OVER A NEW LEAF
CHANGE FROM 'PRUNE' TO 'DRIED PLUM' PROVING FRUITFUL
by Jason Zasky
Today, almost every business wants to project a youthful image,
and in the process attract a younger audience. Case in point is
Pepsi, whose latest ad campaign features the 20-year-old megastar,
Britney Spears, delivering song and dance routines punctuated by,
"Pepsi: For Those Who Think Young." In more and more businesses
the support of a young demographic is necessary just to remain competitive.
Recently, Ted Koppel and Nightline was nearly bumped off
by The Late Show with David Letterman, even though Koppel’s
program maintains a larger viewing audience.
plums of tomorrow
For the prune
industry it was obvious entering the 21st century that the current
youth-driven climate represented a threat to its growth prospects.
After all, a fruit best known for promoting regularity among senior
citizens simply wasn’t in step with the times. During the past two
years, the prune has been undergoing a full-scale makeover, emerging
with a new image and a new name—the dried plum.
of the Prune
Companies have long used fiber and regularity as selling points
for certain products. And, for a long time, that message worked
particularly well for prunes. "If you go back to the 1940s and ’50s
some of the brands were advertising the medicinal properties of
prunes," reminds Richard Peterson, executive director of the California
Dried Plum Board, an agricultural marketing association that works
to expand demand for dried plums.
The fruit solidified
its reputation with a mid-’80s advertising campaign that championed
prunes as ‘the high-fiber fruit.’ At the time, bran cereals were
touting the health benefits of a high fiber diet, in part because
of Ronald Reagan’s public battle with colon cancer. "We positioned
ourselves as a better tasting alternative to bran cereals," continues
Peterson. "And it worked. During the ’80s we had unprecedented gains
in domestic shipments. We had a claim that was supportable and believable
and the timing was right." However, when interest in fiber waned
the campaign ceased to be effective and prune sales began a long,
In response, the industry began commissioning studies to help
figure out how to re-position prunes to consumers. According to
Adel Kader, professor of post-harvest physiology at the University
of California Davis’ Department of Pomology, "those studies indicated
that younger generations were reluctant to eat prunes because they
associated them with being old. However, [the studies also indicated
that] if they were marketed as dried plums the likelihood of the
younger generations eating them increased."
As a result,
the California Prune Board began lobbying the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) to officially change the name, and in June of 2000 the Board
received permission from the FDA to use ‘dried plums’ as an alternative
to ‘prunes.’ Shortly afterwards the board followed suit and re-named
itself the California Dried Plum Board.
indicated that younger generations were reluctant to eat prunes
because they associated them with being old."
"There’s a perception
that the prune is not good but with dried plums people say, ‘Hey,
this a new product and it’s fantastic,’" says Wilbur Reil, farm
advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension.
"We didn’t go
into this blindly," says Peterson. "We had done some good research
and seventy percent of consumers preferred the name dried plums."
The change begs the question, What’s the difference between a prune
and dried plum? The answer sounds vaguely reminiscent of an SAT
question. According to the [former] California Prune Board’s Buyer’s
Guide, "by definition, a prune is a dried plum. All prunes are plums
but not all plums are prunes."
"There are two
species of plums," elaborates Kader. "There’s the Japanese plums,
which are mostly consumed fresh, and then there’s European plums,
the majority of which are dried. The dried European plums equal
prunes while the dried Japanese plums are usually just called dried
percent of the dried plums grown in California are of the French
(European) variety. Formerly referred to as the California French
prune, this is the type you are most likely to purchase in an American
While it was easy to garner industry-wide support for the name change,
the transition from prunes to dried plums brought to light concerns
about confusing loyal consumers. "We agreed for the first two years
after the conversion packages would carry both names—California
prunes and dried plums—in either order. It didn’t matter as long
as both were on the principal display panel of retail packages,"
also presented a few unavoidable logistical problems. "As you know,
it takes a while for the old packaging to make its way through the
system, and to get new graphics developed, printed and then online,"
continues Peterson. "It wasn’t until nine months ago or so that
we had major packers with products on shelves that said ‘dried plums’."
