Winning back the lost generation: California Prunes

BOCA RATON – California prune growers have rebranded themselves, adopting its earlier identity they hope will draw younger generations to its products.

“We found we had lost a generation. We wanted to reset the table,” said Donn (cq.) Zea (pronounced Zay), executive director of the California Prune Board, which represents approximately 800 prune growers and 28 prune, juice, and ingredient handlers in the world’s largest production area for the commodity.

The board recently reversed its 2000 decision to adopt the brand “California dried plums” that they also hoped at the time would attract younger consumers, he said. In May, it announced its once former, now new brand – California prunes.

Market studies showed prune consumers never really warmed to the dried plum brand, Zea added.

“The people we know who love California prunes tell us, ‘I never called them dried plums. I always called them California prunes,’” he said.

The new brand comes with a fresh logo that features a plum graphic with the words “california prunes.” Both words are in lower case, but the syllable “for” in the state name and “prunes” are boldfaced with the logo “Prunes. For life” underneath.

The new brand and logo seeks to capitalize on the marketing message emphasizing prunes’ health benefits, particularly “gut health,” or that part of the human microbiome in the digestive track that contributes to wellness, Zea said.

The microbiome, the symbiotic organisms in and on the human body that affect health, has been a popular area for scientific research in recent years, and the Millennial and Gen Z generations in particular have embraced the message of its role in wellness, he said. California prunes have an opportunity to spread the message to other generations.

“Gut health has gained more interest and relevance, and clinical trials suggest that eating five or six prunes a day may support healthy bones,” Zea said in a May 20 statement announcing the rebranding effort. “In addition to the nutritional benefits, market research has shown that the only thing holding people back from eating more prunes isn’t negative perceptions, but rather the simple need for more top-of-mind awareness.”

The rebranding and push for an expanded market comes as California prune production has stabilized in the past decade, he said. Virtually all U.S. prune production comes from California with only about 1% in southern Oregon.

U.S. prune acreage has declined by nearly half over the past two decades from a peak of 86,000 acres in 2000 to 44,000 in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Production declined from a two-decade peak of 219,000 tons in 2000 to 88,000 tons in 2018, although production exceeded 100,000 tons in six seasons since 2010.

Production appears to have stabilized at current levels, Zea said.

Worldwide prune production dropped 17% to 197,207 metric tons in 2018-19 compared to 238,424 tons in the previous season, according to INC statistics. It has forecast 224,000 metric tons in 2019-10, including 90,000 metric tons (99,000 U.S. tons) in California.

The U.S accounted for an average 36% of global production during the past five seasons followed by Chile (31%) and France (21%).

California prunes may need a stronger domestic market because of the instability in its export markets this year, Zea said. This year the U.S. has raised tariffs on China and Mexico and has threatened to do so on the European Union.

California exports about 45 percent of its annual crop with Japan, the European Union and China among the top destinations, Zea said.

Previously California had shipped 7,500 to 8,000 annually to China, making it the third or fourth biggest export market, he said. After China raised the tariff on California prunes to 65% in retaliation to U.S. tariffs, annual shipments are projected to decline to 3,500 to 4,500 tons.

The U.S. has announced tariffs rising to 25% on all Mexican products in the fall in a dispute over immigrations issues. While Mexico has been a small market for California prunes, it was a growing one, Zea said.

And if the U.S. follows through with its threats of raising tariffs on the EU automobile industry, California prunes and other U.S. agriculture products are “the tip of the spear” for retaliatory tariffs, he added.