Vegetables are disgusting!”
Kids forever have dodged eating vegetables. Resorting to convoluted measures, parents cajole, bribe and slyly disguise them, often to no avail. The industry, despite valiant efforts, has struggled to move the needle on overall produce consumption, let alone conquer most children’s downright disdain for vegetables.
Veg Power, the UK nonprofit super alliance created to increase vegetable consumption, completely upends decades of produce marketing paradigms, impishly doubling down to make vegetables evil foes. (No worries, kids are in on the ruse.)
In a counter-intuitive scheme, Veg Power commandeered the big brand advertising playbook. Dan Parker, chief executive of Veg Power, spent 25 years working at and owning advertising agencies, and his big career clients were Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, so he honed the blueprint to beat junk food marketers at their own game.
“The art, science and skullduggery I’ve been practicing all my life — let’s put that to use trying to get people to make good, positive food choices around eating more vegetables,” says Parker.
The masterful idea, Eat Them to Defeat Them — an integrated nationwide campaign now in its fifth year — captures and enthralls the psyche of its picky target audience.
Based on sophisticated pillars of complex, ongoing research, the campaign’s repetitive engagement and unusually high retention rates have led to exponential growth in vegetable sales and intake, and most importantly, long-term behavioral change at scale.
“We’re applying commercial marketing methodologies to public health and to horticulture,” says Parker. “Let’s be honest, most of the horticulture industry doesn’t have much in the way of a budget, and when they do spend on marketing, they spend it very badly.”
Eat Them to Defeat Them aces the approach you might expect from the processed food industry and brand advertising, which is more deeply based on understanding people, and why people should do what they don’t.
“We understand the barriers,” says Parker, noting invaluable input from child psychologists, and the uncensored lowdown from parents and kids on why they don’t eat more vegetables.
“The industry sells products like commodities. If you buy a bag of carrots, it’s a closer experience to buying a bag of gravel than buying a bottle of wine,” he says, pulling no punches. “If there’s a message out to the sector, it needs to understand its consumers much more than it does today.”
Most TV advertising doesn’t sell food, it sells a state of mind. If you’ve seen advertisements for Coca-Cola or Snickers or any of these types of products, they don’t expect you to say, “I must have it now, and go immediately to the grocery store and buy one.” They create a buzz, and emotional connections with a product that allows things to happen later, Parker explains.
Veg Power devours decades of global produce marketing norms, flipping convention on its head.
Parker whimsically describes the futile campaigns fitting broadly into three types: a handsome farmer holding a wicker basket full of produce; dancing vegetables singing a little song; or a beautiful mom in a $30,000 kitchen, and perfect children skipping in, full of joy. “The world doesn’t work like that,” says Parker, describing a more likely scene: the children sullenly drag themselves in from school.
There’s also the fear factor – if you don’t eat vegetables, you’ll get diabetes and heart disease. Or the 5-A-Day type nutrition education theme, “Just eat a balanced meal with vegetables and these food groups, and here are some recipes.”
But if you talk to children about their food choices, the perception of fun is the primary driver. That’s why McDonald’s is so successful, says Parker, adding, “Cheese straws are disgusting, but they’re fun.”
Children have amazing imaginations, and can find fantasy inside the food, Parker says. “We love kids fooling around with real veg in its pure natural form. They can pick up broccoli and say it is a broccoli monster, or it’s a broccoli tree or it’s just a little broccoli floret toy, it’s fun and then they eat it, crunchy, tasty and super fresh, instead of processed food.”
“This isn’t about cooking techniques. This is about breaking down all those barriers, and creating this environment of fun and encouragement.”
Things like texture and smell and color and taste are a long way down the decision process for a kid, Parker contends, acknowledging some people might not believe this. He’s not dismissing these characteristics, “it just should taste good. That’s like an entry-level requirement.”
The second key: putting children and adults on the same side. “If they’re fighting against each other, we’re going to lose.”
The Veg Power TV advertising devises the ultimate plot. Evil vegetables are taking over the world.
Parents inevitably are losing the battle, so it’s up to the kids to Eat Them to Defeat Them, and save the planet.
