Unified Industry Lays The Foundation for Growth

In a unanimous vote that’s been described as “historical,” the American Bakers Association board of directors agreed to create a separate not-for-profit foundation to promote and improve consumers’ perceptions of breads, rolls and other bakery products.
At the ABA’s annual convention, held in Scottsdale, Ariz., in March, the ABA and four major industry associations also agreed to contribute more than $1 million in seed money for the newly formed “Foundation for the Advancement of Grain-Based Foods.”
The move comes about a year after the ABA board, seeing an industry besieged by fad diets and growing concerns over the nation’s obesity epidemic, initiated a joint effort with the North American Millers Association (NAMA) to explore the possibility of launching a unified industry effort to promote positive health messages regarding bread and other grain-based foods.
In addition to ABA and NAMA, BEMA, the American Institute of Baking (AIB) and the Allied Trades of the Baking Industry (ATBI) made commitments to provide seed money for the project, noted Paul Abenante, ABA’s president and CEO. The new foundation is expected to have an estimated minimum annual budget of $4 million primarily from voluntary contributions by individual baking companies, millers and others involved in the baking industry.
“We are looking at developing and presenting a meaningfully effective, and aggressive public relations campaign for bread, rolls and grain-based foods that would professionally get this industry on the scoreboard and begin advancing and restoring confidence in the nutritional value of grain-based foods in the marketplace,” Abenante explained.
“This is not an organization or an effort to attack or go against Atkins or other low-carb diet,” he added. “This foundation would serve as an institutional framework to create a comprehensive, national, nutritional messaging, as well as, develop a positive, upbeat atmosphere for promoting bread and other grain-based foods, and that’s something that we have not had before.”
Over the last several months, Reston, Va.-based Wirthin Worldwide has conducted extensive research on consumer attitudes concerning grain-based foods that is laying the framework for the public relations campaign. Wirthin, which outlined its mission at the ABA annual convention, was in the final stages of completing its research and will present a final report to ABA and NAMA at a joint meeting in May. Mullen, a Wenham, Mass.-based public relations firm, will then finalize development of a three-year program, which is expected to be launched by July.
Gary Prince, newly installed ABA chairman, called the developments “historical” and “a great start,” but he stressed that the industry has just made the first steps in what is expected to be a long and difficult campaign. He called launching an effective, new public relations effort the top priority for his ABA chairmanship.
“We have a lot of work to do, and while the ABA board and millers are tremendously excited about it, it’s just the beginning,” he said. “The question is how big of a swath can we bring to this program in terms of this industry. The fact is that our industry is challenged.”
Specifically, he said, the industry has been impacted by the obesity issue, which he called “a fundamental problem in our nation” that’s impacting everything from the sales of bakery products to the skyrocketing costs of health care. Both government and industry, he added, need to join forces to “get the facts out.”
“The attack on carbs is just a fallout of this whole issue,” Prince said. “To me, the broader issue is obesity. Carbs just happens to be the issue in front of us right now.”
Bakers, he said, need to do a better job talking up their products and communicating an effective message to consumers. At the ABA convention, he noted, many experts presenting at the meeting reiterated a major theme that consumers “simply eat too much and move too little, and bringing balance to the table is what this program is really about.” That’s a message that needs to be brought home to consumers, he added.
“We don’t do enough as an industry talking about the health aspects of our products,” Prince explained. “In fact, we do very little. We’re too conservative in our approach about talking about health and fitness and the need for portion control.”
Prince, who’s president of Horsham, Pa-based Weston Foods U.S., suggested that the upcoming public relations program could be easily integrated into Weston’s existing advertising and promotional programs. Weston produces a wide variety of breads, English muffins, bagels, baked sweet goods and other bakery products under such powerhouse brands as Thomas’, Entenmann’s, Stroehmann’s, Maier’s, Arnolds, Brownberry and other names.
“It’s all about the notion of whole grains and our products being good for you,” he said.
To fund the program, the ABA board agreed on proposing a voluntary contribution guideline of 2.5 cents per cwt. of flour usage, which will be matched by the milling industry. George Deese, outgoing ABA chairman and president and CEO of Thomasville, Ga.-based Flowers Foods, describes the proposal as a “benchmark,” adding that flexibility may be needed for some companies.
While the funding formula is being formalized, Abenante emphasized that the industry is “united and committed to ensuring the success of the new program and the foundation.” He noted that most of the logistics for establishing the foundation, such as filing for not-for-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service and selecting an auditing firm to establish and oversee escrow accounts, are in progress. He expects a foundation administrator to be named in the not-too-distant future.