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Fresh watermelon slices. Photo by Kudla Jana, taken from stock.xchng.

Juicy watermelon: Not just a summer staple.

Okay, so I’m just going to come out and say it. I absolutely love when an ordinary fruit or vegetable gets a PR makeover and emerges a more accessible, versatile ingredient before your very eyes. It’s like a 90’s chick-flick set in your grocer’s produce section.

I was enthralled when the U.S. Potato Board transformed the boring old spud into a healthy, inexpensive meal option worthy of a Prom Queen title and overjoyed when Hunt’s used its Fairy Godmother magic on canned tomatoes (see past posts). My latest find is an organization attempting to make that star quarterback notice an old summer favorite, even during football season.

The scene

It’s February. You’re outside shoveling the snow in your driveway. When you finish, you go inside your warm home, take off your coat and boots and cozy up to your fireplace with a good book and a nice… slice of fresh watermelon?

Maybe not quite, but the National Watermelon Promotion Board is devoted to positioning the watermelon as a year-round fruit.

"Cookie Cutouts" NWPB's kids recipe idea. Picture from NWPB 2009 media kit.

The NWPB even uses watermelon to help celebrate Valentine's Day.

The action

In efforts to stimulate the watermelon industry, the NWPB provides the public with craft and recipe ideas, as well as watermelon nutritional facts and other benefits on its Web site. Last May, The NWPB launched What About Watermelon?, a blog devoted to sharing the watermelon’s many year-round uses with readers. To learn more about the blog’s purposes, read it’s first post written by Mark Arney, the NWPB’s Executive Director.

One of my favorite features of the blog is the weekly recipes reflecting the current season. In the fall and winter months, the recipes themselves help encourage the consumption of watermelon in cold weather. Some revolve around seasonal events and holidays, and some feature the fruit in warm and savory main-course applications that consumers may not usually consider.

The fact that the recipe titles are sometimes bizarre-sounding (recently posted was a recipe for a Super Bowl-inspired, football-shaped watermelon “cake” complete with cream cheese frosting and licorice decorations) is just further proof of how creative, innovative and hard-working the NWPB is getting in their efforts to promote the watermelon.

The suspenseful cliffhanger

Between the watermelon recipes, facts and stories featured every week on the What About Watermelon? blog, plus separate but similar features on the NWPB’s site, there is certainly no shortage of watermelon information available on the Internet. The tactics are backed by good intentions and creative ideas. However, I gather a feeling that the promotional materials are not being seen by a very large audience.

What About Watermelon? is still a fairly new blog and I see it doing very well if it continues to deliver interesting posts and inventive uses for the watermelon. The NWPB has an online newsroom where marketing materials are readily available for inquiring journalists. However, it has not updated its collection of press releases and news clips since 2007. In order to achieve positive results, it needs to continue its promotional efforts.

So, with a little bit more persistence from the NWPB, I do believe that America’s favorite green and pink summer treat can score a year-round seat at the popular kids’ lunch table.

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Potted seedling, photo by SP Veres taken from stock.xchng.

"This used to be the news... but now it's a plant." Food Lion printed press releases on seeded paper.

Three weeks ago, Food Lion, the southeastern U.S. supermarket chain, opened its first “Green” store in Columbia, South Carolina. The store meets Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification standards and offers shoppers features like bike racks, an in-store recycling facility and environmental education kiosks.  

The chain promoted the store using a special Web page for the five months in between groundbreaking and grand opening, letting customers know what was approaching. When it finally opened on Dec. 10, press releases were issued to the media on special paper that when torn up and planted in soil, will sprout. 

Promotions 

In addition to cleverly encouraging journalists to do something they might dream about (ripping a press release to shreds), Food Lion reached out to consumers by creating a Web page dedicated to educating shoppers on the new green store. The page features a video highlighting the store’s environment-friendly features, an interactive quiz about the green store, a photo slide show of the store’s construction process and a list of tips for maintaining a “green” household. 

Jeff Wells of the blog WHRefresh thinks Food Lion’s promotional Web site was a step in the right direction as far as educating shoppers on sustainability, but says stores can do more: 

Marketing on the company homepage is great, but honestly, very few people casually visit their local supermarket’s website to learn about the latest initiative. Reach them through social media, put up signs in the store. Better still, give them a reason to visit your website by offering coupons, posting blogs and interesting (not just self-serving) videos. 