“That act is the story of almost every children’s novel you can think of — Star Wars, young hero with special powers; Harry Potter, same story, young hero, kids save the world,” says Parker, “It’s a basic narrative that exists in endless children’s stories since the dawn of time because it makes children feel special, which is why it works.”
Veg Power emulates this storyline. (See related sidebar: Vegetables Are Taking Over The World.)
Veg Power focuses solely on vegetables, leaving out the sweeter-tasting, “low-hanging” fruit. taking on the herculean task of converting veg-adverse 5- to 11-year-olds.
“If you do both fruits and vegetables, you end up talking about strawberries and bananas because it’s plainly easier than getting kids to eat more broccoli,” says Parker. “Veg is a tougher sell.”
The second reason for the veg-only strategy comes from nutritionists and healthcare professionals: The lack of vegetables is the most critical deficiency in children’s diets because they contain essential nutrients you don’t get anywhere else, including fruit, he explains.
“We have a chronic problem with childhood obesity, and about 30% of our children don’t really eat any vegetables at all,” says Parker. “The cost of health care, most of which is related to poor diet, is crippling this country, causing immeasurable damage to our economy, and to the lives of these children who are going to have a lifetime of poor health.”
“We want kids jumping on that broccoli.”
According to the U.K.’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey, 89% of children fail to eat the recommended daily intake of veg and 29% eat less than a single portion daily.
“If you look toward the population eating next to no veg, they’re also the group with the most health risks, and the most vulnerable. If you get them to eat one portion of veg, you substantially change the market,” says Parker. “From a commercial lens, that’s where elasticity exists for growth.”
For Parker, the impetus and imperative to start Veg Power are profoundly personal. Family members died of obesity-related conditions, and about eight years ago, Parker himself was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
“I stepped out of my bubble, and realized the kind of food that I was promoting was making people sick. So, I closed my advertising agency and started volunteering for Chef Jamie Oliver.”
With Oliver and other key influencers, Parker launched Veg Power, bringing his marketing and advertising experience and skill to the fresh produce world, and a mission to increase produce consumption.
The campaign has amassed and leveraged a broad coalition of heavy hitters and funding streams. The cornerstone is the free advertising blitz across the airways through the foundational partnership with ITV, joined by dozens of media outlets, prominent influencers, and buttressed by major supermarket participation. The multi-pronged approach combines an integral school program, now in 3,800 plus primary and specialty schools, which cycles back to habits formed at home.
There is now £17.5 million (roughly $21.3 million) in advertising backing the campaign. According to Parker, 70% of its funding comes from grocery retailers. Of the U.K. 10 dominant grocery retailers, seven or eight are participating in any given year, he adds.
And then, to varying degrees in different years, they will market and promote the campaign in stores. For instance, Tesco has done a spirited custom Eat Them to Defeat Them voice-over with Jamie Oliver, creating a buzz on the retail floor. Some retailers have entertained kids with social media, interactive games and related content for parents.
Despite the mega marketing budgets of big, processed food conglomerates, Veg Power is breaking through. More than 36 million people are reached each year.
Most importantly, the campaign reaches those most in need. The strategically placed, repetitive campaign exposure reaches 57% of households with children, and 51% of all parents and children in the targeted age group remember the ad, says Parker, pointing to the Five-Year Evaluation data (collected from an independent national online survey conducted on behalf of Veg Power).
If there’s a message out to the sector, it’s that it needs to understand its consumers much more than it does today.”— Dan Parker, chief executive, Veg Power
“The recall is so good because the ad, which was created by the highly decorated agency Adam & Eve, is kind of bonkers, and it forces adults to play the game,” says Parker. “And the one thing little kids want is for the adults to play with them.”
And it’s working. The most recent econometric analysis of retail sales data by independent consultancy Pearl Metrics shows the campaign directly led to £132 million in vegetable sales from 2019-2022, which is equivalent to an extra 1.4 billion children’s veg portions.
The annual econometrics modeling collects an exhaustive set of data to account for variables in vegetable sales to isolate the effects of the campaign. (These include media data, price and promotions, key events, economic conditions, seasonality/weather, supply issues, COVID and other trends.)
It’s all about retention rates, which are exceptional, according to Sara Jones, director at London-based Pearl Metrics. Not only do sales spike when the campaign is on the air, which runs 6-8 weeks annually, primarily in the February/March timeframe, but sales are still elevated for many months afterward.
