Successful Year of Pulses campaign offers valuable tips

The United Nations’ 2016 International Year of Pulses was a smashing success. There’s a lot to be said for a focused and dedicated effort to educate consumers about food and farming.

We can learn from this success.

First, let’s take a look at just how well this initiative worked. The UN launched the International Year of Pulses to “raise awareness about the protein power and health benefits of all kinds of dried beans and peas, boost their production and trade, and encourage new and smarter uses throughout the food chain.”

Pulses have a heck of a story to tell: high in fibre, protein and B vitamins, they also are considered environmentally sustainable because they leave nitrogen in the ground, and they are inexpensive compared to meat proteins.

The International Year of the Pulses targeted 18- to 34-year-olds — the millennials — who might have grown up seeing lentils tucked in the back of their pantry to be used by the cook of the house for making soup.

Using social media, advertising and the health media, the campaign blew past its goal of 500 million media impressions, rolling up 3.44 billion. Incredible.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates domestic consumption of pulses increased by 157 percent in 2016-17 to 900,000 tonnes over the previous year.

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It’s important to note that there are other benefits to this initiative. Increased demand for pulses gives farmers another viable crop in the rotation and another opportunity for export, as well as encouraging more research spending and more investment in infrastructure. (For example, earlier this year Roquette announced a $400 million pea processing plant to be built in Portage la Prairie, Man.)

This was no fluke. The UN’s International Year of Quinoa in 2013 also yielded great results.

Canada is now responsible for 35 percent of the world’s pulse market and is the world’s largest exporter of pulses. Yet there is much more room to grow.

So, what did we learn?

First, this campaign showed that getting farmers and industry experts out there promoting farm products — whether it be the crops themselves or the food benefits — can work extremely well, especially when you do it in a big way. So think big. Someone came up with an audacious idea to get the UN to proclaim a year of the pulses. It might have seemed a bit out there at the time, but it sure worked.

And when you’re targeting health conscious consumers, social media is exceedingly fertile ground when it’s used well.

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As well, get the health industry onboard. Celebrity chefs are popular. Engage them. That’s not a new idea, but it’s a good one. Wolfgang Puck and Michael Smith are popular today, but the Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr, would have been successful promoting ideas back in the day.

Also, engage all aspects of the food chain: farmers, food processors, government and retailers. Together, they are a powerful force.

And plan ahead. The UN made the decision to name 2016 the International Year of Pulses back in 2013 to give the industry plenty of lead time to organize.

Focus on social movements such as health and environmental sustainability. They gain traction.

Find ways to make it attractive — there are lots of good recipes out there with pulses.

And, as U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council chief executive officer Tim McGreevy noted, identifying pulses as a solution to people’s fears about weight gain and heart disease helps to capture consumers’ attention.

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The success of the International Year of Pulses is a good blueprint for future communications on agriculture.