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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Everyone knows McDonald's, the world's largest chain of hamburger fast food restaurants.
And millions are aware of Cuties, one of the most recognized brands in California citrus.
But what about McCuties?
Millions of the little orange Clementines and mandarins, grown right here in the San Joaquin Valley, could soon be offered in Happy Meals at McDonald's restaurants across the country as part of a bold new cross-branding agreement between the iconic restaurant chain and Sun Pacific Marketing, a grower and marketer of California citrus, table grapes and tomatoes -- and the exclusive distributor of Cuties.
"I think it's great on so many levels," said Julie Lucido, the CEO and art director of Marketing Plus, a creative marketing agency based in Fresno with a client list packed with producers and marketers of fresh fruit and other agricultural products.
It's great for McDonald's, Lucido said, because it sends a strong message that the chain is continuing to listen to customers -- especially parents -- who want to see a range of healthy options on the menu.
And it's good for Sun Pacific because it could seriously raise the public profile of the already popular fresh fruit brand -- and in a best-case scenario, transform Cuties into a global product, available year-round.
According to multiple sources, if the partnership works out as planned, the Cuties/Happy Meal program will run from late November through March at participating restaurants.
While the details are still in flux, Happy Meal customers would likely have the option of choosing a Cutie, apple slices or yogurt.
The easy-to-peel, mostly seedless Cuties would also be offered ala carte, that is, customers would be able to purchase them individually to accompany any meal.
According to a story published last February in The Packer, a weekly newspaper covering fruit and vegetable news, produce shipping and other industry information, McDonald's began automatically adding apple slices to its Happy Meals in 2012. The company said at the time it had served more than 850 million bags of apple slices -- an indication of the stunning volumes Sun Pacific could realize if the partnership is successful.
Test marketing Cuties in McDonald's restaurants began last winter in Austin, Texas, confirmed Lisa McComb, director of media relations for McDonald's.
But the McDonald's spokeswoman asked The Californian to hold the story about the Cuties/Happy Meals deal -- for a month -- saying the details remain subject to change and that franchise holders would have to first approve the plan before it goes nationwide.
Sources dried up after the fast-food giant became aware a reporter was chasing the story. A scheduled interview with a Sun Pacific executive never materialized Thursday.
But sources at Sun Pacific and its ad agency earlier made it clear they were excited about the deal.
For years, Paramount Citrus, part of Los Angeles-based Roll Global, partnered with Sun Pacific in the marketing and advertising of Cuties. But in May 2013, Sun Pacific gained custody of Cuties in a corporate divorce of sorts.
Sun Pacific reportedly paid Paramount an undisclosed sum to take over full ownership of the Cuties brand. Paramount soon renamed its brand Halos.
According to Sun Pacific's website, the Pasadena-based company moves 20 million boxes of Cuties a year. Two of the company's five packing facilities are in Kern County, with the largest in Maricopa.
More than 20,000 acres of farmland grow Sun Pacific products.
It's hard to say what the McDonald's deal might mean for Kern in jobs and economic activity, but Marketing Plus' Lucido said a partnership with a behemoth like McDonald's has the potential to bring huge growth to Sun Pacific.
If successful, it's possible, she said, that Cuties could be cultivated in South America, Mexico and in other southern climes to create year-round availability of the fruit.
"I'm sure it will be lucrative, but I can't speak to specific dollar figures," Lucido said.
But the brand exposure alone adds significant value to the Cuties brand, she said.
"The Cuties people have to be excited."