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Grapefruit growers thirst for return to '90s success

Your assignment, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it, is to convince people to start drinking more grapefruit juice.

ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published September 15, 2003

Is this a Mission Impossible?

Americans may be consuming more and more of everything. But they are drinking less and less tart grapefruit juice, a poor relation to mighty orange juice but a key part of Florida's citrus industry.

Grapefruit juice consumption hit a peak in 1998-99, with Americans drinking an annual average of 72.5 ounces, or more than half a gallon. But U.S. consumption has since plummeted, hitting a 10-year low in 2001-02 of 49.9 ounces. That's a 31 percent decline in grapefruit consumption in less than five years.

Quite a drop. Quite a hurt on grapefruit growers, driving many out of business. Most survivors have lost money on the crop during the past several seasons.

What happened? Given the explosion of choice in fruity beverages, maybe consumers are opting to buy other drinks. Maybe consumers who are likely to drink citrus at all just prefer orange juice.

Maybe more people are heeding recent warnings from doctors that some medications, taken with grapefruit, can adversely increase the absorption rate. Maybe people who traditionally consume grapefruit juice - those 55 years and older - have forgotten all the indirect health claims of how grapefruit juice may prevent certain types of cancer and help protect the heart. Or maybe people are just cutting back on expenses in the recent economic slowdown.

A remarkable 80 percent of American consumers say they never touch the stuff.

Well, grapefruit juice - never short on marketing pitches - just got a new one.

An ad campaign targeting active women ages 21 to 44 hopes to attract the younger female market by convincing them that grapefruit juice is - hold on to your citrus peels - Sass in a Glass.

In one commercial, a young woman approaches an elevator while sipping grapefruit juice. In a scene almost out of the hip Matrix films, she does a slow-motion karate kick and in midair hits the elevator call button with her spiked heel.

A second commercial features a young woman lounging poolside with her dozing boyfriend. She rubs some suntan lotion on his back. When the couple walks away, the viewer sees the man's back, tanned except for a white area that spells out "Lucky Me" with an arrow pointing to the woman.

Both spots end with a panel showing a glass of juice and the words, "Grapefruit Juice: Sass in a Glass."

Cuts of the ads are expected to be shown at the Florida Citrus Commission meeting on Wednesday. Cable TV spots may air later this year on cable channels popular with young women, including E! and VH-1, and on the unexpected hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Print ads are scheduled to appear in the November issue of magazines such as In Style, Vogue, Cosmopolitan and People.

The Florida Department of Citrus is paying for the $3-million campaign through a tax increase imposed on growers in the state.

Sass in a Glass. Sounds clever enough. But can it reverse the shrinking grapefruit juice market? History shows grapefruit juice consumption can increase with sharp marketing.

Citrus was most dominant in the 1960s and 1970s, when beverage competition was low and Anita Bryant warbled "Come to the Florida sunshine tree" in orange juice ads.

Since then, we've seen some occasionally successful, and often bizarre, attempts to promote the sour grapefruit. A few highlights:

- In 1991, Florida citrus growers exported record numbers of boxed grapefruit to Japan after typhoons destroyed much of Japan's fruit crops. The grapefruit was a hit. Even today, Japan drinks more grapefruit juice per capita than America. And the Japanese like the sour yellow grapefruit more than the sweeter red grapefruit preferred in the United States. Japan remains Florida's No. 1 export market for grapefruit.

- In the mid 1990s, TV commercials pitched scientific research associating citrus with good health. Ads also depicted grapefruit as a diet food that was more appealing than diet milk shakes and pills.

- In 1996, the industry won endorsements of citrus consumption by the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the March of Dimes. For the first time, the American Heart Association allowed grapefruit juice to carry the association's "Heart Check" logo, designating the products as part of a healthy diet. TV commercials showing a grapefruit beating like a heart were aired around the country.

- One 1996 ad featuring the over-hyped tagline "Drink more, live more" was replaced with "Are you drinking enough?" Sales of Florida grapefruit juice jumped 10.7 percent that year.

- By the late 1990s, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juices with added calcium and featuring various amounts of pulp gained popularity.

Since its peak in the late '90s, grapefruit juice consumption by U.S. consumers has been shrinking fast.

Last year, the grapefruit folks shifted gears. They decided to promote their fruit based on taste and not on its health benefits. Consultants argued that most consumers already had gotten the health connection, so it was no longer an effective marketing message.

The industry also tossed about the idea of a two-tier system that would allow sweeter grapefruit to carry labels with "premium" or "superior." Lesser grapefruit might carry labels with "zesty" or "tangy" - euphemisms, perhaps, for "sour enough to peel paint."

Last fall, another round of ads appeared, hyping "Florida Grapefruit Juice: Refreshingly All-Natural," but with a twist. The print ads broke new ground for beverage marketing because they featured a scent strip. Scratch it, and readers smelled the aroma of grapefruit.

Now comes the Sass in a Glass campaign, backed by a rather modest advertising budget. Once again, it reflects a change in the grapefruit industry's marketing target: younger women and their healthy lifestyle.

Will grapefruit juice ever be a smash hit? No way. But somewhere in this citrus marketing maze, perhaps the sharp declines in consumption can be stopped.

Almost a third of Florida's grapefruit growers have called it quits during the past decade. About 1,100 growers remain today. Here's hoping they've survived the worst kind of squeeze.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or 727 893-8405.

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