BC Hothouse took packaged goods approach

The BC Hothouse tomato stands out on the shelf as a shiny, perfect fruit.However, its beauty does not overshadow other BC Hothouse products, including bell peppers, long English cucumbers and butter lettuce.Until recently, customers did not understand why they should spend...

The BC Hothouse tomato stands out on the shelf as a shiny, perfect fruit.

However, its beauty does not overshadow other BC Hothouse products, including bell peppers, long English cucumbers and butter lettuce.

Until recently, customers did not understand why they should spend as much as three to four times more for a BC Hothouse product, even the rosy tomato.

As a result, food buyers perceived BC Hothouse produce to be something to be bought only on special occasions.

Up to 1993, sales of BC Hothouse products had reached $27 million, and that is where they would have stayed if Glenn Wong had not been brought in as president and chief executive officer of Western Greenhouse Growers Co-operative Association, which grows BC Hothouse fruits and vegetables.

Wong was sought out by the Surrey, b.c.-based co-op for his expertise in bringing a packaged goods marketing approach to a perishable food commodity market.

Wong, who previously earned his spurs with Nabob Foods in Vancouver, was hired to boost distribution and sales for the 21-year-old organization, the largest vegetable co-operative in Canada, representing 46 member groups and 51 greenhouse operations in the province.

‘We had awareness,’ Wong says. ‘But, we could not substantiate the prices we were charging, so we had to increase the value equation on our products, and that meant changing the way consumers looked at vegetables.’

His first order of business was to hire Vancouver-based ad agency Lanyon Phillips Brink to begin a campaign to create brand differentiation in a price-driven commodity category.

He also hired The Barkley Gazeley Group to disseminate the large amount of educational information to the media.

There was a big story to tell, and comparatively little money to tell it with.

Lanyon Phillips Brink and Wong asked for and got help from a program instituted in 1992 as part of the Ministry of Agriculture’s five-year, $9.6-million market development program to build awareness of b.c. for agricultural products called Buy BC.

With extra cash in hand, a campaign was designed to stir up curiosity about BC Hothouse produce.

Almost immediately, there was a disagreement between Wong and his new adman, Chuck Phillips, about how to launch the campaign.

Wong wanted to continue along the lines of previous advertising around recipes and food editorials.

Phillips wanted to conduct an in-your-face media campaign using transit, with some television.

The two men decided on their marketing approach during a Canucks hockey game last winter.

Canucks won

‘Glenn said, `If the Canucks win the game, I get to use transit [advertising,]‘ Phillips says. ‘The Canucks won.’

The strategy was to drive consumption of b.c. bell peppers, because there had been a larger crop that year.

At the same time, this advertising had to reinforce the awareness for the tomato product.

Previous research indicated consumers were unaware that BC Hothouse products were grown hydroponically, instead of in soil.

Few consumers knew the products were grown organically, meaning there were no pesticides, herbicides, artificial ripening, irradiation or waxing involved.

No pollution or pests

Because BC Hothouse products are grown in greenhouses, they are not subject to pollution or pests, and the growing season is 10 months, meaning they can be grown almost year round.

The campaign positioned BC Hothouse products as being grown under glass in a controlled ‘Club Med’ atmosphere, free from the harsh outdoor pollution and pests.

Field-grown vegetables, by comparison, are vulnerable to seasonal weather and pesticides, and they are not allowed to ripen naturally.

Early ads illustrated the extra care involved in growing BC Hothouse products, including the introduction of predator bugs such as lady bugs to fight off harmful insects.

At the same time, Lanyon Phillips Brink went to work with its ‘Juicy Secrets’ teaser campaign last April, using transit, television and newspaper inserts to boost interest in what appeared to be an upcoming soap opera.

Later, in-store, customers were presented with point-of-purchase give-away die-cuts featuring a large tomato which tied-in ‘Juicy Secrets’ to the heart of the campaign.

Some customers may have been disappointed it was not about a romance.

Inside the die-cuts, they found information about how vegetables were grown and why BC Hothouse products were more expensive.

The copy read: ‘Of course, this quality may cost a little more. But, isn’t your family’s good nutrition worth it?’

This was followed with a flight of television commercials and transit ads during the summer, featuring advertising and promotion for BC Hothouse bell peppers.

The ads show bell peppers sitting in ice cream cones, with a headline ‘Eat Your Sweets.’

The campaign was geared to get people to try bell peppers that had ripened organically.

Phillips says most people associated peppers with a tart or sour taste, but that was because the peppers had not been properly ripened.

According to Phillips, the last part of the campaign was the most risky, yet the most successful.

‘We had to build interest in a category of product that had no personality,’ he says.

Phillips introduced an idea to Glenn to design in-store boutiques or mini-hothouses to illustrate how hothouse products are grown. The kiosks featured the BC Hothouse logo Lanyon Phillips Brink designed.

90 stores

Before year’s end, about 90 Safeway stores in the Lower Mainland had a BC Hothouse mini-hothouse in or near the vegetable section.

‘The idea was to build interest as close to the point of purchase as possible,’ Phillips says.

The campaign produced a bumper crop of results.

Wong says post-advertising research revealed that awareness for tomatoes increased to 98% from 92%, cucumbers to 80% from 18% awareness before the campaign, and peppers to 70% from 40% awareness.

Upscale retailers

Most importantly, sales revenues grew more than 40% during the campaign, generating an $11-million increase in revenues, to a total of $38 million in revenues for Western Greenhouse Growers.

As a result of the campaign, Wong was presented with the 1994 Marketer of the Year Award by the B.C. chapter of the American Marketing Association for the Juicy Secrets campaign.

It was his second Marketer of the Year Award; he won another for his work at Nabob.

Wong downplays the award, not wanting to take any of the shine away from BC Hothouses perfect-looking products.