“Not only do we now know it works, we have a better understanding of how it works, and the timing of what works,” says Jones.
READING, WRITING, AND VEG
The Veg Power advertising campaign is tied to an extensive school program.
The school mission is two-fold, both increasing veg consumption in school, and boosting those habits at home with the whole family, Parker explains. Administrators, teachers and cafeteria staff are in on the game, incorporating a series of activities.
And reward sticker packs serve two purposes. “On the one hand, kids will do pretty much anything for a sticker and feel great. So, they try broccoli, they get a sticker to put on their chart, and they’re very happy kids,” says Parker.
But the real secret to the stickers, says Parker, is they bring them home and the parents get involved. “They serve broccoli, and they serve broccoli again, and again, and each time, their kid gets to fill up their reward chart,” he says. “What happens is we’re now normalizing broccoli consumption, so broccoli becomes part of that child’s regular diet.”
In the campaign’s Five-Year Evaluation, 89% of participating schools reported their students ate more vegetables in school as a result. A plate waste study conducted by Loughborough University in partnership with school caterers HC3S also reported up to a 21% reduction in plate waste in schools during the February/March 2022 campaign, which was also evident in the immediate post-campaign period, with up to 25% reduction in plate waste, Parker notes.
The Five-Year Evaluation also found 77% of parents aware of Eat Them to Defeat Them in their school said their child ate more vegetables as a result. And over half of parents whose kids have taken part three times reported a long-term improvement in the volume and variety of vegetables their child consumes, across the whole range of household incomes. Notably, 66% of parents of children who vocally dislike vegetables say their children also ate more vegetables because of the school program.
And, 31% of parents say they also eat more vegetables because of this campaign, notes Parker, adding, “Our kids are hugely influential on what’s being served in the house. And before you know it, your diet has been defined by your kids.”
Veg Power has developed a solid infrastructure, and cohesive software platform/fulfillment partners for managing the network of schools taking part in the program. It also has the support of almost every local government, the Welsh and Scottish governments, as well as food banks, and community organizations across the country.
THE LEXICON OF A GENERATION
Eat Them to Defeat Them is the lens through which U.K. children now see vegetables, according to Parker. He compares it to the massive 1990s U.S. campaign Got Milk? and the idea of the milk mustache, which became hardwired into the lexicon of people’s lives.
“Now, we have a generation of children who will be saying, ‘Eat Them to Defeat Them,’ and even to their children in 25 years’ time,” says Parker. “This is part of the lexicon of their generation. It’s a memorable piece of advertising.”
The repetitive nature of the 6- to 8-week campaign, year after year, is a critical component in changing children’s vegetable consumption over time, the research shows. The program is now five years old.
“For an 11-year-old today, this program has been running since they were 6, so it is part of their culture,” says Parker. “We find 42% of parents report their children have been using the line to feed themselves.”
BREAKING THROUGH POLITICAL DYSFUNCTION
In the years surrounding the Eat Them to Defeat Them campaign, U.K. legislation and other advertising/marketing campaigns to reduce unhealthy foods or increase produce consumption have hit snags. This includes delays in legislative initiatives to ban certain advertising of sugary, fat-laden processed foods.
“Our political system as a tool is emotionally charged and confrontational, often leading to dysfunction,” says Parker. “We have the same problems that you guys have in the U.S.”
To make inroads, Veg Power partners with disparate organizations, media groups, celebrities, schools, central and local governments, and health and nutrition groups. “We have an alliance with people who disagree on a great number of things, but we focus on the very single issue with which everyone agrees: eat more vegetables,” says Parker.
“We don’t talk about obesity. We don’t talk about junk food marketing. We don’t talk about farming methods, climate change, etc., because these are points of conflict between the people inside our organization, and the different organizations that support us,” he says, describing Veg Power as “non-political.”
That said, Veg Power gets funding — “not a lot,” Parker says — from central government, “but part of what makes us appealing is we’re not just a big central government handout” since industry, retail, and many other groups are on board. “The government joins the circle of the collective endeavor.”
