Where Jamie Oliver Failed, Carrot Farmers Hope to Change the Way We Snack

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Baby carrots seem like an unlikely catalyst for social change. But 49 carrot farmers are uniting and hoping a new marketing campaign can help them become just that by overturn kids' instincts for junk food and get them to pop open a bag of baby carrots, instead. They've got a lot of spade work ahead of them.

That's because the success of the campaign depends on overcoming decades of junk-food marketing and the human body's cravings for fat and sugar. It's a task that celebrity chef Jamie Oliver found nearly insurmountable when he sought to overhaul school cafeteria food with wholesome choices for ABC television's Food Revolution -- this prompted many kids to start packing their own lunches rather than eat his freshly prepared meals.

But the carrot producers, spearheaded by carrot giant Bolthouse Farms, are hopeful that their campaign has a chance of succeeding where Oliver's experiment didn't. Their tactic is to take on the junk-food giants by using their own weapons: flashy snack bags, video games, humor and YouTube videos.

"In the past, [healthy food marketing] has been pretty functional: 'These things are healthy and eat them three times a day'," Jeffrey Dunn, chief executive of Bolthouse, told DailyFinance. "It's boring. By using the tactics of junk food against the consumer, we think what we do has the best chance to get them to think differently about this."

Battling Encroaching Food Behemoths

The campaign comes about after the junk-food industry has muscled into the healthy snack industry's territory (think of PepsiCo's (PEP) Lay's potato-chip commercials touting local potato farmers), says Dunn, who spent more than two decades working for the Coca-Cola Company, including as president of Coca-Cola North America. Indeed, flat baby carrot sales over the past few year, says Dunn, is partly due to junk-foods brands encroaching on the healthy foods market. "It was clear we needed a refresh," Dunn adds.

The $25 million campaign, created by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, will include a free iPhone game featuring a teenager in a carrot-powered shopping cart zooming through urban streets. Snack-bag packaging resembles the designs used by the likes of Doritos, and the carrot farmers will start selling the bags in vending machines in two schools, to test how kids receive them. Halloween-themed "scarrots," including glow-in-the-dark temporary tattoos, will be on sale this fall. The hope for the campaign? That sales of baby carrots, currently at about $1 billion, will double over the next three to five years, Dunn says.

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Not likely, counters Vincent Blasko, an associate professor of marketing at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business. "They have a difficult job ahead of them," Blasko says. "No matter how you package this particular product, a carrot is still a carrot." (Full disclosure: Blasko says he doesn't like carrots.) The risk with the campaign is that kids will open a bag of baby carrots with the flashier designs and expect a different type of product, he points out. "Once they realize they're still eating a carrot, I'd wonder if they'd try the product again."

Dunn acknowledges that some consumers may respond that way. "Some kids may go, "Oh, mom, I thought this was a candy baby carrot'," he says. But he believes that will be an exception.

As for getting Americans to reach for a bag of carrots instead of chips, Dunn points to the success of anti-smoking campaigns to illustrate how consumers can be persuaded to change their habits. "We think it's much more likely you'll get them to make these changes if it's fun and involving," he says. "My friends at Frito-Lay got people to eat cheeseburger-flavored Doritos, so if they can get people to eat those, we can get them to eat baby carrots."
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