Monday, July 30, 2007

Mt. Olive

Maybe because Mt. Olive brand pickles come from North Carolina, it can be excused from believing much of what has been written about brand loyalty.

For example, an article in the July 1 issue of The New York Times quotes Marian Salzman, CMO of JWT and author of Next Now: Trends for the Future:

“Because everything is on a faster cycle, there’s no ability to ever be satiated,” said Ms. Salzman, who adds that consumers show little evidence of brand loyalty, moving quickly on to a new fad or product.

On the other hand, there’s ample evidence of utter ignorance about consumer habits in flyover land – at least based on Salzman. I doubt she grew in the Carolinas.

“In a pickle… which do you prefer? The big fat dill pickles. But honestly, ANY pickles as long as they are Mt. Olive Pickles.” That’s Karen’s determination of on her MySpace blog. (Anecdotal? Of course it’s anecdotal – the opposite of “next-now forecasting.”)

So: Mt. Olive Pickle Company formally organized itself in early 1926 with a group of investors who had to find another way to support local farmers after the original plan to sell brined cucumbers to other pickle manufacturers failed. Today, according to its website, it is the best-selling brand of pickles in the Southeastern US and the second biggest selling brand of pickles, peppers and relishes in America.

Kind of hard to believe, I know. It’s likely you’ve never heard of this brand. I know about it because there is a jar or two on our dinner table every evening: we shop at HEB here and Mt. Olive is heavily stocked at HEB. It’s the…pickles here….as well as hot pickled okra, peppers, lime-flavored dill strips…more that 250 SKUs in all.

What about…you know, Vlasik? Glad you asked. In a rigorous scientific survey of the Thursday Night Martini Gang – 15 respondents – twice as many said they bought Vlasic pickles than any other brand. Claussen and Heinz received three “buys” each. One mentioned she purchases Dixie Rose.

It’s a complicated category – pickles, peppers and relishes – with refrigerated and shelf-stable versions abounding. But Vlasic (with its classic Groucho Marx stork) is owned by Aurora Foods*, Claussen by Kraft Foods, and Heinz by…uh…Heinz – the original pickle empire-builder.

Still, Mt. Olive Pickle Company is an independent: apparently, America’s largest independent pickle-maker and hence an independent brand as well. Its stats (depending on where you can find them) make this pretty impressive for a company that still based in its hometown after 80 years.

Also, the brand is intimately tied to its hometown, Mt. Olive, NC; with more than 5,000 people a little bit north and east of Fayetteville. And a mighty fine town it is, apparently, which has grown with the pickle company. But not too much. There’s a yearly North Carolina Pickle Festival; a New Year’s Eve Pickle Drop that’s quite popular; and a Pickle Palooza Picnic each spring. The cohesion between brand and town may appear to be old-fashioned, but it’s a far cry from conglomerates’ relationships with their stakeholders.

Mt. Olive Pickle Company has had its run-ins with labor organizers the last few years; these conflicts appear to be resolved. This post isn’t up to the four-score of years’ worth of company history that the brand deserves. But I sure to like the thought of a brand that gives back so obviously to its community – every time I open a jar.

Two final notes. No store-bought brand of pickle is worthy in Boston, apparently. According this article from The Boston Globe, Katie Johnston Chase ran a tasting contest: “Claussen was unenthusiastically voted the winner, and a few of the selections seemed downright revolting.” I’m not kidding: read the sour reviews for yourself.

Turn the other cheek (to stuff a pickle in it): “I eat these because they're good enough and for North Carolina state pride,” blogger Rob Matthews says here. Another anecdote…or a data point?

*Be certain to read some of the material Rob Schoenbeck assembled in the first comment to this post – just click on the word.


Rob Schoenbeck said...

Pickles, peppers and relish, based on information provided by Aurora Foods SEC filing.

Some recent consolidation of pickle marketers, such as the acquisition of Vlasic by Aurora Foods, suggested that there might be a burst of activity to increase consumer interest and consumption. However, for all intents and purposes, the pickles, peppers and relish category has remained large and stable, with approximately $1 billion of retail sales in each of the past five years. Overall, there has been a slight decline since 1986 from 5.3 lbs per person to a low of 4.3 lbs in 2002-03 rising to a projected 4.7 lbs for this year.

Shelf-stable pickles is the largest segment of the category, with $527 million in retail sales, followed by peppers ($262 million), refrigerated pickles ($135 million) and relish ($119 million). Of retail shelf-stable pickle category sales, approximately 70% represents sales of branded pickles, and the remaining 30% represents sales of private label pickles. In general, the pickles, peppers and relish category will continue to demonstrate a stable level of retail sales.

compostmoi said...

Darling Brother of mine: do you do your own product shots? AT LAST, my dear husband has made it unavoidably easy for even low tech me to read your blog every day, easy as pie (or should I say easy as pickles??)...I promise to make a pest of myself! xxev

Susan Kirkland said...

In North Carolina, Mt. Olive pickles are famous for being the only brand that fills the jar "packed tight." There's a barrel of Mt. Olive ZESTY Bread & Butter petites in my fridge that gets replaced regularly. If you like spicy, crisp, and sweet & sour, these are the best.

Lip smackin' good.

Lynn Williams said...

Mr. Baron, thanks. We are dill-lighted you enjoy our products and chose to write about them. Our company's story is unique, particularly in the pickle industry, and we are indeed proud of our hometown connections.

Apex Voice said...

I have heard that "each time someone bites into a Mount Olive pickle, an angel gets it's wings".

I grew up in Mount Olive, NC and I am very proud of what Mount Olive Pickles has accomplished over the years.

Richard Laurence Baron said...

Thanks, Apex Voice. When it comes to brand loyalty, Mt Olive seems to provide an evergreen example.