On a recent visit to a Thriftway supermarket near this onion-growing center, Aiden Harvill spotted a jolly green giant at a bin stuffed with Vidalia onions. "Mama, there's Shrek," the three-year-old shouted. He then threw a tantrum until his mother plopped a bag with Shrek's image into her shopping cart.
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"He never, ever eats vegetables, but when we got home, he wanted me to cook them," Elizabeth Harvill says. She diced the onions into a casserole, which Aiden gulped down. "I was astonished," Mrs. Harvill says. "It was like a toy in a cereal box."
"Shrek Forever After," the fourth Shrek movie, had a slow start at the box office before picking up steam. But in the produce section it is creating a minor sensation, by making onions popular with kids.
The movie, which has since gone on to do big business, has spawned tie-ins with companies ranging from Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ - News) to Bank of America (BAC - News). But none is as bold as the one advanced by the Vidalia Onion Committee, an association that represents 100 growers of the Vidalia, a trademarked sweet onion that is unique to southeastern Georgia.
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The campaign, "Shrek Forever After, Vidalias Forever Sweet," was unveiled this spring in conjunction with the release of the flick and the start of the Vidalia season, which stretches to September. The onion association's partnership with DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. (DWA - News) uses the movie's characters on packaging, store displays and on a website.
Through June 14, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said, farmers had shipped eight million more pounds of Vidalias than by the same date last year—though the 2010 season started two weeks later than in 2009. "We've sold more onions up to this point in the season than we ever have in the past," says Brian Stanley of Stanley Farms, a large Vidalia grower.
The third-generation onion farmer recently had to get his produce-bag supplier to fly in an emergency order of "Shrek" packaging. His onions are packed in mesh bags coated with color photos of the ogre Shrek, the Vidalia onions logo and the question: "What do Ogres and Onions have in common?"
The Vidalia Onion Committee has promoted with A&W root beer, to appeal to families and with Corona beer, to appeal to young adults. "My problem was how to market onions to kids. It's a lot easier when you're talking apples, strawberries and bananas," says Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee.
In Atlanta, Steve Langston, a food marketer who had been courting the committee, was brainstorming last summer in his office with two college students. One remembered a scene in the first Shrek movie, in which the ogre tells Donkey that "there's a lot more to ogres than people think...." Ogres are like onions, Shrek says. It's not that both might be stinky, make you cry or get all brown in the sun. Rather, it's that "we both have layers," he explains.
Mr. Langston, who has arranged tie-ins with Hollywood studios before, took the idea to Ms. Brannen, who got the go-ahead from the farmers. He took the idea to DreamWorks. "There was a natural connection between their brand and our character, since onions were rooted in Shrek's personality from the first movie," says Anne Globe, head of world-wide marketing at DreamWorks Animation. A tie-in with McDonald's Corp. (MCD - News) backfired, after the fast-food chain had to recall glasses tainted with cadmium, a toxic metal.
DreamWorks and the grower association spent a year hammering out details of the ogre-onion campaign. The Georgia farmers covered the costs of marketing, including making the stands and promotional items. But the studio had vetting power every step of the way.
When Vidalia hired a chef to develop recipes for the campaign, DreamWorks scrutinized them and perfected their names. The results: Swampy Joes, Shrek-O-licious Summertime Succotash and Donkey's Savory Onion Parfait.
There's no telling whether the campaign will have a lasting effect on children's newfound love for onions.
And Vidalia had more going for it this season than an animated ogre. Bad weather undermined onion output in Texas and California, benefiting Vidalia. But Vidalia itself was hit this year by excessive rain and a cold spell, which delayed the harvest by two weeks.
Still, "there's no question that Shrek has driven sales at the consumer level," says John Tumino, a sales director at Richter & Co., a Charlotte, N.C., company that supplies onions to Safeway (SWY - News), Hannaford and other chains. "Children are enamored of Shrek." He estimates that demand for medium-size Vidalias, which typically fill Shrek bags, is up 30% to 35% this year.
Elias Freij, produce manager at a Food World supermarket in Mobile, Ala., says his store has been selling nine or ten 40-lb. cases of Vidalias each week, nearly three times last year's weekly volume.
"Don't get me wrong, Vidalias always sell," says Mr. Freij, who was recently selling four-pound Shrek onion bags for $3.49 and loose Vidalias for $1.29 a pound. "But when you promote it with kids, it's an automatic sell."
To whet kids' appetite, a Hy-Vee Food Stores Inc. supermarket in Atlantic, Iowa, broadcast the question, "What do onions and ogres have in common?" It tells shoppers: "Go to vidaliaonion.org to find out."
Produce manager Brent Magee says that many kids have returned to the store days later to inform him, "Hey, they both have layers."'
The supermarket erected a 16-foot onion display with cardboard cutouts of Shrek and Donkey. In the first week the display was up, sales tripled, says Mr. Magee. Since then, onion sales have slowed, but he says he is continuing to sell double the amount of onions he did before the promotion.
Tamara Gibson, a 40-year-old personal trainer and mother of three, says her four-year-old, Grayson, could hardly contain his excitement at the sight of Shrek at the Hy-Vee. Normally, "he only gets that giddy when we're in the packaged-food aisle with really sugary things."
She had made multiple trips to Hy-Vee to stock up. "I was at the store last night and thought, 'gosh, I'm going through onions like crazy these days.' It's like buying milk!"