Shopping carts, photo by H Assaf from stock.xchng.

Food Lion thinks shopping should be a "green" activity, but some don't agree with their methods.

Reactions 

When Food Lion first began construction on the store in July, Columbia news station WIS-TV posted an article online about the store’s groundbreaking and Food Lion’s plans for it. Readers responded to the article and several were upset that the store was being built from scratch, instead of moving into an existing building. John commented: 

what’s greener, a lot full of trees or a food lion strip mall?   

I know they want to expand business, everyone does. But in the end, they are polluting more with this store than they were without it. Yes, it’s better than having a store that creates even more pollution, but wouldn’t it be even better to replace a current store with a green store instead of just adding more to the mess? 

Five months later, negative comments toward Food Lion continue to appear. In a recent post about the new green store, Hanna Raskin of Slashfood recounted some of Food Lion’s past lawsuits, including one involving spoiled meat. Raskin went on to write about the grocery chain’s attempt to reposition itself in the eye of the public, but the post’s comments show that many readers continue to associate the brand with its past. Tony R. said: 

Almost as filthy as Winn Dixie. Their meats are awful. They don’t need to go green….they need to shut down. 

With a similar sentiment, Chewy posted: 

Food Lion has always been green…try their meat. 

Next steps 

Clearly, Food Lion is trying hard to show the public that it cares about the environment and wants to help its shoppers easily transition to a “green” lifestyle. However, it appears some the chain’s PR should be directed toward further polishing its image in areas outside sustainability. 

I think Food Lion has demonstrated some very innovative thinking in both its initiatives and promotions, but as usual in public relations, there is still more work to be done.

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B.L.T. sandwich from stock.xchng, taken by John Evans

Hellmann's or Miracle Whip: Which do you prefer on your B.L.T.?

Condiments were flying during the mayo and mayo-alternative food fight that ensued this week. Hellmann’s launched a holiday campaign emphasizing the product’s “real” ingredients. Meanwhile, Miracle Whip, the Kraft brand sandwich spread that prides itself on having more “zip” than mayo, was in a full-on war with Stephen Colbert over its “don’t be so mayo” commercials.

Hellmann’s campaign

I first heard about the Hellmann’s Real Holiday Helpings campaign when Bobby Flay tweeted from its launch event Friday (yes, although I feel nerdy admitting it, I do follow Bobby Flay on Twitter). The campaign involves videos of Flay creating dishes using mayo, holiday recipes, behind-the-scenes videos exclusive to Hellman’s fans on Facebook and a chance for consumers to win a year’s supply of groceries.

The idea of “real food” is a key message of the Real Holiday Helpings campaign. Flay’s videos feature him demonstrating how to make the five recipes he created using Hellmann’s products. He uses the phrase “it’s all real food” at least once in each video and explains that Hellmann’s is made of eggs, oil and vinegar. Each video ends with the Hellmann’s logo above the tagline “It’s Time for Real.”

Miracle Whip vs. Colbert

On October 15’s “Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert drew attention to Miracle Whip’s most recent commercials featuring the term “don’t be so mayo.” Colbert took great offense to the advertisements and proclaimed that he is pro-mayo, then showed his own spoof commercial for mayonnaise. Miracle Whip retaliated by taking out a full-page ad in various newspapers serving as an open letter to Colbert. The memo was written in a humorous tone and announced that Miracle Whip had purchased ads during every commercial break of Thursday’s “Colbert Report.”

Think about it, Mr. Colbert. In a sense, we will own you. We’re on a mission. We’re taking no prisoners. We’re raising Hell, man.

Miracle Whip proceeded to air several versions its commercials addressed to Colbert. One invited him to “come over to the other side where all is sweet and tangy.” Another explained the talk show host’s “vicious attack” on Miracle Whip to viewers:

During Thursday’s episode, Colbert addressed the situation:

Well Miracle Whip, I know when I’ve been bested. Thank you for buying ad time on my show because let’s face it. Revenue is down throughout the television industry and I could certainly use the money to buy more delicious mayonnaise.

