Prunes: Turning Over a New Leaf

Change from ‘prune’ to ‘dried plum’ proving fruitful.

Today, almost every business wants to project a youthful image, and in the process attract a younger audience. Case in point is Pepsi, whose latest ad campaign features the 20-year-old megastar, Britney Spears, delivering song and dance routines punctuated by, “Pepsi: For Those Who Think Young.” In more and more businesses the support of a young demographic is necessary just to remain competitive. Recently, Nightline was nearly bumped off by The Late Show with David Letterman, even though Ted Koppel’s program maintains a larger viewing audience.

For the prune industry it was obvious entering the 21st century that the current youth-driven climate represented a threat to its growth prospects. After all, a fruit best known for promoting regularity among senior citizens simply wasn’t in step with the times. During the past two years, the prune has been undergoing a full-scale makeover, emerging with a new image and a new name—the dried plum.

Dark Side of the Prune

Companies have long used fiber and regularity as selling points for certain products. And, for a long time, that message worked particularly well for prunes. “If you go back to the 1940s and ’50s some of the brands were advertising the medicinal properties of prunes,” reminds Richard Peterson, executive director of the California Dried Plum Board, an agricultural marketing association that works to expand demand for dried plums. 

The fruit solidified its reputation with a mid-’80s advertising campaign that championed prunes as ‘the high-fiber fruit.’ At the time, bran cereals were touting the health benefits of a high fiber diet, in part because of Ronald Reagan’s public battle with colon cancer. “We positioned ourselves as a better tasting alternative to bran cereals,” continues Peterson. “And it worked. During the ’80s we had unprecedented gains in domestic shipments. We had a claim that was supportable and believable and the timing was right.” However, when interest in fiber waned the campaign ceased to be effective and prune sales began a long, slow decline.

Professor Plum 

In response, the industry began commissioning studies to help figure out how to re-position prunes to consumers. According to Adel Kader, professor of post-harvest physiology at the University of California Davis’ Department of Pomology, “those studies indicated that younger generations were reluctant to eat prunes because they associated them with being old. However, [the studies also indicated that] if they were marketed as dried plums the likelihood of the younger generations eating them increased.” 

As a result, the California Prune Board began lobbying the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to officially change the name, and in June of 2000 the Board received permission from the FDA to use ‘dried plums’ as an alternative to ‘prunes.’ Shortly afterwards the board followed suit and re-named itself the California Dried Plum Board.

“There’s a perception that the prune is not good but with dried plums people say, ‘Hey, this a new product and it’s fantastic,’” says Wilbur Reil, farm advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension. 

“We didn’t go into this blindly,” says Peterson. “We had done some good research and seventy percent of consumers preferred the name dried plums.”


The change begs the question, What’s the difference between a prune and dried plum? The answer sounds vaguely reminiscent of an SAT question. According to the [former] California Prune Board’s Buyer’s Guide, “by definition, a prune is a dried plum. All prunes are plums but not all plums are prunes.” 

“There are two species of plums,” elaborates Kader. “There’s the Japanese plums, which are mostly consumed fresh, and then there’s European plums, the majority of which are dried. The dried European plums equal prunes while the dried Japanese plums are usually just called dried plums.” 

However, ninety-nine percent of the dried plums grown in California are of the French (European) variety. Formerly referred to as the California French prune, this is the type you are most likely to purchase in an American supermarket. 

Asking for the Prune

While it was easy to garner industry-wide support for the name change, the transition from prunes to dried plums brought to light concerns about confusing loyal consumers. “We agreed for the first two years after the conversion packages would carry both names—California prunes and dried plums—in either order. It didn’t matter as long as both were on the principal display panel of retail packages,” says Peterson. 

The transition also presented a few unavoidable logistical problems. “As you know, it takes a while for the old packaging to make its way through the system, and to get new graphics developed, printed and then online,” continues Peterson. “It wasn’t until nine months ago or so that we had major packers with products on shelves that said ‘dried plums’.” 

Sometime during 2003 consumers will begin to see product labeled solely as ‘dried plums.’ In the meantime, the emphasis placed on prunes versus dried plums may vary from product to product and packer to packer.

According to Howard Nager, vice president of North America marketing for Sunsweet—which sells 80,000 tons of dried plums a year in 40 countries around the world—“we have a stronger presence for pitted prunes on the front of packages that are targeted to our core consumer (men and women aged 60 years plus). These are people who have been eating prunes for many years and we don’t want to confuse them.” 

But Sunsweet has taken a different approach for its new flavored products. “We have a line of essence flavored dried plums—Lemon Essence, Orange Essence and Cherry Essence. On those you don’t see the word ‘prunes’ except on the ingredients statement,” informs Nager. 

Image Is Everything

Meanwhile, the industry has worked hard to update the prune’s public image. “For many years it was advertised as a laxative,” recalls Nager. "What we’re trying to present today isn’t a whole lot different. We may not be using the word regularity, and we’re certainly not using the word laxative, but we are promoting the benefits,” he says. 

First and foremost among those benefits is that dried plums are high in antioxidants. In a nutshell, antioxidants are compounds that neutralize cellular damage and may help lower the risk of cancer. “Two years ago we were number one in a Tufts University study which measured the antioxidant power of 40 popular fruits and vegetables,” notes Peterson. 

Manufacturers have also been touting the convenience factor, a commonly used selling point in the packaged food industry. “It’s portable and with 13 essential vitamins and minerals it’s for people that are on the go and looking for a healthy snack,” adds Nager. 

Dry Country

It’s also not unusual for industries to market their products differently in different countries. In this case, the dried plum industry limited the name change to the United States. After all, in most European nations—especially France, Germany, Italy and Scandinavia—the prune is very much a part of consumer diets. 

“Outside of the U.S. the prune has a very positive image,” notes Peterson. “In Japan many people refer to it as the miracle fruit because of its health attributes. The only place we had a problem was the United States, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom.”

Of course, the prune isn’t the first commodity product to undergo a name change and makeover. In the 1960s, the Chinese Gooseberry was successfully repositioned as the Kiwifruit—and Kiwi eventually became the internationally recognized name. 

“One of the major benefits of the name change is that it’s more descriptive about what the product actually is. You’d be surprised how many consumers who are already consuming the product don’t know where a prune comes from,” claims Peterson. 

Seed Money

Of course, the bottom line is how all this re-positioning impacts sales. Early indications are that the change is having the desired effect. “Last year dried plum sales were up five percent over a year ago. That was good because we were looking at a domestic market that had been declining,” says Peterson. “Most of our product is consumed by people over the age of 60 and as that group diminishes we have to replace our heavy users. That’s why we began focusing on a younger target audience.” 

“We’re certainly not ignoring our current customer,” says Nager. “But like just about every other packaged goods company, we’re looking at the baby boomer—typically women from 35-54.” 

Nager also echoes Peterson’s economic outlook: “What we’re seeing is a slower decline in sales,” he says. “Certainly, that first year when the media was covering the name change there was a definite spike. Now that things have settled down a bit what we’re seeing is a slower decline. It slowed the momentum on the train going downhill. That has to happen first before sales turn around and begin increasing.” 

In the meantime, almost everyone is convinced that the name change is a good strategy. “We realized the importance of trying to create a positive image around this fruit,” says Nager. “We all felt—not only at Sunsweet, but as an industry—that this was the way to go. We’re glad we had the opportunity to legally call the prune what it really is—a dried plum.” 

But Professor Kader is still incredulous that a new moniker was necessary: “It’s a very tasty fruit. I don’t know why people shy away from eating it because of the name.”