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Great Foresight

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Great Foresight

A carrot grower’s CEO fights the good (food) fight.

➽ We’re all born with a craving for fats and sugars. They come packed with the excess calories we clamor for at the biological level—after all, winter’s coming. Colorful packaging and taco tie-ins aside, junk food sells itself, and health food does not.

So for Jeff Dunn, who spent most of his professional life in senior executive positions with Coca-Cola, a 2008 move to take over as CEO of vegetable grower Bolthouse Farms represented a new challenge. Yet five years later, and following a $1.55 billion sale to Campbell Soup, the brand has never been stronger, thanks in large part to his marketing acumen, which has turned Bolthouse’s super-premium juices into something cool.

SUCCESS wanted to know how Dunn has been able to push Bolthouse carrots—without the help of the stick.

Q: What was the hardest part of coming from a place like Coca-Cola to take over Bolthouse Farms?

A: Unlike a person who has grown up with the company, you have to demonstrate that you’re trustworthy. You have to listen, understand where people are coming from, and then be consistent with the goals you articulate and the ways you implement them. One of the first things we did after we began promoting ourselves as the healthy alternative to traditional snack food was to hold town halls throughout the company to ask our workers, “What does this mean to you?”

One of the best reactions we got was from a person who asked, “Are you going to help us be healthy?’’ That was a great opportunity to show we were serious. We changed the profile of the food offerings in the cafeteria and put our products in the vending machines in the plant. They sold out every day. We were surprised at how much of the product our people would consume.

Q: Your goal is to create a fundamental change in the way America eats. How has Bolthouse adjusted to help make that happen, and what must be done in the future?

A: To do that, companies like Bolthouse have to find ways to make healthy foods more affordable and more available, and a big part of that is marketing. We’re not just in a demand-fulfillment business, but also in a demand-creation business. We don’t just fill orders. We have to help create the demand.

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➽ We have to begin with kids—get them started with fruits and vegetables early, and in a fun way. That’s why we’re introducing naturally flavored baby carrots this year—ranch flavor, chili-lime flavor. So far the test marketing has gone very well, and if they become successful, we’ll try to come up with more. Why let the snack food guys have all the fun?

We’ve had to get everybody at Bolthouse to think of ourselves as a brand. That was a new concept. Bolthouse was a fourth-generation family business that had always seen itself as an agricultural company. We were farmers who grew carrots. That was everybody’s mindset. When I came in, I wanted the company to articulate something larger, to stand for something. We had to take our products—our baby carrots, juices and salad dressings—and give them a brand identity. People love brands, and they respond to marketing built on those brands.

Q: Isn’t it awfully tough to develop a brand identity in something as common and tame as vegetables?

A: Our marketing and sales office in Santa Monica, Calif., is a big open space, and people are encouraged to write on the walls. The walls are literally covered with ideas. But we also have a process that moves those ideas forward, that takes them off the walls and subjects them to metric evaluation. A committee meets every 30 days to check on their progress—and I chair the committee. Innovation has to work hand in hand with accountability. You need good processes in marketing, because creativity without discipline never gets the message home, just as process without creativity is only  bureaucracy.

We’ve been able to bring contemporary strategies to this business, to prove that you can market anything, and to change consumer behavior.

Q: What’s next? Will America ever embrace brussels sprouts?

A: We haven’t scratched the surface with our offerings. We’re looking at yogurt-based dressings that have just 30 percent of the calories and fat of mayo-based dressings; those could be big. We’re getting the cost of our drinks into the same range as orange juice, and that’s making us more competitive. But as for popularizing brussels sprouts and broccoli—I’ll leave that to my  successor.  By Jamie Malanowski

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