LATE LAST SPRING, Omid Farhang, vice president and creative director at the advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, started hearing a word around the office: "carrots." He didn't think much of it at first. Crispin specializes in lavish, zeitgeisty campaigns for brands such as Burger King and Old Navy. New clients are often assigned code names, to keep them a secret as long as possible. Carrots probably meant a new campaign for Nike or Frito-Lay. Then Farhang heard the brief. "I was like, Wait, carrots is carrots?" he says, laughing.
Bolthouse Farms sells nearly a billion pounds of carrots a year -- the carrots Farhang kept hearing about -- under a number of different brand names and supermarket labels. Only Grimmway Farms, a few minutes down the road in Bakersfield, California, sells more, just barely. Together, the two companies control more than 80% of the carrot market in the United States. As produce growers go, they are huge businesses -- in Bolthouse's case, between $600 million and $800 million a year in revenue, including premium beverages (carrot juice, of course, as well as açai, fruit smoothies, and vanilla chai) and salad dressings.
The company has been around for nearly a century now, but it boomed in the 1990s, with a breakthrough product. A local grower named Mike Yurosek had become frustrated with all the waste in the carrot business. Supermarkets expected carrots to be a particular size, shape, and color. Anything else had to be sold for juice or processing or animal feed, or just thrown away. Yurosek wondered what would happen if he peeled the skin off the gnarly carrots, cut them into pieces, and sold them in bags. He made up a few test batches to show his buyers. One batch, cut into 1-inch bites and peeled round, he called "bunny balls." Another batch, peeled and cut 2 inches long, looked like little baby carrots.
Bunny balls never made it. But baby carrots were a hit. They transformed the whole industry. Soon, the big growers in Bakersfield were planting fields with baby carrots in mind, sowing three times more seeds per acre, so the carrots, packed densely together, would grow long and skinny, for the maximum number of 2-inch cuts. Yields and profits climbed. The really big deal, the thing nobody expected, was that baby carrots seemed to make Americans eat more carrots. In the decade after they were introduced, carrot consumption in the United States doubled.
Then a couple of years ago, after a decade of steady growth, Bolthouse's carrot sales went flat. Sales of baby carrots, the company's cash carrot, actually fell, sharply, and stayed down. Nobody knew why. This was a big problem.
FOR JEFF DUNN, Coca-Cola was the family business. Dunn's father spent most of his career at the company negotiating huge sponsorship deals around events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics. Just a few years out of college, Dunn followed him. Dunn eventually took over his father's job and became one of the company's top executives, overseeing all of Coca-Cola's businesses in North and South America. Like his father, Dunn considered himself a marketing guy, which made sense for a top executive at a soft-drink company. "We were selling sugar water and fairy dust," Dunn says. "And don't forget the fairy dust."
Three years ago, he became CEO of Bolthouse. His office is across the street from an agricultural machine yard filled with tractors, seeding trucks, and 65,000-pound harvesters. It has been something of a change. Then again, there are similarities. "Carrots are basically a duopoly," he says. "It's Coke and Pepsi." And when he looked at his flagging sales, he wondered if some fairy dust might help.
Dunn put together a series of focus groups and surveys and discovered something interesting. People said they were eating as many carrots as they always had. But the numbers clearly showed they were buying fewer. What people meant, it turned out, was they were as likely as ever to keep carrots in the fridge. When the recession hit, though, they became more likely to buy regular carrots, instead of baby carrots, to save money. But people used to eating baby carrots weren't taking the time to wash and cut the regular ones. And unlike baby carrots, which dry out pretty quickly once a bag is opened, regular carrots keep a long time. So people were buying regular carrots and then not eating them, and not buying more until the carrots they had were finally gone or spoiled.
Bolthouse had never marketed its baby carrots. It just sent truckloads to supermarkets, where they got piled up in the produce aisle. Dunn assembled a small team and studied advertising campaigns for other agricultural commodities, such as almonds, avocados, eggs, and milk. They were shocked at what they found. "Every campaign paid back," Dunn says. "Every single one. Between 2 and 10 times."
