In 1983, the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) needed to find a way to turn its dirt-encrusted, starchy tuber back into a highly marketable crop. That year, a cartoon-style potato character, complete with resplendent cowboy hat and red Idaho neckerchief, was born.
Fast-forward to 1993, when Hasbro quashed hopes of securing the rights for the IPC to use Mr. Potato Head as the new face of its character—no thanks to Pixar. Hasbro pulled out of negotiations when it became clear the famous spud was going to be a bit busy in his starring role in the animation studio’s 1995 blockbuster Toy Story.
No matter. Eventually dubbed Potato Buddy, the character previously used by the IPC was given a permanent smile, tennis shoes and his now iconic red sweater. But in 1996, while being interviewed on live television by Willard Scott on the Today Show in New York, former IPC chairman Don Dixon changed the name of the character on the fly to something else: Spuddy Buddy.
And it stuck.
“We always want to bring the potato back to modern culture,” current IPC president and CEO Frank Muir says. “We’ve made it cool to hang out with a potato.”
To date, more than 1 million plush Spuddy Buddys have been given away to, well, everyone. Now produced at a rate of 25,000 to 50,000 per year, Spuddy Buddys have been handed over as gifts to judges in Pakistan, the cast of Gilligan’s Island, fourth-grade Idaho school children, fitness guru Denise Austin and several U.S. presidents, including Donald Trump and George W. Bush.
“I’m doing well in Idaho. I love their potatoes,” Trump said on Good Morning America during his presidential campaign.
That’s the kind of unshakable free association that you just can’t buy, Muir says.
Fighting an Uphill Battle
When Muir came on board with the IPC 14 years ago, he couldn’t help but feel the deck was stacked against him.
“I really do believe potatoes were under the gun,” Muir says. “Was the Idaho potato going the way of the Washington apple? When I was growing up, there were commercials for the Washington apple. Now my kids don’t make that same connection.”
At the height of the Atkins diet in 2003, which called on dieters to remove carbohydrates from their meals, Muir said potatoes were under attack.
Closer to home, a bill was making its way through the Idaho legislature in 2006 that would have allowed Idaho drivers to rid their license plates of the words “Famous Potatoes”—a slogan that first appeared on the plates in 1948.
That same year, the prestigious Institute of Medicine released a report that cautioned against including white potatoes in the federal government’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program—a banishment in place until 2015.
Then the potato was also passed over for consideration for the U.S. Treasury’s state quarter program in 2007.
Muir says he got real with the commission—did it want the public to view Idaho potatoes as just another commodity, or did it want to market an actual brand?
“Idaho is known more for the potato than any other state is known for anything else,” Muir says. “Think about that. Not Florida oranges. Not Wisconsin cheese. The Idaho potato is a connection people make.”
Cultivating New Ideas
Throughout all these obstacles, Spuddy Buddy’s appeal to the public never wavered, Muir says, but the commission was always focused on how to keep his image new and in the spotlight.
That’s where technology came in. As the internet became more and more popular, Muir said the commission knew it had to keep up.
Now you can connect on Facebook or LinkedIn with Spuddy Buddy. You can even follow Spuddy Buddy’s adventures around the world on Instagram with his own hashtag: #tatertravels.
In 2015, Spuddy became the subject of many a GIF and won the reverence of SB Nation journalist Rodger Sherman after a helper was spotted keeping the dancing potato mascot dry with an umbrella on the rainy sidelines at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
The character is included in IPC’s other remarkably successful marketing stunt: the Big Idaho Potato Truck. The truck, which set off on its maiden voyage in 2012 to celebrate the IPC’s 75th anniversary, has now been to all lower 48 states and travels about 25,000 miles every year. Spuddy Buddy is featured prominently on the back of the truck, touting the potato's nutritional facts, including the stat that a potato has more potassium than a banana.
Mark Coombs served on the commission for more than seven years and knows the impact of Spuddy Buddy and the Big Potato Truck firsthand. He’s the Idaho potato farmer featured on the Big Potato Truck’s nationally televised commercials.
“People remember fun things,” Coombs says. “Spuddy Buddy’s just a little unique. No other commodity has anything as big and as massive as the potato truck. Other industries don’t have that. As long as we own it, we own it and that brings revenue to the industry. ... It’s all about impressions, right?”
Coombs, 60, grows potatoes in rotation on his 1,000-acre farm north of Middleton, Idaho. His family has farmed in the area since 1958.
“From a farmer’s point of view, for the product we grow, the commission is doing (its) job,” Coombs says. “Idaho is always No. 1 in the consumer’s mind. A lot of states grow potatoes, and there’s a lot closer markets to bigger cities like New York. It cost us a lot of money to transport those potatoes, but we get to keep our status as No. 1 in the market year after year. That says something.”
Source: Idaho Press-Tribune