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Idaho Potato Commission extends big potato truck tour

Seldom, if ever, has a public relations effort by the Idaho Potato Commission garnered as much favorable publicity as the Big Idaho Potato Truck Tour, now completing its second year. “You can’t pay for the kind of coverage we’ve gotten across the country,” said IPC President Frank Muir in an interview with The Produce News.

Riding that wave of success, the commission is currently working on plans for a third national tour of the Big Idaho Potato Truck and has committed to extend the campaign to a fourth and fifth year as well.IPC-Truck-at-Datz-DeliThe Big Idaho Potato Truck in front of Datz Deli in Tampa, FL, on its 2013 national tour. (Photo courtesy of the Idaho Potato Commission)

At the outset, “we weren’t sure we were going to do this,” Muir said. “When we put this on the road” for the first tour in 2012, “we thought we had a break-through campaign,” but “we really didn’t know what would happen.”

The truck, a flatbed big-rig on which is mounted a massive replica of an Idaho potato, and its team traveled 17,000 miles the first year, and the commission decided to do a second tour in 2013. “This year alone they will have traveled over 30,000 miles,” visiting 47 states, “many multiple times,” Muir said.

Once again, “we have been able to visit some pretty iconic places,” making appearances by invitation at such events as the NFL Hall of Fame Game, the Kentucky Derby, the College World Series in Omaha, NE, and the Future Farmers of America National Convention in Louisville, KY, among many others, he said. “We also made a visit to Hasbro’s headquarters and did an appearance with Mr. Potato Head.”

Everywhere the truck goes, “we get TV pickup,” Muir continued. “News stations show up, film it, and run it as news stories.” Wherever it stops, crowds gather and people take photos. It has been a resounding success.

In October, the commissioners looked at those successes and discussed extending the string of tours, Muir noted. “Our objective is to keep that truck out on the road for a commitment of another three years,” he said. Details will be forthcoming, but “it has been such a huge success, why would we walk away from it?”

The Big Idaho Potato Truck’s national tour served as inspiration for the commission’s 2012-13 national television consumer advertising campaign, featuring Idaho Potato Farmer Mark Coombs, in a potato field, lamenting that the truck and crew left home moths ago and have not yet returned. In the ad, he holds a poster of the “missing” truck and crew, and asks viewers, “If you see them, please tell them to come home,” as fast cuts show the truck at recognizable landmarks around the country and the crew having a grand time.

The ad was so well received that the theme was repeated in the commission’s 2013-14 campaign. In the new ad, Coombs sets off across the country in his pickup truck, with his dog, in search of the still-missing potato truck and crew. That commercial debuted on national television during a Boise State football game broadcast Saturday, Aug. 31 and will run through January. Unsolicited comments from viewers have called it “probably the best commercial I have ever seen,” “one of the cutest and cleanest advertisements on TV,” and “the best ad ever. You guys have a winner.” One viewer wrote, “Thank you for putting out a decent ad.”

“We are leveraging the Big Idaho Potato Truck in everything we do,” Muir said. At the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit this year, “we created a simulated crop duster ride … where people were flying all over America trying to help our grower find the missing big truck.”

That could hold a clue to what is being considered for the 2014-15 television ad creative, Muir hinted.

The Big Idaho Potato Truck will conclude its 2013 tour with an appearance at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Bronco Stadium in Boise, ID, Dec. 21. “This is our third year” as the title sponsor of the bowl, Muir said. “We now have a six-year contract with the Mountain West Conference as well as the Mid-America Conference to provide teams. Even more exciting, ESPN has acquired the bowl game. What that does is reinforce the future strength of the bowl. ESPN will put more muscle behind promoting it, and they will insure that we get really great matchups and great timing in terms of when our game airs.”

The commission will also continue its sponsorships with the Boise State University and University of Idaho football programs, Muir said. “That includes signage year-round” on the sidelines and end zones of the stadiums. “We also now have permanent signage on their scoreboards.”

Another example of the Idaho Potato Commission continuing to perpetuate programs that have been proven winners, is the Potato Lovers Month retail display contest which has been ongoing each February for 18 years.

That program has continued to grow, and last year, Muir said they had a record amount totaling over 4,000, which was more than double the prior year. “We are expecting it to be as big this year,” he added. Hormel will once again be the commission’s tie-in partner for the promotion, so “we will have their 240 direct sales people helping us promote it as well.”

New this year, the commission has “linked up with Heather Cox,” and “Idaho girl” who is a national sideline reporter for ESPN. As she travels around the country for ESPN, she will film videos in each location celebrating Idaho potatoes, he said.

Among other commission activities include an extensive social media outreach program, an electronic news letter called “Tater Talk” that goes out to 70,000 recipients and features a monthly recipe contest, a blogger tour of Idaho, a youth video game contest and a fund raising sponsorship for Racing for Orphans with Down’s Syndrome.

The Idaho potato industry this year harvested around 315,000 acres of potatoes, down from last year, but “according to the USDA, it looks like we may have had a record yield,” Muir said.

“We will probably be around 13 billion pounds of potatoes,” which is about a billion less than last year and should position the crop in “the sweet spot” in the market. “The quality is extremely high,” he said, and “prices are up vs. a year ago, and significantly so. I think we are in really good shape to hold prices throughout the year and finish strong.”