Needless to say, fans of both products and of Colbert took stances on the issue and voiced their opinions online. Miracle Whip’s Facebook page wall is covered in comments (both negative and positive) about the Colbert feud. Chrissy Dunham wrote:

The marketing was pure genius all around! I never even paid attention to the add or took much stock into Colbert’s comments until Miracle Whip struck back! (By the way, the original adds were no where near as stupid some others I’ve seen recently.) And for those of you who think Colbert is somehow upset by such stupid …banter…Have you ever WATCHED his show? This is exactly the thing he thrives on! A tad idiotic, yet ultimately clever comebacks. It wouldn’t surprise me if they planned this stunt together – Either way, I thank you both Colbert and Miracle Whip for my fair share of entertainment this evening!

Battle for publicity

Though Hellmann’s holiday campaign launch is unattached to the Colbert/Miracle Whip feud, I believe it is somewhat related to Hellmann’s desire to compete with Miracle Whip in the mayo market. By getting a highly respected celebrity chef like Bobby Flay to endorse its products and by continuously pointing out that it uses all real ingredients (a jab at Miracle Whip?), Hellmann’s seems to be reminding consumers that it makes a superior product.

As for Miracle Whip, Thursday’s move was a creative and entertaining marketing stunt that fit its brand image well. Though it elicited many negative comments from consumers, it mostly drew attention to its product in a big way. Miracle Whip’s marketing team showed America how the spread differs from “boring” mayonnaise (implying Hellmann’s) and made it easy for fans of both products to take sides.

Perhaps Hellmann’s wasted their time hiring Bobby Flay… Stephen Colbert was willing to act as spokesman the entire time.

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American flag, photo from stock.xchng taken by Horton Group

Veterans Day is November 11.

In honor of Veterans Day this Wednesday, many restaurant chains are offering free food items to veterans and active duty personnel. In a recent USA Today article, Bruce Horovitz linked these holiday promotions to the past year’s decline in restaurant sales and a corresponding PR initiative.

Beyond simply showing appreciation for the vets’ service, the actions are about boosting brand image and business in one of the casual-dining industry’s worst-ever periods.

Since USA Today tied these promotions back to restaurants wanting to increase sales by improving their images, I decided to explore various Veterans Day restaurant offers and the PR efforts (if any) used to share them with the public.

Golden Corral

Golden Corral is holding its 9th annual Military Appreciation dinner on Monday, November 16 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Anyone who has ever served in the U.S. military will receive a free dinner that night. The event is being held the week after Veterans Day so it avoids conflicting with holiday activities.

Golden Corral has created a Web page with details and frequently asked questions about the event, as well as three PSA videos promoting the event starring Gary Sinise, Bo Derek and Collective Soul.

Krispy Kreme

Krispy Kreme is giving out free doughnuts to veterans and active military personnel on Veterans Day. The company issued a press release last Thursday to announce this promotion.

Outback Steakhouse

Outback Steakhouse is giving documented veterans and active military a free “Bloomin’ Onion” (aka: crazy fried goodness) and a beverage on Veterans Day. The chain has created a Web page and a video about this offer and is using its Facebook page to share both with its 110, 749 fans. Only 6 hours after Outback posted the video to its Facebook page, 565 people had “liked it” and 120 people had commented on it, which I find pretty impressive.

Applebee’s

Applebee’s is offering veterans and active duty military a free entrée from a list of six favorites on November 11. This is the first year for the promotion and Applebee’s has creatively used several media tools to help launch it. Applebee’s has devoted a special Web page to its Veterans Day promotions that lists the menu items vets can choose from and the type of military documentation needed to receive the offer.

The site also has links to social media portals like Twitter and Facebook that patrons can use to help spread the word about the promotion. Applebee’s also aired a TV commercial that is featured on its Veterans Day Web page and its ApplebeesVets YouTube channel.

One of the comments in response to Applebee’s commercial on YouTube is from monkeeanna and represents the many positive reactions veteran-honoring restaurants are receiving from customers.

Thank you so much Applebees.. my dad served 21 years in the airforce and am so proud of him. Thank you for putting your hand out and shaking the hand of those who keep this country FREE!

You earned so much respect in my book!!!

Other promotions

According to coupondivas.com, Ponderosa and Abuelo’s are also offering free meals to veterans on November 11, but neither restaurant has done much to announce it, as far as I can tell. There is no mention of promotions on either Web site, nor any found press releases. Consequently, both restaurants were excluded from USA Today’s list.

