PROMOTION OF SPICES IN THE UNITED STATES: A CASE STUDY

by Peter Furth
Executive Vice President
American Spice Trade Association, Inc.

Presented to the
Third Meeting of the
International Spice Group International
Trade Centre - UNCTAD/GATT
November 1991

Today, I will try to give you an insider's view of what we at the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) consider to be a very successful public relations program. ASTA has had such a program since 1938. The program began at a time when our industry was concerned that a decline in spice consumption might cause the demise of the industry. Today, nothing could be further from the truth. Our consumption continues to grow, and we believe that the United States spice industry is facing a bright future. We also believe that one reason we have a bright future is the long term commitment we have made to our Public Relations program, along with our long-standing relationship with our public relations agency, Lewis and Neale, Inc.

We get a large return on our investment from this program. Today, ASTA spends about US$225,000 on its Public Relations Program. Since our industry's sales are estimated to be about US$2 billion per year, this means that we are spending only about one hundredth of 1% of every sales dollar on industry wide promotion of spices. This is in contrast to the avocado industry which spends US$4.3 million on sales of US$400 million or the Florida tomato industry which spends US$1.6 million on sales of US$600 million.

Our Public Relations Program is really a collection of various programs. Expenditures to support the retail segment of the industry are US$55,000. US$37,000 is allocated to the food service sector, US$50,000 to the industrial sector, US$20,000 to our important Information Bureau, and another US$35,000 is used for the miscellaneous costs of keeping the program running, as well as answering special editorial opportunities which come our way.

This past year, we also spent US$28,000 on Columbus anniversary projects. This allowed us to ride the coattails of a big media event, giving us a lot of extra promotional mileage. The Spice Adventures map is one example of our Columbus anniversary projects.

Of course, we always ask ourselves the question, "are we spending enough?". In many ways, the overall answer is always that we are not spending enough on public relations. But we are spending our money very wisely and efficiently within our limits. And we do make sure to get the most for our dollars at all times.

Because of our set-up, we do not pay for space and time in the media. Therefore, our US$225,000 expenditure generates tremendous exposure for the spice industry in the United States. For example, in 1990, we generated a total of over US$350 million media impacts.

We are often asked, "how do we know the true impact of our Public Relations Program?". Frequently, the answer is "you cannot measure public relations". But, that is really not true. ASTA can measure the accomplishments of its Public Relations Program. One measure is consumption of spices.

How can we use the increase in consumption as a measure of the success of our Public Relations Program? Simply because ASTA's Public Relations Program is just about all our industry does to promote spices. ASTA member firms, even the biggest, do not really spend substantial dollars on advertising or promotion. Our industry has always depended on ASTA to keep spices in the public eye and to educate our consumers.

During the 1920's and 1930's, according to a market study which ASTA commissioned, our industry's very existence was in great jeopardy. This is what caused our founders to turn to a public relations program, in the hopes that they could save their business.

The picture has improved dramatically since World War II, since our Public Relations Program has been in place. And, some of our best gains have come in recent years. Spice consumption in the United States has been exceeding population growth. In the past decade, alone, per capita consumption has gone from 2.19 lb to 3.12 lb a 45% gain.

While we don not deny that many factors have contributed to the increase in spice consumption, we know that ASTA's Public Relations Program has had a massive impact on the American consumer. And we know that consumption has grown dramatically - from 491 million lb in 1980 to 762 million lb in 1990 - a 55% increase.

Given all the problems facing our industry and all the demands placed on ASTA, the question facing us is "where now?". The arguments go something like this: now that consumption has increased so much and spices are such an important part of the American diet, do we need to keep promoting so much? Cannot we take a break for a while, especially when the industry needs to spend substantial sums on projects such as ethylene oxide?

Have you ever ridden a bicycle? What happens when you stop peddling? Do not tell me you coast, because we all know that does not work for long. The truth is, you fall off. And, when you get back on, you have to spend a lot of needless extra energy starting up again. What a waste compared to keeping up the momentum.

The story is even worse with public relations. This type of promotion depends on contracts for its effectiveness. Getting a huge feature, like this on in the New York Times, depends on having the proper contacts and open communications channels with the media. This kind of publicity is priceless. And these types of contacts are maintained only when you have a steady, long term, commitment as ASTA has done.

Incidentally, we never assume that the editors need us. The truth is that in this competitive world, the editors are constantly flooded with press releases. The quality of our material and the fact that we have been consistent, reliable, and creative over many years are the main reasons we get so much publicity.

Here is an example of the difference our Public Relations Program can make. This is an example of a typical recipe using pepper. But, through ASTA's Public Relations Program, we get pepper in the headlines. We make spices important and memorable.

Our future is full of opportunities. The United States is an incredible market. Each year, two million new shoppers enter the marketplace. Last year, food manufacturers in our country introduced 10,000 new products - most of which represented new business opportunities for our industry. The same was true of hundreds of thousands of new menus.

There are also the quiet decisions that millions of individual consumers make each year - to buy more convenience food because both parents are now working; to use more ethnic foods; or to dine out more. Or, perhaps, the doctor has said to cut salt or fat or calories from the diet. All these are opportunities that we in the spice industry cannot afford to miss. Let's not forget - spices are the logical, natural, safe alternative to replace many items. To take advantage of all these opportunities, we must always be there - educating and publicizing.

Our program is designed to impact in all these areas - educating and encouraging greater spice consumption through newspapers, magazines, the electronic media and trade publications. It is this comprehensive approach which has helped us get where we are today.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for making sure our Public Relations Program is in place and working well is the future we face. We live in a world where perceptions and impressions often overshadow reality. Many of you have heard how the publicity dealing with the use of the pesticide Alar nearly destroyed the apple industry in the United States. The results are far worse than they needed to be - largely because the apple industry was not prepared.

The spice industry has already had some sense of what can happen. Many years ago, it was extraneous matter that damaged our image in the press. And just recently, we have had to deal with the media where both ethylene oxide and irradiation were concerned. Fortunately, in all these cases, our strong Public Relations Program allowed us to meet these challenges.

If I can leave you with a quick summary of ASTA's Public Relations Program, it is this:

Our Public Relations Program today is a tremendous bargain;

It is not the biggest, but it works well to achieve our objectives - and rising sales are a measure of its success;

It benefits all our members, both large and small;

We need a strong Public Relations Program now more than ever before in the history of our trade.

We at ASTA are proud of what we have accomplished through our long-standing commitment to a strong, effective Public Relations Program. We believe that such a commitment can lead not only to an increase in consumption, but to a better educated consumer who gains a new understanding and respect for the power of our product in their diet. These gains can only lead to a stronger and more viable industry in the long run.