“For the most part I didn't understand anything they were talking about,” he told me. Antioxidants was not a household phrase at the time, and the idea that they were integral components of healthy foods was not yet mainstream. But Sauve saw an opening. “I understood that they had found that blueberries produce the highest numbers on the chart. As a marketer, if your product happens to come out first in something, you might want to look into it.”
“It was really at that point when I said we can probably do something with this,” he said.
In the late 1990s, he and the blueberry industry began funding research—through Tufts and elsewhere—that would highlight the health effects of blueberries.
“We took a shot and we invested in it and ended up creating a story with the positioning of blueberries and antioxidants,” he said. In this way he ended up spending very little on advertising, but by 1999 he had gotten global coverage of the studies on blueberries and antioxidants. “We hit this story right. We built it right, we communicated it right, and we got remarkable PR coverage out of it. We ended up with our doctors talking to Oprah and Dr. Oz.”
The first big breakthrough was in Japan, where the wild-blueberry industry had been selling around 2 million pounds per year in 1996. By 1999, they sold 30 million pounds, he said. “And it was the health story that changed the perception of the product. The product didn’t change at all. People just started adding the perception of health, and this new thing called antioxidants.”
It required a little more work in the United States, where focus groups told Sauve that people didn’t know what antioxidants were. He remembers one person saying in 1997, “How can anything that’s against oxygen be good for you?”
He shifted the campaign to include not just telling the public that blueberries contained a lot of antioxidants, but that antioxidants were healthy. The centrality of this latter notion to much modern health dogma traces to Sauve’s blueberry information campaign.
“We were the first into the story of the colorful assets of phytochemicals,” he told me, referring to the fact that other fruits and vegetables have adopted the same strategy. “It didn't exist, and so we created it. Of course, we were lucky because we had the word blue right there in our name.”
The investment in research paid off. He sees it as the primary reason that over the last 20 years, the North American blueberry supply has increased from 300 million pounds annually to around 1.5 billion.
“There are so many wonderful players involved in this story,” he said. “All the researchers got published. Researchers love to be published, and we helped them do that. We promoted them, and they continued to do all their great work.”
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