[Still life by Jamie Chung]
So they drafted a brief to circulate to ad agencies. "Carrots have an appealing personality. Fun, fun-loving, friendly. High-energy. Visually appealing," they explained. "Baby carrots are the best form factor of carrots." Dunn was clear: He didn't want a health campaign, one that talked about beta carotene or cutting calories. He wanted something more emotional, maybe something funny, something that appealed to impulse rather than responsibility -- the kind of thing a soft-drink or snack-food company might do.
Dunn's team talked to more than 20 agencies. One firm pitched a commercial with a vegetable army, baby carrots in the lead, storming a beach defended by junk food. Another proposed pairing two unlikely celebrities together, or maybe rival politicians, with the punch line "Look who's having a baby!" Dunn kept a memento from the proposal he liked best, a large model of a carrot ripping through a jelly doughnut, red jelly oozing from the exit wound. Nothing, though, seemed quite right. Even the outrageous ideas tended to come back to avoiding junk food and eating healthier.
Then something unusual happened. One of the agencies recommended a rival firm, Crispin Porter + Bogusky. They thought the sensibility Dunn was fishing for sounded like Crispin's work. Dunn figured there was no way Bolthouse had the profile or the resources to hire a firm like Crispin. But he called them anyway. "You guys are kind of late to the game," he said, "but do you want to take a crack at this?"
A MONTH LATER, Dunn flew to Boulder, Colorado. Crispin had decorated its modern, glass conference room like a barn, with bales of hay stacked all around and a wooden bolthouse farms sign over the door. Farhang, the creative director, wasn't sure about the barn. It's possible these guys may find this offensive, he thought. They aren't a bunch of bumpkins.
The presentation began with some ethnography. Crispin had done its own behavioral research, lurking in kitchens around the Boulder area. Staffers had watched suburban moms unpack their groceries and studied where kids looked for snacks when they got home from school. Kids seldom went to the refrigerator; instead, they went straight for the cupboards or the pantry. If they did go to the fridge, baby carrots were at least visible, out on a shelf. Full-size carrots, though, always went in the vegetable drawer. "The drawer of death," one kid called it. Adults weren't particularly fond of the vegetable drawer either. They tended to associate it with all the vegetables they buy and forget, and then discover weeks later, limp and leaking. A strategy began to emerge. Let regular carrots be the vegetable.
"Everyone else pitched baby carrots as an antidote to junk food," Dunn says. "Where Crispin came out was almost the exact opposite. We want to be junk food."
Farhang and his colleagues unveiled storyboards with concepts for a series of winking, self-aware junk-food ads. One ad featured a baby-carrot-branded spray tan, endorsed by Snooki, the star of MTV's Jersey Shore. ("Doritos could potentially do something like that, with the cheese-dusted color of their product," Farhang explains.) In another, a sultry model, surrounded by billowing black silk, runs a carrot slowly across her lips as a voice-over purrs about indulgence -- think Dove chocolates. The best one seemed inspired by a Mountain Dew commercial. A skater dude rides a jet-powered shopping cart through a desert pass, dodging baby-carrot gunfire. Things blow up. There's a pterodactyl. "Extreme pterodactyl!" the voice-over yells.
"To have a great advertising idea, you have to get at the truth of the product," Farhang explains. "The truth about baby carrots is they possess many of the defining characteristics of our favorite junk food. They're neon orange, they're crunchy, they're dippable, they're kind of addictive."
Bolthouse didn't have much to gain from a house-branded campaign since it sells under many labels, and a generic campaign like "Got Milk?" might convince its rival, Grimmway, to share the cost, so Crispin made baby carrots the star. "It's not about making baby carrots cool," Crispin CEO Andrew Keller stresses. "It's about getting baby carrots into a different category."
Crispin imagined individual snack packs made of opaque, crinkly plastic, like a potato-chip bag, with bold, junk-food-style graphics (the new packaging would cost about 25% more than traditional veggie bags, but Dunn could justify it as a marketing expense). "People are now grabbing a bag of these, you know, eating them in the car," Dunn's marketing chief, Bryan Reese, says. They'd look right at home by a convenience-store checkout. Farhang and his colleagues showed ideas for a baby-carrot vending machine, too, and a chilled carrot jar, like a cookie jar, that might stay out on the counter. Bolthouse's traditional packaging worked only for the produce aisle and the kitchen fridge, and it asked more of people. "You know, unzip the 2-pound bag of baby carrots ..." Reese says, in a weary voice. "Grab a few baby carrots ... rezip it ..." We might remember this as an unfortunate cultural milestone, the moment when eating baby carrots became too much work, but Bolthouse wanted people eating more vegetables, and it was looking for whatever would sell.
