As a food writer, you quickly learn that major food brands can be pretty skittish about opening up. From fast food chains to grocery aisle mainstays, the makers of the food and drinks we consume every day are often surprisingly tight-lipped about the choices they make around innovation and marketing—presumably because they’re insecure about being seen in an unfavorable light. Sun-Maid is not one of them.
In 2021, the brand celebrated the Halloween season by mounting Raisin House, a real-life interactive “haunted” house in New Jersey dedicated to the horror of receiving dried fruit while trick-or-treating. It demonstrated that that brand is willing to acknowledge its Achilles’ heel rather than try to pretend that this holiday has room for anything besides candy. (Apologies to all the PR emails proclaiming mini pretzels to be the new “it” treat of the 2022 Halloween season.)
We spoke with Fernando Herrera, head of marketing for Sun-Maid, about the company’s reputation as the biggest trick-or-treat buzzkill every Halloween, and how the brand leans into the annual tradition of being everyone’s least favorite.
The Takeout: How does your brand think about Halloween, and marketing the product as something fun for kids?
Fernando Herrera: If you were to ask that question, let’s say, three years ago, we’d definitely have a different answer than this year. If you asked, “What are raisins’ role in Halloween?” we would have said, “We are the alternative to sugary snacks, we’re better for you, blah blah blah.” We authentically believe that. But what we failed to appreciate is the fact that nobody wants raisins for Halloween, honestly.
We took our authenticity in a different direction. Rather than being authentic about the benefits of our food, we’re authentic about recognizing that we don’t have to be loved every single day. Halloween is that day where we’re comfortable saying, you know what? The scariest thing for Halloween is getting freaking raisins.
That’s how we’ve landed on how we can stay relevant to consumers during this Halloween season as a raisin. What we’ve found through social listening is that even though we’re not the most loved thing at Halloween—in fact, we’re the scariest—there’s still a lot of chatter and social conversation happening regarding us.
We’re not going to juxtapose ourselves to candy and say we’re the healthier alternative. We’re just going to insert ourselves in to the conversation: Yep, we’re here, we know you don’t want us, and that’s okay. We’re making fun of ourselves without being disrespectful to ourselves.
TO: What is your “social listening” like? Are there particular outlets or social media sites you pay more attention to?
FH: There’s not a particular channel that we use; we have a great social media partner, Unfold, and part of the work they do is social listening. What are consumers saying about us? What are they saying in general? This influences what we’re going to do from a product perspective. Is there anything bubbling up that we aren’t aware of?
To be honest, a lot of what we’re learning fortunately validates a lot of the thinking. There haven’t been too many curveballs on the Halloween side. Were we surprised that we’re not the most loved? No! We had to embrace it. The embracing could have been just not talking about Halloween, or going full-fledged into the conversation. We chose the latter. It was risky, but we were pleasantly surprised, and we landed on an insight that’s exceeded all of our expectations. Last year was just absolutely phenomenal.
TO: That was the Raisin House, right? What feedback did you hear on that?
First, kudos to the team—we have our Quench Agency partner, Havas Formula, and our internal team, too—on coming up with something in 45 days. It was really, really fast. We saw, of all things—which we did not expect—an increase of sales during that time period. Which was not the objective. The objective was just to insert ourselves into conversation. Our followers on Instagram went up almost 2,000%. Overall, we got over a billion earned impressions over a 30-day period, which for us was astronomically unheard of [laughs].
We intentionally came in with a scrappy idea, because we didn’t want to just buy our way in. We wanted to naturally be part of the conversation, and letting it go where it needs to go. Clearly, where it went was fantastic.
When we were planning for this year, obviously, working our way into [Halloween] was almost mandatory. It’d be a missed opportunity if we didn’t do it.
TO: Where are you taking things this year?
FH: We wanted to do it bigger and better, and with the same agency partners. The context was, well, we were the scariest house on the block [in 2021]. Now, how about if we take over a town?
[Last year’s] house was in Monsterville, New Jersey, and [this year’s] town is Halloweentown in Oregon. We’re still taking that same premise—“the scariest thing for Halloween is getting raisins”—but at a much bigger scale. Probably fivefold larger.
The point is not just to do big productions. For instance, Monsterville existed before us. Halloweentown existed way before us. Let’s go to a place that’s already naturally, authentically Halloween and insert ourselves.
TO: How do you advertise a snack that’s as old as time? It’s not like marketing a candy.
FH: At the end of the day, it’s been the same raisin for over 110 years. How do you keep a commodity relevant? Are we making the right products? Yogurt-covered raisins have been extremely successful for us, especially during the pandemic. Then you’ve got our fruity raisin snacks, and also the sours.
Back in 2020, our first spot came out—it was the first time this brand had been on TV in decades. We called it Grow Young; basically, it was all around nostalgia. Remembering childhood. The team did a phenomenal job of reintroducing the brand.
Childhood is all about imagination. It allows us to talk about different uses for Sun-Maid. We have the Board of Imagination: it’s a group of kids from throughout the country, and they are the ones literally responsible for picking some new flavors. They’ve helped us pick a charity (we’re working with Alex’s Lemonade). Who are the most imaginative minds? It’s going to be kids. It’s really fun.
TO: What do you want the average consumer to know about raisins?
FH: First, it’s a great lunch box snack; our fruity snacks come in a tearaway pouch. We also have the fun red box. The red box is still very iconic. You can actually whistle with it; there’s a bunch of stuff you can do with it.
It’s a great, convenient, wholesome snack that, unfortunately, needs some work around perception. Because when we give it to kids, they love it, but if we ask, “Do you want raisins?” that’s where there’s an issue. That’s part of our self-awareness.
TO: Did you say you can whistle with the box?
FH: Yes! I’m not very good at it, but my boss is fantastic at blowing the whistle.
[Ed. note: Yep, this is definitely a thing.]