Talkin’ Avocados

Lately, I have been bring up avocados in conversation quite a bit.  As a lobbyist, a salesman of ideas of sorts, avocados provide a compelling case study.

Avocados have been around practically forever.  The Aztecs grew the things.  Europeans first got their hands on the [what Wikipedia says is technically a] berry in the 17th century.  There is nothing new about avocados, except that all of sudden, avocados are everywhere.

The California Avocado Commission spent $160 million on a 30 second commercial that aired during the 2010 Super Bowl.  An agreement with Subway begun in 2011 has brought the leathery things into hundreds of fast food shops.   Avocado is now a featured ingredient in tons of products and thousands of restaurants.  Avocados have arrived.

Not too long ago avocados were virtually unknown.  A 1990 survey found that only half of Americans living in the northeast and Midwest had ever heard of an avocado.  Less than half again had actually tasted one.  An even smaller percentage recalled seeing an avocado.  States bordering Mexico did have greater familiarity with them, but still, sales were light and enthusiasm fainter.

Nearly all avocados grown in America (95 percent) come from California.  Naturally, those growers wanted to make the most of their product.  So, back in 1924 the California Avocado Exchange was formed.  By 1925 they were lobbying in Sacramento for favorable codes and standards in state agricultural regulations.

The avocado industry grew, but at a modest pace.  Hass, the folks who own most of the avocado farms, formed in 1978 the California Avocado Commission (CAC) for the sole purpose of increasing demand.  And they did.  51.7 million pounds of avocados were sold in 1971.  By 2000, 536 million pounds were sold.  Good, but not great, so CAC went back to work.

Like most things, timing is an issue.  Noticing an increase in public demand for Mexican food nationwide, and an emerging desire for healthful food options, CAC saw their opportunity.  Beginning in the late 2000’s they started circulating more recipes featuring avocados, they educated grocers – particularly those beyond the southwest – about avocados, and in 2010, the CAC put their money into a splashy ad campaign.

A big investment lead to a big reward.  By the end of that year more than 1.32 billion pounds of avocados were sold, and the numbers indicate more growth is coming.  There is now a similar story to tell about pomegranates.

There are a few lessons here.  First, if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen.  Without the actions of the CAC avocados would still probably be a strictly regional food.  Second, a good idea and a smart campaign may not be enough.  The cultural openness to avocados pushed sales, prices, and values to new levels.  If not for wisely capitalizing on unrelated trends, avocados may not be so prevalent.

Finally, there is another piece to the puzzle.  Despite the 1994 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S. government effectively kept Mexican avocados out of the country.  A new willingness to genuinely embrace free trade opened up the border in 2005, beginning a rush of avocados from Mexico and Chile too.  Without protectionist policies, Hass and the CAC had to get serious about increasing demand lest the bulk price would fall.

Competition drove CAC to be more aggressive and more innovative.  In the end, California growers made themselves better in the face of competition, and made a lot more money in the process.

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