Trumpeting a move to put the sun in SunChips

The Frito-Lay division of PepsiCo is using solar power to help transform its SunChips line of snack chips into a "green" brand. (From The New York Times)
Written by Natalie Gagliordi, Contributor
Madison Avenue has always been a place for sun worshipers, whether it was naming brands like Sun, Sunlight, Sunbird, Sunbeam and Sol; coining slogans like "A day with orange juice is like a day without sunshine"; or sending the Coppertone girl and her dog out on the beach to urge, "Don't be a paleface."

The newest demonstration of solar power (figuratively) is coming from the Frito-Lay division of PepsiCo, which is using the sun to help transform its SunChips line of multigrain snack chips into a "green" brand.

The initiative is centered on the addition of solar power (literally) to the Frito-Lay plant in Modesto, Calif., that makes SunChips. A 10-acre "farm" of solar collectors is being added, to provide up to 75 percent of the energy needed to produce the product.

The plant, one of seven in the United States that make SunChips, is scheduled to start using solar power on Earth Day, April 22, as part of ambitious efforts by Frito-Lay and PepsiCo to convince consumers that the companies care about the environment.

Those measures include buying renewable-energy credits, a move that is being promoted on packages of SunChips. The company is also rethinking manufacturing processes to use less water and power and is installing fuel-efficient ovens.

Frito-Lay does not intend to hide its light under a bushel. A campaign to inform shoppers about the ecologically friendly changes is getting under way, composed of television commercials, print advertisements, billboards, information on the SunChips Web site and a presence on social-networking site Facebook.

Environmental themes are enjoying a boom and are changing how marketers and agencies talk to consumers. Companies like Coca-Cola, General Electric, General Motors, Macy's, E. W. Scripps, Toyota, and Wal-Mart are clambering aboard a bandwagon painted green, festooned with flowers, and powered by an engine that runs on biodiesel fuel.

A dozen news releases so far this week have featured ecological themes, like Macy's teaming up with the National Parks Foundation for a fund-raiser called Turn Over a New Leaf and the opening by Union, an ad agency in New York, of a shop named Union Green that will specialize in work for "eco-conscious clients."

A skeptic could have fun with the earnest tone and greener-than-thou attitude that infuse many of the initiatives in this realm. So many marketers have been putting environmental claims in their ads that the trade publication Brandweek recently observed in a headline that "a green backlash gains momentum."

There is even a term, greenwashing, coined to describe the perceptions of consumers that a marketer is inappropriately adopting a green persona.

"This is a space that, frankly, everybody is trying to learn about, and we're in that boat as well," said Gannon Jones, vice president for marketing at Frito-Lay in Plano, Texas. He is overseeing the creation of the SunChips campaign by Juniper Park, an agency in Toronto affiliated with the BBDO Worldwide unit of the Omnicom Group.

As consumers express concerns for the planet, Jones said, "companies are scrambling to find out as much as they can and respond appropriately."

"The companies and brands that are successful don't treat green as a promotional strategy," he added. "They embrace it throughout their business strategy."

Jones, as may be expected, places Frito-Lay among the marketers that have deeds behind their green words. Although he declined to offer details, he described the installation of the solar panels at the Modesto plant as a multimillion-dollar investment that exceeded the budget for the SunChips campaign.

That is significant because there are numerous examples of advertisers that spent more on campaigns to tell the public about noble activities, like bringing out green products or making charitable donations, than was spent on the activities themselves.

"What we're talking about is what we're doing or what we've done," Jones said of the campaign. "We're not making claims we can't back up because the wild claims have the potential to be harmful to the green movement over the long haul."

The commercials in the campaign, which are to start appearing on April 4, feature girls and women frolicking in the sun as an announcer invites viewers to "imagine capturing the sun's power and making chips with it." The spots end with the words "SunChips, now made with solar energy," and the brand's theme, "Live brightly."

One way green campaigns seek to avoid seeming too morally pure is to take a humorous tongue-in-cheek tack, and elements of the SunChips campaign follow that approach.

For example, the billboards are to be built so the letters spelling out the brand name are attached above the signs upside down and backward. When the sun comes out, the name will appear, cast in shadow across the top of the signs.

And advertisements scheduled to run in newspapers are being billed as "solar powered." The jest involves Frito-Lay's buying both sides of a page in each newspaper and printing the type backward on the back side of the page. The front side will carry this note: "Take this page and hold it up to the sun." When the readers do so, the type will be visible through the page.

"People think they have to make massive changes to affect anything," said Barry Quinn, creative director at Juniper Park. "We're giving them the opportunity to make small steps."

"A tiny little step may lead to more small steps," he added, "and more small steps may lead to something."

The SunChips Web site and the product packages also discuss what are called small steps being taken by Frito-Lay to address environmental and diet issues.

"It's not like I'm eating an apple," Quinn said of snacking on SunChips. "We're not pretending to be a bowl of oatmeal."

But when consumers choose to snack, SunChips offer "something better" than other options, he added, based on the 18 grams of whole grains--and 0 grams of trans fat--in each 1-ounce serving.

As for the environmental aspects of the campaign, "we're not claiming to be eco-warriors," Quinn said, but "it's not like greenwashing" because the Frito-Lay plant is "really using solar power to make the chips."

Jones said Frito-Lay intended to add solar power to as many of the SunChips plants as it could. But clearly, the Modesto plant in sunny California lends itself to solar power more than, say, the plant in Aberdeen, Md.

A Frito-Lay plant in Casa Grande, Ariz., is getting at least 50 acres of solar collectors to make snacks using solar power, but production of SunChips at that site has not started yet.

Frito-Lay has considerably increased its spending on ads for SunChips in major media, according to TNS Media Intelligence, a research service owned by Taylor Nelson Sofres. Spending last year totaled almost $10.8 million, according to TNS data, compared with $18,000 in 2006.

As for the sun being the only heavenly body to be noticed by Madison Avenue, one marketer is zigging when the others zag.

A humorous campaign for Rolling Rock beer by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, also part of Omnicom, is all about "moonvertising"--imaginary attempts by Rolling Rock, owned by Anheuser-Busch, to beam its logo onto the moon's surface when the moon is full each month.

Entire contents, Copyright © 2008 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

Editorial standards