Carrots and marketing to the poor

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.

Image courtesy of Fast Company Magazine - Still life by Jamie Chung

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

12 thoughts on “Carrots and marketing to the poor

  1. Absolutely! A friend of mine tells a story about having worked in a fancy bakery and taking the left-overs home at the end of the day. A guy approached her and asked for a dollar to buy a hot dog. She offered him one of her delicious spinach-artichoke-feta croissants (thinking she was doing him a big favor giving him something SO much better than a hot dog) and he said, “No thanks, I really just want a hot dog.” That was twenty five years ago and she still tells the story as a big ah-ha moment. We can’t just TELL people what they should want or what’s good for them … in our personal relationships or when fighting poverty.

  2. Spot on. This is exactly what Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and the Jameel-Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) are doing with a lot of their studies. This TED talk by Sendhil Mullainathan explains how researchers are using the new theories of behavioral economics to figure out how to sell things to the poor, and using rigorous evaluations to test these theories.

    Great introductions can also be found in 2 new books:

  3. Listen to the customer know your customer evacuate the air conditioned office if you gonna succed in serving or marketing to any customer. How much more do we need to know a customer who has a different income and culture. Great points. A Western charity model doesn’t work in social enterprises. Maybe we should say do good market well.

  4. Insightful. To have a market, we need a product. The question then is just how to ‘productize’ poverty or volunteering. (I know that sounds awful, but if it contributes to society’s improvement…)

  5. This is so sad. As a marketer, I get it. You have to tell the story. People buy stories, not products. But do we really have to dumb everything down to cartoon graphics and shiny plastic bags? As marketers, we have the responsibility of shaping the stories of our culture. Take this responsibility seriously. Is this what we think of ourselves? We’ll only eat carrots if we’re tricked into thinking they’re junk food? Ugh… we’re better than this.

  6. Sorry guys, I know I’m a little late to the convo, but I just had to say Jenn, my thoughts exactly. It’s almost a slap to the face to have something marketed to us so desperately. It’s not giving people any sort of respect and this is the type of marketing that only dumbs down and cheapens our society. Hopefully consumers, as a culture, will understand and refuse to be ‘bought’ like that. Junk food is bad enough, but turning everything into junk food just because it sells is disgusting.

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