Brand-name merchandise is nothing new; in 17th-century England, advertisements for brand-name teas offered enjoyment to “all gentlemen.” Not until about 85 years ago, however, did food manufacturers in this country begin to establish and promote brand names.1

According to the food industry, brand-name promotion provides a terrific education for the consumer. It tells us which soft drink adds life, which beer is the king of beers and which is the beer of kings, and which peas are picked in the valley of the jolly green you-know-who. Like it or not, we pay for this “education” every time we buy a brand-name product.

Until recently, only processed foods came with brand names — fresh fruits and vegetables were just fresh fruits and vegetables. One stalk of celery was about the same as the next. Not so anymore. Several big corporations have already initiated programs to stick brand names on fresh produce. If successful, they will transform the humdrum celery of old, giving it a new name, a new status, and a new price tag.

“A BANANA BY ANY OTHER NAME IS NOT THE SAME” (from a Chiquita banana ad)

Back in 1960, bananas were the principal product of the United Fruit Co. (now United Brands). But bananas were not doing well. Consumption was declining and prices were falling. Smaller companies were producing bananas of comparable quality and underselling United because, although United Fruit was the biggest producer, it was not the most efficient. Sensing trouble, United searched for a way to pass its higher costs on to the consumer while retaining its position in the industry.

A company report spelled out the problem: “The consumer does not know United Fruit bananas from any other kind of bananas and, therefore, doesn’t care whose bananas she buys. Assuming that the quality of the bananas is comparable, the lowest price bananas get the sale . . . ” All this had to change, the report advised. “In order to raise the price of its bananas, United Fruit must first build consumer preference for its own brand of bananas. . . . The objective of the brand program [is] to sell United Fruit bananas for a higher price than they would normally get.” Candidly admitting that “our bananas would probably not look any better than the competition’s at retail,” United determined that it “could not use any product claims that were checkable at retail.”2 “Chiquita” was born. Millions of ad dollars later, Chiquita became a household word — a banana of “quality.” The importance of that lies in what United is now able to tell supermarket executives in the trade magazines: “Chiquitas sell better than bananas.”3

Four years after the Chiquita campaign had been launched, United had captured nearly a third of the country’s market at prices 10 to 15% higher than other bananas.4 Through brand name promotion, United had convinced consumers to pay more for Chiquitas than other bananas and to like doing it.

Subsequent attempts by United to spread its brand name to yogurt, lettuce and other vegetables failed. As one United vice-president put it, “People wondered why it didn’t all taste like bananas.”5 In addition, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) slapped an anti-trust law suit on United’s attempt to corner the lettuce market with Chiquita lettuce. In a concurring opinion, FTC commissioner Mayo Thompson made these comments: “United Brands came to the lettuce industry not to increase efficiency but to impair it. . . . [Their] forte lies in knowing how to raise unit costs at the marketing level and then persuade consumers to go along with a price increase. . . . I can find little in the way of a redeeming social value, however, in an advertising program designed to make something out of nothing.” Finally, Commissioner Thompson admonished United to “Go and brand no more.“6

“FROM SEEDLING TO SUPERMARKET”

Tenneco, the huge Houston-based conglomerate, may become the first corporation to successfully stamp its brand on a complete line of fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts. If economic clout can help, Tenneco’s got plenty of that. With a financial base in oil and gas operations and natural gas transmission, Tenneco has spread its empire to include more than 200 subsidiaries engaged in manufacturing, shipbuilding, chemicals, packaging, agriculture and land development.7 (In Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, Tenneco holds timber rights on more than 300,000 acres of land.)8

Several big corporations have already initiated programs to stick brand names on fresh produce. If successful, they will transform the humdrum celery of old, giving it a new name, a new status, and a new price tag.

Tenneco already had vast landholdings when, during the 1960’s, it acquired Kern County Land Co. (a company with twice the land of Rhode Island),9 numerous orchards and vineyards, and Heggblade Marguleas, the world’s biggest produce marketing firm.10 With more land than some states have, Tenneco is probably the country’s biggest farm. Its scheme to market brand-name vegetables could make it even larger. Already, Tenneco controls 72% of the nation’s date production.11 Five years ago, its annual production of table grapes was running over 100 million pounds.12

 

Technically, the company has the ability to farm its land with its subsidiary’s J.I. Case tractors fueled with Tenneco oil and gas while using Tenneco-made pesticides and fertilizers. The produce could be shipped in freighters made at its Newport News Shipyards, in packages made by Tenneco’s subsidiary, the Packaging Corporation of America. Finally, the produce could be sold in Tenneco’s chain of convenience stores under its own brand name, Sun Giant. It is easy to see why Tenneco uses the phrase “from seedling to supermarket” to describe its operations.

Sun Giant produce, from peaches to tomatoes, come pre-packaged with the brand’s seal. Tenneco says, “The pre-packaging eliminates the need to pick through piles of produce to find the best.” 13 Just trust Tenneco, because, as they say in leaflets that sometimes accompany the produce, “Lady, you just pinched your last peach.”14 Pre-packaging, as we all know, is more a convenience to the corporation than the consumer. It often allows them to sell us more of a given product than we need while forcing us to take the bad produce in the bag in order to get the good. With the marketing punch and ad dollars of a giant corporation, Tenneco might just succeed in convincing us that they can pick quality produce better than we can and that Sun Giant produce is truly different. If they can do this and convince us to pay a premium price for it, too, the day of the brand-named vegetable truly will have arrived.

A big corporation, no matter what its brand name — Sun Giant or Thunder Whollop — cannot grow vegetables any better or cheaper than the family farmer. A visit to your local farmer’s market will prove that! But with its muscle, a Tenneco can buy out efficient family farmers or simply run them under by convincing consumers that peaches or lettuce or tomatoes with a brand name are better than those with none. Eliminating competition in this fashion spells trouble for us in the form of higher prices and diminishing quality.

Family farmers can’t afford slick TV commercials or ad campaigns. They depend on you to recognize good quality and good prices in produce when you see them.

 

FOOTNOTES

  1. Brand Strategy in U.S. Food Marketing, by Applebaum and Goldberg. 1967. p. 3 and 4.
  2. The American Food Scandal, by William Robbins. Wm.Morrow & Co. NY: 1974. p. 76-77.
  3. Supermarket News, May 16, 1977. p. 9.
  4. Robbins, p. 78.
  5. “Chiquita Lettuce Back in the Fridge, United Says,” by John Revett. Advertising Age, June 10, 1974. p. 3.
  6. Federal Trade Commission, Docket No. 8835, Final Order, 1974. p. 20, 6 11-13.
  7. Form 10-K, Tenneco Annual Report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, 1975. p. 41-45.
  8. Ibid. p. 13.
  9. “The Company Twice as Big As Rhode Island,” by Herbert Solow. Fortune, March 1961. See also, “Report on Tenneco, Inc.,” by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) Research Department. March 11, 1975.
  10. Robbins, p. 65.
  11. OCAW Research Department. p. 9.
  12. “Tenneco,” A publication of Tenneco, Inc., Summer 1972 p. 28.
  13. Ibid. p. 27.
  14. Quoted in Robbins, p. 61.

[Cary was assisted in writing this article by Sara Fowler and Alice Ammerman.]