promoting the crop at a joint annual meeting of the USHBC and the North American Blueberry Council in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 16.

Nearly two out of three consumers already cite health as the reason they like to eat blueberries, according to a survey conducted by CRT/tanaka. About half of consumers say blueberries are the healthiest berry.

To compare, roughly one in three consumers say that about cranberries, one in 10 say it about strawberries, one in 30 say it about blackberries and one in 50 say it about raspberries.

However, other fruit and vegetable producers are latching onto the health message, so blueberry growers need to differentiate themselves from the pack, Whitlow said.

Getting "too sciencey" about nutrition isn't likely to help much, he said.

Instead of reciting facts and figures, CRT/tanaka is trying to find ways to connect with consumers on an emotional level, said Scott Davila, a vice president for the firm.

"As humans, we feel before we think," Davila said. "We typically go with our gut feelings."

It would require a lot of advertising dollars to "wedge" an emotional connection with blueberries into consumer's minds, so the company hopes to build on the crop's existing brand identity, he said.

"We're just trying to figure out what that is," Davila said.

The firm is still in the early stages of distilling the essence of the blueberry brand, but it has identified several basic components, Whitlow said.

Aside from health and wellness, the blueberry brand can be evoked with sensory cues about the fruit's color, flavor and texture, he said.

For example, the word "pop" is often mentioned in various contexts when people talk about blueberries, such as "pop them in your mouth" or "pop of flavor," Davila said.

The crop is also associated with heritage and authenticity, which can be used to elicit a longing for the past, Whitlow said.

"There is a lot of power in nostalgia," he said.

CRT/tanaka will zero in on the best brand message by 2011, when the USHBC is expected to increase its advertising budget as part of an assessment fee hike currently being considered by USDA, Davila said.

The promotions campaign will go beyond traditional media outlets, putting its energy into "social networking" on the Internet, said Ruth Lowenberg, senior vice president of Lewis & Neale Public Relations, a subsidiary of CRT/tanaka.

For instance, online contests for the best blueberry cocktail recipe or the best blueberry tongue photo may spur positive attention, she said.

Fresh blueberries currently get the most fanfare, so the company will try to redirect attention to the frozen form of the crop, Lowenberg said.

"We don't see a lot of discussion about what you can do with frozen blueberries specifically," she said.

Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: mperkowski@capitalpress.com.

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