For most, a spirit of community is something saved up for the holiday season. But for Sunkist Growers, gathering together around the citrus tree is an everyday affair. For the last 125 years, the core of the company has been dedicated to growing citrus the Sunkist way: together—one of the main reasons the company remains in the orange light.
While the allure of low-hanging fruit is enough for many, Sunkist has fostered a culture of branching out beyond citrus in order to turn over new leaves at every possible moment. This culture, combined with its rich history and collaborative values rooted in the principle, “We are stronger together,” are what drives Sunkist forward today.
“It goes without saying that Sunkist is all about growing, which extends beyond our citrus,” Christina Ward, Director of Communications, tells me. “We’re united as a cooperative and as a global community. We constantly strive to be better tomorrow than we were today. And, we do it with the warm-hearted, bright-eyed energy of California and Arizona.”
As everyone in the industry knows, growers are the heart of produce companies. Without growers, soil would remain untilled, trees and crops unharvested, and consumers unhappy and produce-less. It is this produce-truth universally acknowledged, as well as the quality of California’s and Arizona’s citrus, that led Sunkist to unite the citrus community in the 19th century and what keeps Sunkist primed and prepped on the cusp of our industry’s progress today.
“The cornerstone of our co-op is our growers. That’s why we say, ‘You can’t spell citrus without us,’” Christina notes.
The company has believed in that notion since it first started in 1893. While citrus groves were thriving at the time, it wasn’t until the Southern California Fruit Exchange, a regional organization tasked with marketing the growing citrus crop, that citrus growers banded together to create the foundations of the not-for-profit marketing cooperative (owned by and operated for California and Arizona citrus growers) we know today.
“We constantly strive to be better tomorrow than we were today. And, we do it with the warm-hearted, bright-eyed energy of California and Arizona.”
— Christina ward, director of communications, sunkist growers
By 1908, Sunkist was up, running, and working to brand the highest-quality oranges available to consumers. It was during this time that Sunkist also began its legacy as a marketing queen, producing one of the industry’s first ad campaigns. While many know California as an oasis of palm trees and good vibes, Sunkist set out to paint a new picture of the Golden State, and one that included flourishing citrus groves and high-quality fruit. The canvas, you ask? The fruit itself! In 1926, Sunkist stamped its logo onto fresh oranges, becoming one of the first organizations ever to brand and advertise on a piece of fruit.
With the stateside market enjoying the bounties of California and Arizona-grown citrus, Sunkist set its sights on the international market. In 1960, the company began shipping freshly grown fruit to primary markets in Europe and Japan, enriching lives around the world with the deliciousness of citrus and its expansive list of varieties.
Today, the orange doesn’t fall far from the tree, with Sunkist operating a global program that allows it to offer year-round citrus. Also, the company is still setting an industry precedent in marketing, traditional growing practices, stewardship of natural resources, and with its dedication to innovation. This nutrient-rich pulp of the company, so to speak, is how Sunkist continues growing-forth into tomorrow.
“Sunkist leads the citrus category,” Christina says. “We are always strengthening our retail marketing programs and have been for the last 125 years to continue to push the envelope.”
Specifically, Christina points to Sunkist’s high-graphic secondary display bins that have expanded its packaging portfolio and its new in-store point-of-sale materials that highlight flavor profiles, nutritional benefits, and recipes—both of which have helped Sunkist build awareness, drive trial, increase sales, and overall hit milestone after milestone.
Of course, on top of all of this, there is still much that makes Sunkist stand out from the bunch, and when I ask Christina if she can divulge any details, she has an answer rearing and ready to go.
“We have a strong brand promise and a great story to tell,” Christina shares. “Sunkist not only leverages both, but we also make a point to connect with our consumers of all ages, both on- and off-line. Digitally, we’re providing more education and awareness through social media and on the web.”
Growers and consumers are two halves of the same coin—or orange!—and Sunkist tends to its consumer-base just as much as its growers. For the last 125 years, Sunkist has cultivated its following, introducing the old and the new to top-quality citrus, as well as a community-oriented approach to fresh produce.
“Sunkist citrus has played a role in people’s lives for 125 years and counting. We’ve been through a lot together. We’ve been there for the happy hours and not-so-happy hours. The ‘We Were There’ approach is a reminder that we’re growing together,” Christina says.
“THE CORNERSTONE OF OUR CO-OP IS OUR GROWERS. THAT’S WHY WE SAY, 'YOU CAN’T SPELL CITRUS WITHOUT US.'”
As autumn and winter blur together, the time for citrus is upon us again. Christina reveals that California citrus crops are up, with overall volume and Navel oranges expected to increase this year. So, while the holiday season brings on plenty of promotions, retailers and shoppers alike will be ditching the partridge for the pummelo tree—that’s how excited Sunkist is for this year’s citrus season.
“The growth of mandarins has been unprecedented. We’re entering our second year of the branded Sunkist Delite® Mandarin program, and we continue to see an increase in the category’s demand. We believe Sunkist Delite Mandarins are growing in popularity because they are a well-rounded snack: sweet, seedless, easy-to-peel, and perfect for an on-the-go lifestyle. By their very nature, mandarins are packed with flavor and vitamins, making it a win-win for the consumer. Not to mention, it has become a must-have variety in the produce department,” Christina explains, noting just one variety of many the company is excited about.
Sunkist is also finding consumers are delighted with its specialty varieties, including sweet-tart pummelos; Texas Rio Star, Florida, Sweetie, and Melo Gold grapefruit; sweet, easy-to-peel Satsuma mandarins; and in the winter and spring, Minneola tangelos, royal and gold nugget variety mandarins, and Fairchild and Ojai pixie tangerines. Specialty lemons are also peaking in demand along with the category as a whole, creating more opportunities for seedless, pink variegated Zebra™ lemons, and Meyer lemons—a juicy, sweet, and less acidic mandarin/lemon hybrid—to shine beyond the produce aisle.
“We’re seeing continued growth in specialty varieties, especially varieties like sweet, seedless, and low-acidity Cara Cara Navels, and savory, rich blood oranges. Research shows that once consumers taste these varieties, they love the unique flavor profiles and come back for more. It is for this very reason we incorporate education and consumer experience into our marketing program for specialty varieties,” Christina says.
“Sunkist citrus has played a role in people’s lives for 125 years and counting. We’ve been through a lot together.”
In addition to specialty varieties, Sunkist has organics, lemons, limes, and grapefruit in its year-round arsenal, which Christina notes are also growing in demand thanks to their versatility.
The citrus category is not only one to watch, it is one to celebrate. With so much on the up and up, I ask Christina if she can give me a teaser for what’s to come for Sunkist.
“I can’t reveal too much, but continued growth is on the horizon for Sunkist. We’re looking forward to the fruitful future ahead,” she tells me.
Whether it is the holiday season or any ol’ day, Sunkist is giving any and all a reason to sing, “O Citrus Tree,” with their community—and beyond the holidays, maybe that is just what life is about.