2003 consumers will begin to see product labeled solely as ‘dried
plums.’ In the meantime, the emphasis placed on prunes versus dried
plums may vary from product to product and packer to packer.
prunes are plums but not all plums are prunes."
Howard Nager, vice president of North America marketing for Sunsweet—which
sells 80,000 tons of dried plums a year in 40 countries around the
world—"we have a stronger presence for pitted prunes on the front
of packages that are targeted to our core consumer (men and women
aged 60 years plus). These are people who have been eating prunes
for many years and we don’t want to confuse them."
has taken a different approach for its new flavored products. "We
have a line of essence flavored dried plums—Lemon Essence, Orange
Essence and Cherry Essence. On those you don’t see the word ‘prunes’
except on the ingredients statement," informs Nager.
Meanwhile, the industry has worked hard to update the prune’s public
image. "For many years it was advertised as a laxative," recalls
Nager. "What we’re trying to present today isn’t a whole lot different.
We may not be using the word regularity, and we’re certainly not
using the word laxative, but we are promoting the benefits," he
First and foremost
among those benefits is that dried plums are high in antioxidants.
In a nutshell, antioxidants are compounds that neutralize cellular
damage and may help lower the risk of cancer. "Two years ago we
were number one in a Tufts University study which measured the antioxidant
power of 40 popular fruits and vegetables," notes Peterson.
have also been touting the convenience factor, a commonly used selling
point in the packaged food industry. "It’s portable and with 13
essential vitamins and minerals it’s for people that are on the
go and looking for a healthy snack," adds Nager.
It’s also not unusual for industries to market their products differently
in different countries. In this case, the dried plum industry limited
the name change to the United States. After all, in most European
nations—especially France, Germany, Italy and Scandinavia—the prune
is very much a part of consumer diets.
the U.S. the prune has a very positive image," notes Peterson. "In
Japan many people refer to it as the miracle fruit because of its
health attributes. The only place we had a problem was the United
States, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom."
a very tasty fruit. I don’t know why people shy away from eating
it because of the name."
Of course, the
prune isn’t the first commodity product to undergo a name change
and makeover. In the 1960s, the Chinese Gooseberry was successfully
repositioned as the Kiwifruit—and Kiwi eventually became the internationally
"One of the
major benefits of the name change is that it’s more descriptive
about what the product actually is. You’d be surprised how many
consumers who are already consuming the product don’t know where
a prune comes from," claims Peterson.
Of course, the bottom line is how all this re-positioning impacts
sales. Early indications are that the change is having the desired
effect. "Last year dried plum sales were up five percent over a
year ago. That was good because we were looking at a domestic market
that had been declining," says Peterson. "Most of our product is
consumed by people over the age of 60 and as that group diminishes
we have to replace our heavy users. That’s why we began focusing
on a younger target audience."
not ignoring our current customer," says Nager. "But like just about
every other packaged goods company, we’re looking at the baby boomer—typically
women from 35-54."
Nager also echoes
Peterson’s economic outlook: "What we’re seeing is a slower decline
in sales," he says. "Certainly, that first year when the media was
covering the name change there was a definite spike. Now that things
have settled down a bit what we’re seeing is a slower decline. It
slowed the momentum on the train going downhill. That has to happen
first before sales turn around and begin increasing."
In the meantime,
almost everyone is convinced that the name change is a good strategy.
"We realized the importance of trying to create a positive image
around this fruit," says Nager. "We all felt—not only at Sunsweet,
but as an industry—that this was the way to go. We’re glad we had
the opportunity to legally call the prune what it really is—a dried
Kader is still incredulous that a new moniker was necessary: "It’s
a very tasty fruit. I don’t know why people shy away from eating
it because of the name."
(Official site of the California Dried Plum Board)