This is first-hand proof that time spent promoting offers and events leads to media coverage. Golden Corral, Krispy Kreme, Outback Steakhouse and Applebee’s all created press releases, Web pages and/or videos announcing their Veterans Day promotions and all earned mentions in USA Today, in addition to other articles and posts.

Thank you, veterans! Enjoy your free crazy fried goodness.

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Delicious-looking tomatoes, photo from stock.xchng taken by Jarsem

Hunt's wants to be considered when your tomatoes stop looking this fresh.

While watching Alton Brown make amazing-looking beer cheese bread on “Good Eats” last week, I saw a commercial for Hunt’s tomatoes featuring other Food Network personality George Duran. It caught my eye because not only was it promoting Hunt’s products in a somewhat amusing way, it was also promoting an integrated marketing campaign.

The idea

Similar to the campaign featured in my potato post, Hunt’s is also trying to show consumers the more versatile side of a vegetable (fruit?). Just in time for fall and winter weather, Hunt’s is positioning its “FlashSteamed” canned tomatoes as the perfect substitute for garden-fresh ones. To emphasize this, Hunt’s has hired a celebrity spokesperson, created recipes using the product and sponsored a contest. All align with its Crash Kitchen Tour campaign.

The spokesperson

Chef George Duran, who has hosted several shows on the Food Network and written a cookbook, is now using his sense of humor, expertise and quirky take on food to promote Hunt’s tomatoes. In addition to starring in the commercial, Duran also created recipes using Hunt’s products that are featured on both the brand’s Web site and in a YouTube video hosted by the chef. Duran was also a key component to the contest discussed below and he regularly uses his Twitter account to tweet about his work for Hunt’s. Basically, there would be no campaign without Duran.

The contest

October 6 was the deadline to enter to become one of 1,000 Hunt’s-sponsored party hosts. Hunt’s asked winners to host a “Backyard Garden Fresh Party” in their own homes on October 24 and share their experiences on a site called House Party. Two party hosts won the grand prize of having George Duran “crash” their parties. He helped them cook one of his recipes featuring Hunt’s tomato products.

Hunt’s sent “party packs” with coupons, a Hunt’s logo apron, recipes and party ideas to all 1,000 hosts. House Party allowed hosts from all over the country to post pictures, comments and videos from their parties to one page. The idea was for consumers to throw a garden-inspired party in any type of weather. This ties back to the brand’s key message that canned tomatoes can be enjoyed any time of the year.

The effort

I think this campaign had some brilliant ideas. George Duran’s YouTube video and commercial draws attention to Hunt’s products. The contest got food-lovers thinking about Hunt’s and its key messages. The use of House Party was very creative and the page now serves as documentation of many happy Hunt’s consumers and their parties. The campaign even utilized other social media tools with Duran’s tweets and a Facebook page.

However, I’m not sure these ideas were promoted in the most effective ways. For instance, I was able to find exactly one press release on the campaign, and it was not on the Hunt’s site nor on the site of its parent company, ConAgra Foods. I may not have all the information, but it appears to me that promotion for this campaign was done at the last minute. Even the brand’s Facebook page seems like it was only created a month ago with the sole purpose of providing materials from the campaign.

Although I think the brand’s PR team could have done a better job promoting the campaign, I still think it is a pretty successful one. It does a great job of incorporating many different media elements while inspiring consumers to think creatively about their food.

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The Louvre

The Louvre museum in Paris

I’ve never been to Paris, but when I think of the Louvre, I imagine soaking up culture while looking at the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo and now… the golden arches? At the beginning of this month, McDonald’s announced it is opening a restaurant in the Louvre. The news has since caused some controversy.

Online Discussion

Comments in reply to posts and articles began popping up both for and strongly against this decision. One reader, Morgan65, posted a comment to an article on NYDailyNews.com:

This must be a joke! With all the wonderful cafés inside the Louvre serving delicious, reasonably priced, and healthy fare, why would anyone want to eat the garbage McDonald’s produces?

Another reader, ElJodon, disagreed with anti-McDonald’s comments like Morgan65’s:

Oh please, get over it. It’s just commerce at work. It the French were not eating McDonald’s then a franchise would not be opening there just like the other 1,135 already in France. Everything in moderation. A burger once in a while is not the end of the world.

