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Sun-Maid hopes adding a sour kick will get millennials to eat raisins

Sun-Maid hopes adding a sour kick will get millennials to eat raisins
Harry Overly was hired last year as the president and CEO of Sun-Maid with a mandate to shake things up. (John Walker / Fresno Bee)

Sun-Maid Raisins is one of the most recognizable brands in the United States. But its bonnet-wearing farm girl hasn’t kept this century-old cooperative from losing touch with consumers, especially younger ones.

Harry Overly vows to change that.

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Overly was hired last year as the president and chief executive of Sun-Maid Growers of California. A 39-year-old marketing whiz who has spent most of his career in Chicago, Overly was brought in to shake things up in raisin land.

For the first time in more than a decade, Sun-Maid will launch a national campaign next year focused on rekindling fondness for the brand. People react favorably when they hear the name Sun-Maid. Now it’s up to Overly and his team to leverage that into new sales.

His goal is $100 million in growth over the next three to four years. Stay tuned for new products, new advertising and an elevated presence in grocery stores.

“During our research, we heard comments from people who said raisins are the bridesmaid but never the bride, or it’s like mustard — you eat it on a hot dog but never alone,” Overly said. “Raisins are not a top-of-the-mind snack. And … competition on the grocery store shelf is fierce.”

Overly said people pigeonhole raisins as a food for small kids: Parents feed raisins to young children when they start eating solid food, but once the children reach school age, they want other things in their lunches.

“They may not buy [raisins] again unless they are making cookies for their grandkids,” Overly said.

For more than 30 years, Sun-Maid was run by Barry Kriebel, who provided steady and pragmatic leadership. It served the grower-owned cooperative well for quite a while. Growers earned a decent profit and consumers loved the brand.

But people began eating other snacks.

“Our kids aren't thinking about raisins anymore,” said farmer Jeff Jue, chairman of Sun-Maid’s board of directors. “We need to make Sun-Maid more relevant. And that’s why we hired Harry.”

Overly said he was cautious about taking the job. After all, he had climbed his way up the corporate ladder of several major food companies in Dallas and Chicago. Kingsburg, Calif., and Sun-Maid weren’t exactly on his radar.

His last job was as CEO of the North American division of Deoleo, one of the world’s largest sellers of olive oil. Before that he was in Chicago as the chief customer officer of TreeHouse Foods, the largest private-label food maker in the United States.

Overly wondered whether Sun-Maid was willing to take risks or just wanted a CEO who would play it safe.

“If they wanted a guy to run a volume-based business and manage it for cash, I would probably be bored and leave in a year,” Overly said. “But that’s not what the board wanted. They wanted to grow the business and make Sun-Maid relevant again. They wanted to put the business on a different trajectory.”

To do that, Overly started by changing the culture at Sun-Maid. He got tired of people describing sluggish sales as “managing the decline” or thinking of packaging as being just in a box.

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“There was such a fear of failure in this company that they became risk averse,” he said.

He estimates that raisin consumption has dropped about 10% over the last five years, in part because Sun-Maid has not invested in growing the business.

To help reverse that trend, Overly brought in some new talent for his marketing team, including creating a new role: vice president of insight and innovation. To fill that role, he hired longtime colleague Lana Simon, whose resume includes TreeHouse, Sara Lee and Kraft Foods.

Simon will oversee the relaunch of flavored sour raisin snacks made with natural fruit juice and no added sugar. The snacks were launched about 18 months ago, but Overly gave them a makeover, including new packaging and placement in grocery stores’ snack aisle instead of the dried fruit aisle. They come in watermelon and strawberry flavors.

Snacks, especially healthy snacks, are a growing segment and appeal to millennials as well as baby boomers, the core of Sun-Maid’s customers.

Simon said consumers can expect to see raisins combined with other healthy ingredients. She and her team also plan ads that play on the nostalgia and trust Sun-Maid raisins represent.

Overly knows he has doubters among the cooperative’s 700 growers. Change happens slowly in the raisin world. For decades, farmers have made raisins the same way: In the late summer, thousands of workers clip ripe bunches of grapes and place them on paper trays in the middle of the vineyard, where they naturally dry into raisins.

Longtime Sun-Maid grower Paul Locker of Selma, Calif., said wanting to sell more raisins is only part of what has growers in knots. The industry has been shrinking over the last decade as growers rip out their vines and replace them with higher-value crops such as almonds and tangerines. Even Locker has added wine grapes and almonds to his mix of crops.

Since 2000, raisin acreage in the San Joaquin Valley has plummeted to 150,000 from 270,000. A majority of that acreage is in Fresno County, the nation’s raisin capital.

Newly planted raisin grapes accommodate mechanical harvesting, a labor-saving method of picking that is costly to install.

“We have been able to grind out a living, but it is expensive,” said Locker, who harvests some of his vines by machine. “And it is not getting easier.”

He is hopeful that Overly can help revive the Sun-Maid brand and boost sales. “If we can come up with some new products using our label, then we might be able to turn things around,” he said.

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