At a recent Lyft event, the brand decided not to hand out the usual swag. You know, the frisbees or stress balls or notebooks or pens that pile up in your closets and drawers. Instead, in a large bowl, there was a pile of ripe green avocados, each printed with the Lyft logo. They were a hit. Attendees flocked around the fruit, Instagramming the heck out of them. Then, they put the avocados in their bags for a tasty afternoon snack.
Not to be outdone, AT&T sent out branded pineapples to VIP clients. And then Twitter gave out peaches at an event, each one featuring the iconic bird mascot on them. Soundcloud’s branded radishes were a particularly unexpected highlight of a party, and tasted good in salads.
The woman behind this slightly weird trend sweeping through dozens of tech companies is Danielle Baskin, a San Francisco-based designer and visual artist best known for her work designing bicycle helmets. Branded fruit is a fun and exciting thing for a consumer to receive at a corporate event, but it also taps into a frustration and fatigue that many people feel about receiving the cheap, disposable swag churned out by the $24 billion promotional products industry.
Baskin, who sources her fruit from local farms, has found a sustainable, useful alternative to crappy swag. “I recently received a pair of sunglasses at an event, which I am never going to use because I wear regular glasses,” Baskin says. “So they’re serving absolutely no purpose.”
The origins of Baskin’s company, Branded Fruit, began as a bit of a joke. In 2015, Baskin had a friend whose startup Scroll Kit was acquired by WordPress. She was invited to a barbecue to celebrate the great news. When she asked what she could bring to the party, the host told her to bring some avocados. “I thought it would be kind of funny to bring avocados with the Scroll Kit logo on them,” she says.
Baskin tinkered around with some machines in her basement to find a way to emblazon the brand’s logo onto the avocados, and when she brought them to the party, she remembers people being very excited about them. “People were taking pictures of them and talking about how they were such good swag,” Baskin remembers. “But they are also so easy to toss into your backpack for dinner later. And who doesn’t love an avocado?”
Baskin is well-connected in the tech community, having collaborated with everyone from Salesforce to Amazon to AppNexus to Stanford University through her design work. So when word got out that Baskin was able to make branded fruit as swag, companies began asking her to put their logos on fruit. In 2017, she decided to create a simple landing page for her business to test the market. Even though the website was–and remains–bare bones, she has received plenty of interest, with brands contacting her on a weekly basis to make branded fruit. “Since I have the URL BrandedFruit.com, I have really great SEO,”she says.”Word seemed to travel across the internet on its own. I’m told my website ended up being shared in Slack channels at tech companies. I’m not even really sure how that happened.”
She has now made branded fruit for everyone from Pizza Hut to Heroku to AT&T. Baskin has also had personal requests: One man ordered several avocados for a wedding proposal. Orders are as small as 10 pieces of fruit that will be centerpieces at an event to 500 pieces that will be handed to out to guests. Each fruit costs, on average, $5 to make. That’s not cheap in the world of swag, which is known for churning out products at rock-bottom prices, like $1 T-shirts or 50¢ tote bags. But it is reasonable to larger companies. “Large companies seem to have enormous budgets for swag,” she says. “I sometimes think I should increase my prices, but I also think it is crazy to spend more than $5 on a piece of fruit.”
Baskin has forged relationships with local farms in the Bay Area, and she places orders directly with farmers. They will often bring their fruit to farmer’s markets in San Francisco where Baskin can pick it up. This approach allows her to get good prices on the fruit, but it also means it is sustainably sourced and fresh.
She has had to figure out how to efficiently and safely put logos of different colors on produce. In her work as a bicycle helmet designer, she taught herself to print on complicated surfaces. She applied this concept to fruit by cutting a logo out of thin vinyl that melts onto the fruit’s exterior, creating a design that looks flat, even though produce generally has a bumpy, textured surface.
Her repertoire of brandable fruit is now fairly extensive: She can splash logos onto avocados, coconuts, eggplants, potatoes, beets, persimmons, limes, and garlic. (Yup, branded garlic is now a thing.) She can also create specific colors to match the brand’s logo or coordinate with the color of the fruit. That said, the vinyl logo is not edible, so she prefers to print on fruit that has a disposable skin.
Branded Fruit is still a small operation. Baskin generally works on a couple of client orders a month. She squeezes these projects into a busy schedule that includes making custom bicycle helmets, creating in-person experiences for conferences, and website design. Baskin likes being able to work on several businesses at once–the New York Times profiled her, and her remarkable ability to juggle six companies–so she doesn’t want to turn this into a big enterprise. She has had to turn down very large orders with short turnaround times because she simply does not have the capacity, and does not want this to become her only business.
These days, it’s basically just Baskin herself who puts the logos on the produce, though she has a mailing list of friends who are available to come over to help her with larger orders. (She pays them.) “We make a little assembly line,” she says. “It’s a lot of hand labor.”
Baskin has been tinkering with other applications of this idea. What if, for instance, companies sponsored produce at stores, so that customers could buy discounted fruits and vegetables, that came with a brand’s logo on it? What if Taco Bell sponsored some tomatoes and avocados, for instance, so people could think about the brand as they made their Superbowl guacamole? “Fresh fruit is expensive, and many people can’t afford it,” Baskin points out. “What if brands stopped advertising on billboards, and instead just gave people something they really wanted?”