Grocers Lead Kids To Produce Aisle With Junk Food-Style Marketing

Aug 25, 2014
Originally published on August 29, 2014 4:09 pm

Despite all the cheerleading for healthy eating, Americans still eat only about 1 serving of fruit per day, on average. And our veggie consumption, according to an analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls short, too.

So, with the back-to-school season underway and families thinking about what to pack in the lunch box, grocers are hoping to entice young consumers and their parents to the produce aisle by creating new, kid-focused snacking sections.

Giant Eagle is in the process of installing the go-to kid sections in about 200 stores in the mid-Atlantic and Ohio. And Walmart is piloting the concept in 30 stores in California, with plans to roll it out to 1,500 stores later this fall.

Bolthouse Farms, the food company that rolled out the successful extreme baby carrot campaign, is behind the effort.

The company has been developing products such as pureed fruit tubes that kids can suck and slurp, all-fruit smoothies and bags of baby carrots called Veggie Snackers that come with pouches of bright-colored, bold-flavored seasonings.

When kids open the package and shake in the seasoning, the carrots take on some of the characteristics of chips like Doritos. "They give you that crunch and flavor," says Jeff Dunn, CEO of Bolthouse. "You're going to lick your fingers, and get that same sensory [experience] you get with salty snacks."

Dunn, a former Coca-Cola executive, is borrowing a lot of the marketing and design tactics used in the soda and snack industries to drive up demand in the healthy snacks business.

And many grocery retailers are eager to get in on the action. Laura Karet, CEO of Giant Eagle, says when she was first pitched the kid-focused destination in her stores' produce aisles, she thought, "This is a win-win."

"When I go into the produce section," Karet says, "there's not quite as much going on for [kids] compared to, say, the cereal aisle or the candy shelves."

And she's hoping the new approach will make the produce section pop for more kids. The price point, at $3.99 for multi-packs of Fruit Tubes and Veggie Snackers, is competitive, too.

"I think the kid-friendly snacking stations are an absolutely fascinating concept," says David Just, a behavioral economist at Cornell University. Telling kids what they should eat is not very effective, he says. "They're not concerned about beta-carotene, or what diseases they might get when they're 50. They're much more in the moment."

So, promoting carrots that taste, well, close to a Dorito and are packaged in a funky, playful way? Yep, this might be the kind of strategy that works.

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Despite all the efforts to promote healthy eating in recent years Americans still only eat on average about one serving of fruit each day and less than half of the recommended amount of vegetables. So as families prepare for back-to-school and thoughts turn to lunchboxes, some grocery chains are making a new effort to entice families into the produce aisle. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Think baby carrots. They're everywhere. And if you want to know how they got so popular you got to talk to Jeff Dunn. He used to be a top executive at Coca-Cola, but several years back he left and decided to try something new. He and his marketing buddies looked around a typical grocery store produce aisle.

JEFF DUNN: Well, we said it was boring. (Laughter) You know.

AUBREY: And he saw lots of potential to drive up sales of fresh produce and get kids to eat healthy by using the marketing tactics he learned in the soda industry. So he created a Mountain Dew-style ad-campaign for baby carrots.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Brought to you by a bunch of carrot farmers.

AUBREY: The ads are full of fast-paced adventure. In this ad, carrots shoot from a cannon.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Cowabunga. Baby carrots.

AUBREY: And Dunn says the strategy has worked. His company, Bolthouse Farms, has seen sales of fresh carrots - which were flat four years ago - start growing.

DUNN: So we've been able to turn that trend around really through marketing efforts. So it shows that marketing works.

AUBREY: Since then, more and more healthy products aimed at kids have started appearing on the shelves. There are brightly colored, all-fruit smoothies with wacky characters on the bottle, squishy tubes of pureed fruit and yogurt that you can slurp. And now in order to get to the next level, Dunn has another idea. He wants to give kids their own go-to destination in the grocery store, their own section really filled entirely with products that are healthy and presented in funky ways. He's been working with retailers - including Walmart and Giant Eagle - to reorganize their produce aisles. And his company's been developing new products to help draw kids in.

PETER DEICHMAN BIRMINGHAM: Those are cool. I like the smoothies. This is awesome.

AUBREY: That's Peter Deichman Birmingham. He's 18. Not really kid anymore, but he's lasered in on the latest version of baby carrots. It's not just bag of carrots, nope. They come with a little pouch of colorful, chili-lime seasoning that you can shake onto the carrots. They're spicy, crunchy and have that flavor that sticks to your fingers. Not quite Doritos, but close. Middle schooler Alex Goley gets it.

ALEX: They kind of taste better than, like, any other vegetable.

AUBREY: Alex's mom, Rhonda Goley, says bringing junk-food tactics to the healthy stuff makes sense.

RHONDA GOLEY: Absolutely, because I think it's something that just kind of adds a little more fun to eating it.

AUBREY: David Just of Cornell University, who studies what motivates people to eat better, agrees. Despite concerns about marketing to kids, this combination of making healthy products fun and bringing them all together is spot on.

DAVID JUST: Yes. I think the kid-friendly stacking stations are an absolutely fascinating concept.

AUBREY: It's what the cereal aisles and candy shelves have been doing for decades, but...

JUST: This is a tactic and a tool that really hasn't been used to promote healthier foods.

AUBREY: Until now. And if it works, Just says, kids might be dragging their parents to hit the produce aisle. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.