Even Kevin Lowery has to admit that pickles are funny. “You can’t say the word pickle without it bringing a smile to your lips,” says Lowery, who was named vice president of public affairs for Vlasic Foods when it spun off from Campbell Soup Company earlier this year and who has been eating, sleeping, and—presumably—eating pickles for the past six months, as the company prepared to introduce a breakthrough in pickle technology.
Lowery concedes that in terms of technological sophistication and marketing budget Vlasic’s new “Hamburger Stacker” pickle may not be any match for Gillette’s recently introduced Mach 3, with its 16 gazillion patents and its ubiquitous television ad campaign, but in the world of pickles it’s a pretty big deal, and in the world of public relations it’s a blockbuster success.
Even though Vlasic’s consumer promotion campaign has not yet gotten underway, the pickle has been featured extensively in the media. An AP wire story hailed the pickle, as did Bloomberg. Both predicted that the new product could generate sales of $20 million a year, with particular appeal to the food service industry.
But the most eye-catching coverage was on CNN’s Headline News, where reporter Jeannie Most spent the best part of five minutes demonstrating the virtues of the new pickle—which is so large that it completely covers the average hamburger—and chatting with consumers about one of the problems the Hamburger Stacker overcomes: pickle slide, the tendency of smaller pickle chips to ooze out the sides of sandwiches.
“We were a little surprised at the amount of coverage the story generated,” says Lowery. “But we knew going in that we had three major advantages. First, pickles are funny. Second, this really is an incredibly innovative product and it addressed a real market need. And third, since we became public in March, we have been promising a breakthrough product, and so we had created a lot of anticipation.”
Even so, there were communications challenges. The first was making sure that people took the story seriously. The inherent amusement factor associated with pickles was useful in capturing the media’s attention, but Vlasic wanted to convey a serious story to both its business customers (restaurant chains in particular) and the financial community.
So the company’s news release emphasized the market potential: 3.5 million hamburgers sold in the U.S. each year, and 35 billion sandwiches consumed at home—only 3 percent of which are eaten with a pickle. Lowery also underscored the value of being first to market. “We think we have a two year lead over our competitors,” he says.
The second challenge involved the suspicion, aired by one test subject in the CNN piece, that a pickle so large—ten times larger than the average, the company says—can’t be natural.
“Part of the strategy is to communicate very clearly that this is not a bioengineered product,” says Lowery. “But we didn’t want to come right out and say there’s no biotechnology here, because we didn’t want to raise suspicion. All of the materials emphasize that this is a natural product. We show the four year development process.”
Lowery admits to holding his breath when the gentleman on the CNN segment expressed his concern, and then releasing it a few seconds later when he took a bite of a sandwich and offered a positive assessment of the new pickle.
Most impressive, however, is the effect on the public relations campaign (there has been no advertising, as yet) on Vlasic’s business. In addition to generating a positive response from financial analysts, the press release generated calls from two of the nation’s largest hamburger bun manufacturers within half an hour of going out over the wire.
The challenge now, Lowery says, is to “really ramp up” the consumer promotion campaign, set to launch with the assistance of Golin/Harris Communications in a few weeks. “Who knows how big this could be?” Lowery asks.