PR Perspective

An article about this story appeared on Fast Company‘s Web site, in which Kate Rockwood mentioned the opposition Starbucks met last year when it opened a store outside the Louvre. There was even a petition. This makes me curious to see what will happen between now and the day McDonald’s opens in the museum next month.

The story has already caused many people to speak out against the fast food giant, and I have to think McDonald’s could have handled the situation better from a PR perspective. As far as I can tell, company representatives have not been speaking out a lot about their decision to move into the Louvre. Though journalists, bloggers and other commentators have brought up points in defense of McDonald’s, I can’t even find as much as a company-issued press release on the topic.

Desserts at a McDonald's in Paris. Photo by Larry Mendel.

The dessert display at a McDonald's already in Paris. Yes, that is cheesecake.

I’m not sure if McDonald’s is monitoring what consumers are saying about it, or if it’s just such a large corporation that it doesn’t even bother; but if I were working for its PR team, I would want to get involved in the conversation. I’ve found in researching this story that many of the people opposed to the McDonald’s in the Louvre are not French, but American.

I think the McDonald’s image would improve if its representatives articulated some of the differences between French and American McDonald’s stores. Though the McDonald’s franchises in France don’t exactly serve gourmet cuisine, they tend to be a bit classier than the ones in the U.S. Perhaps consumers would find McDonald’s more fitting for the Louvre if they were made aware? 

…OK, so maybe telling Americans they are missing out on the fancy French McDonald’s cheesecake isn’t the best way to change the minds of people against the Louvre location, but I do think McDonald’s should be doing something.

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Paula Deen at her kids' cooking demo during last year's festival

Food Network star Paula Deen engaged kids during a cooking demo at last year's festival.

Even in today’s economy, people will pay large sums of money when promised great food and celebrity sightings. This was proven this past weekend at the second annual Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival. The festival featured more than 100 events over four days. Events ranged from cooking demonstrations and wine tastings to book signings and live interviews with celebrity chefs like Paula Deen and Giada De Laurentiis.

Giving Back

Though tickets for each event spanned from $10 to $500, ticket buyers had a reason to feel good about spending the money. All net proceeds from the festival went to the Food Bank for New York City and Share Our Strength, which help feed underprivileged New Yorkers and American children, respectively.

Social Media

The NYC Wine & Food Festival promoters used social media tools to their advantage in the execution of this year’s festival. Here are some of the ways they did this:

  • Facebook users can become fans of the festival on its Facebook page, which posted news and updates leading up to this year’s event.
  • Festival Founder and Director Lee Schrager uses his own Twitter account to update followers on both this festival and its sister event, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Schrager tweeted live from New York throughout the festival weekend, as did the Food Bank for New York City and celebrities like Katie Lee Joel and Bobby Flay.
  • All weekend, people could follow the festival in real time using Twitter’s hashtag feature (by searching #nycwff).
  • On Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., “prominent NYC food bloggers” were invited to New York hotel The Standard (A.K.A. festival headquarters) to interview chefs.
The 2009 NYC Wine & Food Festival took place October 8-11.

The 2009 NYC Wine & Food Festival took place October 8-11.

Journalists Welcome

Festival organizers put a lot of effort into attracting media coverage of the event. They began distributing press releases six months prior to the festival, updating journalists at each point of development. In order to attend the event, accredited media members had to register and request press tickets. By issuing tickets and controlling which media outlets covered various events, the festival committee made it easier to monitor press coverage of the event.

Wise Promotion

Events are always great opportunities to promote an organization, and the NYC Wine & Food Festival was able to draw positive attention to more than just the Food Network. Because the event was successful, credible and philanthropic, its sponsors (Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure magazines), the organizations it benefited and participating celebrities all had something to gain from a PR perspective.

In addition to sending out press releases and allowing journalists to cover the event, the festival organizers were conscious of the impact social media has on the public. The festival utilized tools like Facebook, Twitter and blogs to gain free publicity and make the event an interactive experience.

I have the very ambitious goal of attending the NYC Wine & Food Festival next year (time and income permitting). But no matter if I’m following the festivities from home or tweeting live from the event, I can’t wait to see what new promotional tactics the festival’s organizers come up with for 2010.

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