WFF is extremely esteemed to have partnered with Conagra Brands for the 6th Annual Woody’s Winter Warm-Up. The event was an incredible success! We were thrilled to have the opportunity to work with them and also sit down with their Communications Manager, Dan Skinner, to learn more about one of their most iconic brands.
What would baseball be without the Sunflower? The gentle behemoth of a plant, becoming the international sign of “peace” and lower back tattoos for decades! Peanuts may be the official spectator snack to the game, but sunflower seeds are the official treat to ball players. Nothing beats the rhythmic sound of shells cracking in the dugout, the juice salivating from the salt sprinkled shell, and the soft seed waiting for your tastebuds before packing the next few shells between your teeth.
There’s something nostalgic about the way we can romanticize game days; the earthy smell of the fresh cut grass, the bitter taste of gritty dust after sliding head-first into second, and the distinct sound of a curveball left up-and-away, hitting the sweet spot on the (now carbon) bats. While all of these are so sweet to the memory, the sweetest feeling was having the cold fence pressed against your face as you would yell to your younger sibling to grab the most prized snack of the game from your parents: David Seeds.
If you were like me, you would quickly tear open the bag, grab a handful of BBQ dusted kernels, and stuff them in your back right pocket…another handful would find itself in your left cheek. While grabbing your mitt, you spit, adjust your cup, and sprint to the outfield, avoiding the ankle sized holes in the rugged, but beautiful terrain. It’s funny how the seeds would become a sacred currency in the dugout – everyone can think back to the thief from their team (almost always the testy bench players,) rummaging through bat bags sneaking handfuls of the delicious and royal treat.
In some respect, have you ever known another sunflower seed brand? Has there even been a time when David wasn’t the top seed for the professional and amateur athletes alike? It turns out, the answer is yes, which I discovered in early December at Conagra Brands main Headquarters in Chicago!
The Merchandise Mart is a magical and historic building that lives in its own zip code (60658), which, since 2008, has expanded to its neighboring blocks. When the mart opened in 1930, it was the largest building in the world – today the Art Deco landmark welcomes over 20,000 people per day and home to hundreds of brands. As of June 2016, it is now home to Conagra Brands.
The power-house organization currently owns a grand total of 52 brands. 52. Most, if not all, will resonate within your palate – Chef Boyardee, Reddi Whip, Orville Redenbacher – Ironically, I would come to learn most of my favorite childhood meals were actually started by real guys. Chef Boyardee? He was the man, and actually catered President Woodrow Wilson’s wedding in 1914 – who woulda thunk?
The office itself has an incredibly positive vibe. Grey wood planks line the walls with hues of green and red seamlessly mixing with decor. It’s almost like stepping into a spring meadow filled with talented professionals tackling the everyday challenges of your favorite homegrown brands.
I browsed the modern, forest-like halls with Dan Skinner, communication manager of Conagra Brands. Dan welcomed me to the walk of fame and introduced me to wooden columns with the companies favorite quotes and brand history.
How do you manage brands like David Seeds and Slim Jim?
On their own, they’re goliath brands – rich in culture, history, and charm. An organization like David Seeds is certainly iconic, growing with baseball players and athletes of all walks of life from training wheels to world championships. As Skinner introduced me to his colleagues, he led me through the “spring meadow of talent” as I like to recall, and we sat down on a pair of lime-green benches. They were firm, yet comfortable, with similar benches facing each other in multiple pairs.
I started our conversation by diving straight into questions about the company, nervously leveling my cell phone on the seat beside me to record the conversation. MB: Mike Bruce DS: Dan Skinner
MB: Slim Jim, Orville, these are huge brands that have been around for quite some time. Let’s talk a little bit about David Seeds, can you give a little history here?
DS: David Seeds is another one of our brands that date back to the 1920’s, not surprisingly, it was started by a man named David
MB: Oh Wow!
DS: (Laughing) yes, big shocker there! David Der Hairabedian, was a grocer out in California and he was roasting sunflower seeds, so he became very popular in his store. With all the popularity, he and his family just began roasting the seeds and packaging them for individual sales and that’s really the origin of that brand. We acquired the brand in 2001, but the seeds are actually grown in Fresno, California (where it was founded). The great thing about it has been the association with baseball and the popularity it’s shared between players and the league.
SIDE NOTE (I would come to discover through research that some growers plant over 17,000 seeds per acre on their land in the Spring. The Sunflower grows until September/October when it’s best believed to harvest. Farmers will know when the plants are ready, once the black part of the seed head turns brown – then it’s on to the processing plant where they are double washed, roasted and seasoned to perfection. Everything from size to moisture is considered to provide the best tasting and looking product.)
