Sunday, February 1, 2009

Sunkist - category and brand builder

When thinking about brands and oranges, of course the name Sunkist pops into mind. How did that brand come into being and be such a dominant name in citrus?? Well, doing a little research (and I have Douglas Cazaux Sackman, author of Orange Empire to thank), I uncovered some fascinating information.

Sunkist was a pioneer of category & brand building through integrated marketing. Once upon a time the orange was considered a luxury, something given as a cherished gift at Christmas time. Using innovative marketing techniques, Sunkist was able to turn the orange from luxury to daily consumable, and eventually, into one of the most recognized brands in the world.

Who is behind the Sunkist brand? It’s actually a cooperative of citrus growers from California and Arizona that was formed in 1893. Like most cooperatives, it was established to strengthen the power and improve the efficiency & profitability of producers. What made Sunkist unique was the vision and creativity of its marketing team which created a culture of orange consumption, built new markets and stimulated demand for the fruit.

The Sunkist orange was positioned as a product that provided the curative health benefits of vitamin c and the vitality, romance and restorative benefits of the California Eden-like environment. The theme of health and vitality was used consistently in advertising for decades. Educational narratives simultaneously raised fears of dietary deficiencies and offered the orange as a solution. The orange was deemed important for children and babies for the development of sturdy bones and strong teeth, packaged in a “germ-proof container”. The vitamin c inherent in an orange, it was claimed, played an important role in controlling fevers, pneumonia, flu and the common cold. Sunkist cultivated relationships with doctors and happily, they reinforced the message that oranges were needed every day to maintain good health.

Sunkist was also a leader in the science of marketing, using consumer insights and demographic data to shape their copy and campaigns. As early as 1916 they conducted consumer surveys door-to-door. By 1926, they pioneered ethnographic research, going into the homes of 15,000 homemakers to understand their beliefs and behaviors. They took these insights and integrated them into demographic data mapping and market segmentation charts.

Experts in integrated marketing, they understood the importance of creating brand impressions and reaching the consumer both in and out-of-store. They had a field marketing team that created alliances with retail chains, restaurants, hotels and soda fountain shops. They taught retailers how to create impactful and carefully arranged displays in shop windows and in the grocery aisle. As early as 1916, they had millions of pieces of marketing collateral in over 900 cities across the United States.

Prior to a major shipment of navel oranges, Sunkist would dominate a city visually with outdoor billboards, streetcar cards and window displays. These well-planned “campaigns” would also be supported with advertising in magazines and eventually through radio when that medium for advertising was made available in the late 1920’s.

Sunkist also found ways to engage with the consumer. They created poetry and essay contests, premiums and promotions. In exchange for six Sunkist wrappers, one could receive a silver spoon. Contests encouraged consumers to write about why they used the orange. Recipe books were published and distributed for free. Sunkist managed to get into school curriculum with text books, wall charts and colouring books that told the story of the orange. Pamphlets heralding the benefits of the orange were distributed through doctor’s offices.

The folks at Sunkist were motivated by what they believed was a societal mission to enhance people’s daily lives. Advertising became the vehicle by which they could spread their message and educate people about the health benefits of the orange.

After decades of consistent messaging, Sunkist achieved its goal of creating a daily habit of consuming an orange a day – whether by the juice or by eating the fruit whole. The Sunkist orange was of the highest quality, without blemish and uniform in size. In fact, when a severe frost in 2007 impacted the quality of the citrus crop, Sunkist sold the fruit to retailers under another trademark, “Pure Gold”, rather than risk tarnishing the brand’s reputation

Sunkist has become a global brand with its recognizable trademark on over 600 products in more than 45 countries. The brand’s halo of health and quality has been extended to many products, from orange juice to sodas and from vitamins to fruit snacks.

So what’s next for Sunkist? How do they plan to keep the brand fresh and relevant to the evolving consumer? How do they grow? How much further can they stretch the brand?

Linking it back to the brand principles of “The Essential Orange”:

Is it differentiated?

- Certainly everyone knows the benefits of the orange, but are consumers, especially younger consumers, seeking out the Sunkist brand and willing to pay a premium?

- How important is the connection to California. Can Sunkist risk extending its name and import citrus produce from Mexico or China, especially given recent food safety issues associated with these countries?

Are there functional and intangible benefits?

- One sees little Sunkist orange advertising – as opposed to that of the line extensions. How long can the brand live off the halo cast by decades of investment in quality, health and freshness messaging?

- Is the brand over-extended into packaged goods and other perishables like almonds and raisins? Are these accretive or dilutive to the brand?

Is it “green”?

- Will the pursuit of perfection, likely achieved through pesticides and non-organic farming methods, become less relevant to consumers looking for a healthful product as defined by farming practices versus aesthetics?

Is it engaging?

- One sees little advertising or promotions around Sunkist oranges.

- The website offer information on their history and recipes. There’s an interactive section for kids, but there isn’t a blog or an opportunity for people to engage with the brand directly

- Sunkist does have a cause-marketing campaign called “Take a Stand” that encourages kids 7-12 to raise money for charities by selling lemonade. Sunkist provides a complimentary lemonade stand to help kids with their efforts. Created in 2003, kids participating in the program have raised over $2.3 million. It’s a great program but how much brand equity does a program like this give the brand?

Interesting questions for the brand to ponder. Please share your thoughts.


  1. I want to know if sunkist uses pesticide, but I cant find any info.

  2. right on their website, they state they use Herbacides. NOT ORGANIC! Watch this video to see Mother Nature at work keeping pests away with WAX!

  3. Gah the link didn't get posted, try again