Potatoes took a beating during the low-carb craze.
Any way you cut it or cook it, potatoes - along with bread and pasta - got the cold shoulder from an overweight America desperate to shed a few pounds.
"We got slammed by the perfect storm of low-carb diets," including Atkins and The South Beach Diet, says Fleishman-Hillard VP Amy Kull. In the first quarter of 2004, companies introduced 586 low-carb products, compared with 633 in all of 2003. And the media wrote nearly 4,000 stories on the topic during that time.
The Potato Board felt many of those articles contained erroneous information and that the media failed to balance the low-carb stories with nutritional information about potatoes.
"We had a fantastic health story to tell," adds Kull. "We needed to reframe the discussion and talk about the positive benefits of potatoes."
Initial research showed that people underestimated the nutritional value of potatoes, including that they are rich sources of Vitamin C and potassium, and are low in calories. Many thought the information was too good to be true and only believed it when backed up by the Food and Drug Administration. "We knew we had to get that [FDA] label and nutritional information in front of people," says Linda McCashion, the Potato Board's VP of PR.
The key was to make the messaging not look like a knee-jerk reaction to the popularity of low-carb diets, says Kull. The strategy was to avoid mentioning them altogether to avoid giving them any more publicity. "A lot of our constituents wanted us to go head-to-head with the low-carb diets, to say why these diets were bad," says Kull. "We felt focusing on the nutritional benefits was a better approach.
The campaign also emphasized the FDA's nutrition label for potatoes and healthy ways to prepare them.
Fleishman approached the campaign as if the potato were a new product. The agency recommended a limited print advertising buy to develop interest, with ads featuring the FDA labels and endorsements by leading nutritional experts running in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today. The Potato Board also sponsored programming on National Public Radio in Washington, DC.
Press outreach was done at the same time as the ad launch, using registered dieticians as spokespeople to answer media inquiries and to write letters to newspapers.
The Potato Board's website was also revamped and given a new address to reflect the campaign: www.healthypotato.com.
The board launched a partnership with Weight Watchers, with the potato as the first produce item highlighted in its "Pick of the Season" program. Weight Watchers' website also touted the nutritional benefits of potatoes, and the partnership was featured in the company's magazine, at its meetings, and in retail-store displays.
The campaign generated coverage in The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, and major daily newspapers. Traffic to the board's website doubled, and more than 250,000 people requested "The Healthy Potato Brochure."
The board also measured consumer opinions for February 2005 versus February 2004. The survey found that 33% agreed that potatoes are good for the health conscious, up from 29% the previous year. And 31% held negative attitudes toward the nutritional value of potatoes, down from 35%. Plus 86% said they had served potatoes at home within the past seven days, compared to 82% a year ago.
Upcoming campaigns will focus on obesity, particularly among children, as well as on teaching consumers how to read nutrition labels.
PR team: US Potato Board (Denver) and Fleishman-Hillard (Sacramento)
Campaign: The Healthy Potato
Time frame: February to November 2004
Budget: $800,000 (not including advertising)