A Mandarin Showdown: Farming in the Age of the Global Brand

There's a new battle in the produce aisles, and the same variety of citrus is on both sides.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

Jan 30, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

When it comes to dueling brands, like Mac versus PCs or Nike versus Reebok, differentiating your product from the competition is the key to success. Unique design, exclusive features, a singular identity or point of view: These are the kinds of things that define a company—and its audience.

However, in the last largely brand-free consumer space, the produce aisle, creating difference is nearly impossible. One apple can’t be the disrupting Snapchat—the fruit, it’s impermanent!—to another location-settings-enabled, Instagram-like variety. Apples are apples and oranges are oranges, and while you might prefer Pink Ladys or Valencias, for the most part no one grower or company can corner the market on a single variety.

Unless that variety is the mandarin, which has become better known in recent years as Cuties. The easily peeled brand-name fruit, sold by the three-pound or five-pound box during California’s winter citrus season, has become a byword for “orange.” In the case of Cuties, the brand is the product, the product the brand.

And for Roll Global and citrus grower Berne Evans, who together trademarked the Cuties name in 2001, the mandarins have been a goldmine. That is, until last May, when Evans, who disagreed with Roll’s multimillion-dollar marketing plans, took full control of the trademark after a series of lawsuits.

Lynda and Stewart Resnick, the billionaire couple behind Roll, responded as only the mega-rich can: As Anne VanderMey details in a fascinating story for Fortune, they put together a $100 million, five-year marketing plan to sell Wonderful Halos citrus as a Cuties-killing competitor. What are Wonderful Halos? They’re the exact same kind of mandarins as Cuties.

Wonderful Halos hit store shelves in November, the same month the advertising started playing in primetime across the country. So far, they're selling well, about on par with Cuties. In fact, the whole category is up 33%, according to research firm Fresh Look Marketing. That works out well for the Resnicks and for Berne Evans III. "If [Stewart Resnick] wants to create more demand," Evans says, leaning back in his chair, hands behind his head, "he'll create more demand."

So when you're comparing mandarins now, the competing brands are like apples and oranges.