Baby carrots aren’t actually “baby carrots.” They’re cut carrots that were originally “seconds,” carrots that were too small or deformed to meet supermarket standards. One day Mike Yorosek , a carrot grower, had the clever idea of peeling and cutting them, putting them in a bag, and seeing if they would sell. (“Bunny balls,” his other idea, never caught on.) The rest is history.
Lately, things have gotten tough in the carrot business.
With the recession, people started spending less overall, and when spending picked up again, people bought less-expensive whole carrots. These end up in refrigerator purgatory – the vegetable drawer – where they’re not eaten. So while people HAVE carrots, they don’t eat them, and the carrot industry suffers.
Jeff Dunn, who until recently oversaw Coca-Cola’s North and South American operations, is the CEO of Bolthouse, one of two big growers in the North American carrot market. Faced with flat sales, Jeff is setting out on an aggressive new campaign and he’s totally ignoring all the “benefits” of his product. He’s not trying to market carrots as a better, healthier alternative to junk food; he’s trying to market carrots AS a junk food…catchy Cheetos-like mascot, crinkly packaging and all.
What can we learn from this carrot marketing fable?
A lot is made in the poverty-alleviation space of how we overlook and ignore the voice and the preferences of the beneficiaries of our work. Well-intentioned, we talk to people about health benefits, about money saved and doctors’ trips averted and days in school, all the while ignoring that this isn’t how you market anything well. Rich people buy shampoo because of a sense of aspiration, belonging, a story they’re telling about themselves to themselves and to others – why oh why would poor people think or act any differently? “Benefits” don’t sell.
This is happening for one of two reasons:
- Ivory tower development practitioners don’t respect the poor, think of them as inanimate beneficiaries, and so practitioners don’t take real needs and aspirations into account.
- Ivory tower development practitioners are crappy marketers.
(let’s leave aside, for now, that we need a whole lot less ivory tower and a whole lot more people from and of the communities being served).
It’s easy to tell the story of disrespect, but it might be that the people pushing hand-washing, bednets and solar-powered lanterns simply don’t have the same marketing chops as the folks in Atlanta (Coke).
It’s about time we look seriously at what products, outside of alcohol and tobacco, are being successfully marketed to the poor: cellphones, obviously, and mobile payments; maybe Lifebouey soap or microloans or kerosene (yes, kerosene too.)
It’s time to understand what sells and WHY, and it’s time to take the notion seriously that one of the best things we could do to make a positive impact is to get better at selling things – even free things – to people who need them. It’s time to take seriously the notion of BUILDING markets, and not just building solutions. And any efforts that lead with “it’s good for you” had better end up on the cutting room floor.