MB: It seems like baseball and seeds go hand in hand, I can’t think of a better duo in sports –
DS: I opened a bag and still think back to high school baseball, sitting on the bench, sharing seeds with a mess of salt around my lips by the end of the game. If there are any of our brands that’s synonymous with another icon, it’s baseball and David.
MB: Well here’s a question I’m curious about, what are the top flavors right now for seeds? It wasn’t until I started playing when I was younger (now 25) that Ranch, Dill pickle etc. became popular!
DS: Yep! You hit on some of the big ones there, Chili Lime is actually another one that’s pretty popular and well liked right now. We also have Sour Cream and Onion. Original continues to be the favorite, but whether people like a spicy or a sweet, David has something for everybody.
MB: Man, I can’t even think of competition. Who would you even recognize as competitors in the industry?
DS: There are two other sunflower seed brands, Spits and Bigs, those are really the other two players in the space.
MB: Huh, since it’s been such a huge brand in the MLB. Word of mouth is huge. Do you even need marketing? What do you have?! I’d imagine there’s certainly not much you need to do!
DS: It’s definitely a brand that does really well on its own with word of mouth and the popularity and heritage. Unlike Slim Jim, we don’t really invest into ads, promotion, and marketing. It’s something we hear ball players mention they love having certain flavors in the dugout and we do some product placements here and there. But by and large, we rely on grassroots efforts and word of mouth.
MB: Alright, million dollar question: Who are the top players that are requesting certain seeds?
DS: Well we actually had a few current Cubs players here last month to actually kick off our corporate food drive: Kyle Schwarber, Dexter Fowler, and Kyle Hendricks all in our office. We got on the subject of David Seeds, and all three were pretty fond. But we’re actually pretty popular with the equipment managers, they’re kind of like the gateway to the players when requesting for them.
MB: Oh for sure, gateway for steroids, seeds etc. I’m kidding on the steroid part…– if there’s a top flavor, what’s the most requested for players?
DS: Typically the Original, BBQ, and Ranch are the most popular. Despite the variety of flavors, people really gravitate to the Original.
MB: Which makes sense, there’s such a variety now, which is great! But you can always trust plain old salt. While it’s such a simple and straightforward product, how do you continue to brand David Seeds?
DS: We’re the pinch hitter for players – helping you enjoy the game day experience. Not that it’s a power-up and fuel you up type product like Gatorade, but it’s the kind of product which can help you be at your best and remain comfortable at the game.
MB: Is there any crossover into other sports like football?
DS: Surprisingly yes, there’s a ton of crossover with football, soccer, really any outdoor sport. We’re pretty popular on the sidelines. Although baseball is really where the roots and heritage is –
MB: Is there leverage in other countries? I can see there being a random country in Europe that imports thousands of pounds of seeds each year ha!
DS: (Laughing) No it’s more of an American favorite. Our popcorn brands do well overseas, but the seeds really just remain local.
MB: Are there any odd experiences you’ve had with the brand so far?
DS: We receive a couple proposals and fan letters from folks here and there for sure. With David, we received a proposal from a 12-year-old boy, talking about the difficulties he was having throwing his seeds out the window of his moving car. His Mom was getting upset because she didn’t like the seeds being spit in the car, so he developed this catapult-like device to help. It was a pretty extensive proposal and plan, so from a product development set-up it’s not exactly something we could do, but it was certainly creative enough to send him some seeds and product!!
MB: That’s great! Do you get those kinds of fan letters and proposals quite often?
DS: Really, all of our Facebook audience is where most fans talk about the brand and express their favorite things. Actually, our Facebook comes from a fan who happened to start a David Seeds page before we really knew what to do with Facebook. He had grown the page to around 30,000 likes, so we came to him and he wasn’t really active with the page. So we asked if we could take it over with a trade of some product and SWAG, which we we’re definitely gracious for. But it was certainly impressive!
MB: I think we should start teaching kids about this in school! One way to get free product! Looking forward to 2017, what do you think are some next steps for the brand?
DS: Yeah of course! We’re looking for occasions beyond the brand, team sports, opportunities etc. Some people like to take (seeds) on hiking and camping trips, what else can this brand mean to people beyond outdoor sports and that experience? We’d love to continue going down that path.
MB: We’ll conclude this, but what’s the most exciting thing about working with these brands, especially all 52?
DS: I think the breadth of what we do as a company, and with how iconic some of these are: Swiss Miss, Chef Boyardee, Manwich, Orville Redenbacher, some of these have such a rich heritage, just stories beyond these brands and being in 98% of homes with all of our products is pretty unique and widely respected. It certainly makes it a fun place to work!