Oranges, Lemons & Competitive Strategy

ripe orange with leaves on white background

It’s winter time, folks. And winter, that we know since the days we were kids, is the perfect time to enjoy tropical fruit. Especially the queen of tropical fruit: the orange. Recently, I was listening to a broadcast of the German public radio station Deutschlandfunk about these precious fruit, that bring some summer feeling into European winter darkness. And I’m sure all of you know how to distinguish good fruit from not so good: It’s the colour, stupid!

But is it really? Food chemist Udo Pollmer, a German columnist on diet issues, gave an interesting insight on how the orange becomes orange.For all of you who understand German, here’s the link to the broadcast:

European customers would never buy green oranges, would they? From early childhood days on we learn that green oranges are as tasty as green tomatoes. They are unripe. But this is where we smart customers are wrong. Oranges grown in the tropics are green. It is the cooler climate of subtropical areas – such as Spain or Italy, where winter night temperatures do drop to near zero – that causes oranges to change colour.

In the 50s and 60s companies started to apply methods of social research for marketing purposes. The focus group for example, is a widely used technique for detailed discussions with consumers in order to gather information on the appeal of products. The story of degreening might well have begun in one of those focus groups. It then just takes a few customers to point out that they rather like orange than green fruit. With a “flap of a butterfly”, you can create a postharvest industry to further “enhance” products. But hey, whatever the customer wants!

So what’s the point? Why don’t we just wait until winter to enjoy orange oranges? Well, customers are used to having oranges all year round nowadays. Since they are smart enough to know that only an orange orange is a tasty one, something has to be done. Food industry has to come up with some trick. Here’s the trick: degreening. Think I’m kidding? Nope. Here’s some proof:

By gassing with the hormone ethylene, the fruit are artificially aged. The green fruit are put into a process called “ethylene ripening” in order to colour them the right way. But, as Udo Pollmer points out, degreening not only changes the colour for good. It changes the quality for bad. The fruit become more fibrous and the flesh loses flavour. They are also more likely to rot or to attract funghi. You’ll find more information about this not-so-tasty-procedure – and the most weird obituary-like powerpoint template known to man – here:

The interesting lesson for us is: not everything that shines orange is golden in taste… er… or something similar.

And what the hell has this got to do with strategic communication? A lot. In the European Union ‘oranges’ were classified not by sweetness or ripeness but by colour. Weird EU-bureaucrats at work? No. Its Southern European fruit-producers who want to shut out competitors from the tropics. For producers from the tropics can compete on quality, no doubt – but not on colour. We, the customers, want oranges to be orange. If we want something green – helvete, we buy a f…. cucumber. So in order not to let us learn that green oranges can be great, too, a steady supply of perfectly orange oranges needs to be ensured. Especially at the beginning of the classical orange season, when winter has not set in yet, oranges from Spain and Italy need to be thoroughly degreened. It’s another example of the TINA-strategy: Don’t let people get a taste of the alternative.

For all of you who always wanted to know more about oranges but only dared to ask about sex, here are some quite interesting facts (about oranges):

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