Just to be safe, Crispin presented a few ideas that brought up healthfulness. But Dunn didn't seem to care. Farhang thought that was smart. "What a silly use of advertising dollars to tell people that vegetables are healthy," he says.
A few weeks later, Farhang was in the California desert, with a film crew. "There's a guy in a shopping cart with a rocket strapped to it, and there's pyrotechnics lining the base of a cliff, and there's a really hot model standing next to a machine gun," he recalls, and laughs. "It's hard not to be nervous. We've got this client that has a genuine desire to change its business, to change the way that people look at carrots forever." And it was planning to spend a huge sum of money for a produce company, in the neighborhood of $25 million. "This isn't Coca-Cola," he says. "We have one shot to get this right."
AT COCA-COLA, Dunn was obsessed with per capita consumption. "Per capita was my mantra," he says. But as he neared the end of his time there, he began to feel conflicted. It was still his job to sell more Coke. But people were drinking a lot of Coke. He talked to his father about it. "If you've got a per capita of three, four, five" -- 500 Cokes a year -- "that's fine. But there are places in the United States where you have per capitas of 1,000. I can't get my head around somebody drinking 1,000 Cokes a year," Dunn says. "This was before obesity had become as prevalent. But it was pretty clear that's where the world was going. And certainly sugar soft drinks had a direct role in that."
Dunn talks as if he carries some karmic debt, still. (He never doubted Coke enough to quit; he actually angled for CEO, only to be forced out when a rival got the job instead.) But his experience comes with a unique perspective. "If all we do is tell people fruits and vegetables need to be part of their diet or they're not going to be healthy -- the rational approach -- we have zero chance," he says. "The last 10 years has proven it. There's been so much written and so much government stuff. And per capita consumption isn't up. I believe there's a different approach.
"People will say, 'You open the bag, it's just baby carrots.' Well, it's just Lay's potato chips, it's just Doritos, there's nothing special about them," he says. "They're just cool and part of your life. If Doritos can sell cheeseburger-flavored Doritos, we can sell baby carrots."
[Still life by Jamie Chung]
Crispin's campaign, "Eat 'Em Like Junk Food," debuted last September in two test markets: Syracuse, New York, and Cincinnati. (There are plans to expand the campaign to other markets by this fall.) Three television spots aired, as well as a web series, Munchies, starring two slacker grocery clerks. @babycarrots began tweeting salvos at snack-food rivals: "Yo, @skittles. Taste our rainbow. Of orange." "Elves making cookies with their grubby little elf hands ... that can't be sanitary." Display ads, printed up for supermarkets, presented baby carrots as "the original orange doodle," and billboards suggested never fear carrots and beer. Maybe most provocatively, Bolthouse installed baby-carrot vending machines, wrapped in eat 'em like junk food graphics, at a pair of high schools.
By November, sales in Bolthouse's test markets were up 10% to 12% over the year before, compared to minimal improvement or slight decline in a control group. The vending machines were selling 80 to 90 snack packs per week; a number of schools have approached the company about installing their own machines, and Bolthouse is investigating what it would take to scale vending into a real business. In April, it will test its first movie tie-in, with snack packs promoting a new animated comedy, Hop.
"The biggest thing that hasn't worked yet is I haven't gotten my buddy down the street to do it with us," Dunn says. He and Grimmway's CEO have been talking regularly, but just talking, nothing more. (Grimmway's chief, Jeff Meger, declined to comment for this article.)
Meanwhile, nearby, in a room that looks like a cross between a sterile lab and a cluttered kitchen, a white-coated staff has been experimenting with a future phase of the campaign: flavors. Dunn won't say which ones baby carrots might come in, or how Bolthouse will do it -- both coatings and infusions have upsides and downsides -- only that anything it does will be healthy and natural.
So probably not cheeseburgers. Cool Ranch, though, might want to watch its back.
Related Story: Wanna Get Kids to Eat Carrots? Brand Them Like Junk Food 
Follow Douglas McGray on Twitter .