Parker says he’s often contacted by groups or governments around the world who want to learn from or replicate the Veg Power experience “because there’s nothing like this project really anywhere in the world in terms of its scale of success.”
“We don’t have any secrets,” he says, adding they’d like to create a blueprint to share with the world. “Here’s everything we’ve learned, all the things we got right, all the things we got wrong, this is what we think works well.”
“If you take Eat Them to Defeat Them at a superficial level, it is a thing that works in the U.K., and would work in the U.S. because of the English language. If you translate Eat Them to Defeat Them into another language, it loses that wordplay,” he cautions. “So, you need to find a way of expressing the same sort of idea in the local language.”
At its heart, the campaign’s success is based on understanding people, and tapping into children’s mindsets and imaginations to empower them, Parker says.
“What this is about is making produce consumption fun, about bringing parents and kids on the same side. This is about turning it into a game, moving away from lectures, fear and misery toward hope, joy and laughter.”
Note from the Publisher:
We couldn’t be more thrilled to honor Veg Power, the UK nonprofit alliance to increase veg consumption, with the Produce Business Global Marketing Innovation Award.
This industry recognition fittingly culminates the first year of a special award series we launched to honor trailblazing companies and people who brilliantly market and sell produce to increase overall produce consumption.
Our hope is to inspire translatable programs and galvanize industry executives to work together through partnerships to effect meaningful change.
• • •
Vegetables Are Taking Over the World
An ominous voiceover narrates the heart-racing, menacing scene, immediately capturing the attention of restless TV viewers: “They come from deep underground. Water makes them stronger, sunlight fuels their power, and they will stop at nothing until they’ve taken over the world.”
The quirky, ingenious storytelling builds as unadorned evil vegetables emerge from soil darkness.
U.K. kids and their normally uncool parents become unexpectedly synched to Veg Power’s TV messaging, creating an unlikely alliance. The riveting, action-packed 60-second advertising clips are strategically placed during family entertainment programming, which Veg Power Chief Executive Dan Parker calls the “sweet spot,” to get parents and kids to react together and collaborate on the end game.
The campaign is linked to social media content, and some parent channels to alert them the campaign is happening.
A horrified mom actor driving in her car is bombarded by a thunderous rainstorm of wicked Brussels sprouts. “For years, the parents have been keeping the vegetable invasion at bay (a bleak war-zone scene of battle-scarred parents are no match for flying weaponized peppers). They need your help, kids.”
Empowered elementary-aged kids come to the rescue. A determined girl, gripping a fork with a broccoli floret exclaims, “You’re going down.” Another calls out, “Peas, it’s crunch time!”
A boy yells at a scary-faced pepper surrounded by other vegetables in a blender, “Get souped.” As the blender grinds, kids voraciously crunch and devour vegetables, with the voiceover reprise: “Enjoy the fight, Eat Them to Defeat Them.”
• • •
Simply Veg Helps Parents
Veg Power recently relaunched Simply Veg, a campaign directed at parents on how to get their kids to eat more veg.
Veg Power Chief Executive Dan Parker says they consulted top child psychologists, nutritionists and chefs, and experts in neurodiversity and sensory stimulation, as well as children’s entertainers.
It’s all coming together in a book, website and social media, as inflation impacts veg sales.
“We have spent most of the last five years getting kids excited about eating veg,” says Parker. “Simply Veg is really about supporting the parents in every way we possibly can.”
• • •
Successful marketing, like Veg Power, is about selling fun or hope, not fear, says Veg Power Chief Executive Dan Parker.
If you’re trying to get people not to drink so much alcohol, the traditional fear-based drinking advertisement shows children by the side of their dad’s grave, or the smashed-up car on the side of the road.
Parker points instead to a new campaign in Australia called Hello Sunday Morning, what he calls “an amazing piece of creativity.”
The ads portray people “just living their best life on Sunday morning — canoeing, mountain biking, or playing soccer with their kids,” he explains, “and the whole point of the campaign is, if you don’t get drunk on Saturday night, look how wonderful you will be.”
“There’s an old expression in the world of marketing, ‘people don’t buy health, they buy happiness,’” says Parker, “so if health is a pathway to happiness, people will buy. If they don’t perceive it to be a pathway to happiness, they won’t.”