Ad man Albert Lasker pumped up demand for California, or Sunkist, oranges

Saturday, November 13, 2010; 11:47 PM

In the early years of the 20th century, California's orange growers faced a double-edged problem: ever-increasing production and flat demand. This gave them a weak bargaining position with the Southern Pacific railroad, and ensured years of low - or no - profitability.

After a false start in 1904, the California Fruit Growers Exchange hired ad agency Lord & Thomas in 1907 to try and pump up demand for oranges. This wasn't easy. Most Americans didn't know much about citrus fruits, and certainly didn't know the difference between California and Florida oranges. CFGE consisted of about 2,000 fiercely independent growers, each with their own brand. What, exactly, could ad man Albert Lasker sell?

The first answer lay in a brand. Lord & Thomas proposed that all the growers in the CFGE collaborative subordinate their separate brands to a single, unified brand: Sunkist. It was a made-up word that lent itself to both marketing and trademarking.

The second answer lay in gimmicks such as premiums. One promotion involving spoons was so successful that CFGE became the biggest seller of flatware in the world.

The third answer lay in the promotion of a "revolutionary" new product: the juice of an orange. By teaching consumers how to squeeze juice from oranges, and by providing different kinds of juicers for that purpose, Lasker created a new use for oranges that increased the fruit's consumption per serving in the United States from half an orange to between two and three oranges.

Lord & Thomas subsequently did the same for raisins - pushing the Sun-Maid brand - and lemons - selling lemon pie, lemon in tea, lemon garnishes and lemon juice as a hair rinse.

In a consumer revolution - as Lasker well understood - the challenge lies as much in education as in persuasion.

- Jeffrey L. Cruikshank

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