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Big Raisin is not going to let millennials kill it off without a fight

Can millennials be wooed back to snacking on raisins? Sun-Maid, America’s number-one dried-grape brand, has ambitious plans to reignite their interest. (Hint: sour raisins.)

Big Raisin is not going to let millennials kill it off without a fight
[Photo: Clemson University – USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series/Wikimedia Commons]

Millennials are guilty of “killing” a number of food products: American cheese, mayonnaise, canned tuna, and other products that fail to rack up the likes on Instagram. Even avocados are no longer safe.

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So it comes at no surprise that raisins, long the snack staple of kindergarten class, has taken a beating. In 2017, farmers’ crop prices sunk to their lowest level in several decades, down 31% from the year prior. In fact, for the very first time, California forfeited the title of world’s leading producer of raisins–to Turkey. Raisin farmers now look to grow more profitable crops, such as almonds.

[Photo: courtesy of Sun-Maid]
But how much of the blame can we place on the finicky youth palette? Those of us from a certain era can recall a time when anthropomorphized raisins belted Motown blues and became pop-culture phenoms. Millennials, though, have no idea who The California Raisins are, relegated to the spokescharacter retirement home with the likes of Count Chocula.

“The product itself was just being forgotten,” admits Harry Overly, the newly appointed CEO and president of Sun-Maid. “[Our industry] has been dark for well over 10 years or so . . . . It’s not top-of-mind for consumers.”

The number-one raisin brand in America is not content to wither away like . . . you know. It has a plan to woo newer generations, many of whose last interaction with the brand centered around packed school lunches. Sun-Maid has released a new ad campaign–it’s first in a decade–and bold new products to target a growth goal of $100 million within five years.

“Everything about our products intrinsically is on trend with the millennial generation,” says Overly. Raisins are a whole food, have no added sugar (though they have a lot of fruit sugar), are gluten free, and are a good source of potassium. “There’s a lot of opportunity.”

Reigniting relevancy

Sun-Maid goes all the way back to 1912 when it began as a cooperative of California raisin growers, which produce 100% of U.S. raisins. Today, Sun-Maid represents 750 growers. During its heyday, it advertised nationwide–paid for by all industry growers. But over the last three decades, as the industry battled a rough commodity market and put itself near the brink of bankruptcy, Sun-Maid was run more like a manufacturing processor than a consumer-focused packaged goods company with a considerable brand asset.

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Today, the biggest source of volume is, not surprisingly, baby boomers and senior citizens. After that, next biggest segment are parents who buy it for their kids.

“Nowhere were we marketing to older kids or trying to keep the brand relevant as a child ages. Nowhere were we talking to parents themselves and then designing products for them,” laments Overly.

[Photo: courtesy of Sun-Maid]
Basically, American kids know the brand until about age six, at which point they’re lured by other brands in the highly competitive snack market: chips, cookies, bars, among them. Then they don’t interact with raisins again until they become parents themselves.

“And what do they do? They give their kids a box of raisins when they start being able to chew solid foods,” Overly explains.

Sun-Maid believes it is in a good position: Americans value healthier, natural, and local foods more than ever before. Today, nearly all Americans (94%) snack at least once a day, with 33% preferring healthier foods. The global snacks market size is valued at $23 billion, according to Grand View Research.

Sun-Maid’s direct competitors include bars, bites, and trail mixes. The immediate landscape spans Craisins, private-label dried fruit, and the recent PepsiCo-acquired Bare Foods. And yet, Sun-Maid often isn’t included in the same snack aisles as these brands. Instead, it’s often relegated to less desirable sections, like nuts, or near the baby food.

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Overly says his team is working on repositioning its products, perhaps grouping it with greater snacks or with fresh and local produce. “The promotion of it just has been nonexistent,” he says.

To better push into the snack category, the company announced Sun-Maid Sour Raisin Snacks, a new line of sugar-free dried fruit in flavors like watermelon, mixed berry, strawberry, and, yes,  grape. It’s meant to appeal to younger audiences that have pushed the sour profile to new heights. (To get an idea of how popular sour snacks are, there’s now a Sour Patch Kids’ breakfast cereal.)

The new addition will compete with fruit snacks, which includes fruit roll-ups, Gushers, and many a product that Overly frankly describes as “nothing more than glorified gummy bears and candy.” Gushers’ first two ingredients are corn syrup and sugar. Raisins, as this 1980s ad taught us, are “nature’s candy.”

Sun-Maid is ostensibly the most well-known brand in dried fruit–sold in over 50 countries. It just never further capitalized on its strengths.

Nostalgia-forward

As for redesigning the new line, Sun-Maid knew that freshening up the logo should be kept as minimally invasive as possible. The consumer research team was adamant: You have to be red, you need to have the girl, and you need to say Sun-Maid. “If you change anything else, it’s literally like changing the American flag,” says Overly.

[Photo: courtesy of Sun-Maid]
The new line features a mostly unchanged logo, with newer elements saved for the box colors and new fruit art.

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Sun-Maid applied the same nostalgia-centric ethos to its newly launched TV campaign, which went live earlier this week. The company developed a marketing campaign that could appeal to its desired target audience–the younger generations and millennial parents–without alienating the boomers.

The ad opens with a young girl asking, “Remember childhood?” It then spans a variety of carefree activities like running through an open field, chasing butterflies, riding a bike, and, of course, opening up a bright red box of Sun-Maid raisins.

In focus groups, the Sun-Maid team found that consumers most connected with the brand by way of their own childhood. Most recalled a time when someone they loved handed them a box of raisins. Such positive connections breed a high rate of brand loyalty.

“Whether it was their grandmother or mother or grandfather that gave them the [box], it’s that moment of kids playing around and being inspired with childhood,” says Overly. “What we’re trying to do is inspire the millennial parents to engage their children in the same way and bring that nostalgia back to them.”

Sun-Maid Logo, 1916 [Photo: Designer unknown, incorporates painting by Fanny Scafford/Wikimedia Commons]
The “Grow Young” campaign will air on TV outlets including Bravo, HGTV, Food Network, E!, and Lifetime, in addition to digital, social, and in-store shopper activations. Sun-Maid currently has a three-year plan of new products in the pipeline.

Overly believes Sun-Maid is ripe for a comeback, and it will be parents leading the charge. To that end, expect more kid-friendly (and healthy) snacks on the horizon.

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“What we’re really capitalizing on is the fact you’d be hard-pressed to find any snack brand today that would have the emotional equity that Sun-Maid would have,” he explains. “We have a high amount of brand awareness and so now it’s really about conversion–about reminding them and getting them down that aisle.”

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About the author

Rina Raphael is a writer who covers technology, health, and wellness for Fast Company. Sign up for her newsletter on the wellness economy here: https://welltodo.substack.com/

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