Perdue's pioneering efforts remolded poultry industry

Frank Perdue's folksy TV commercials were credited in part with getting many Americans to shift from beef to chicken.

April 02, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Between 1971 and 1994, Frank Perdue appeared in more than 200 television ads that cemented his image as a tough man who made tender chicken.

During that time, his folksy commercials surely had a little something to do with chicken surpassing beef in annual consumption per person, say industry and advertising experts.

Until his death yesterday at age 84, Perdue was chairman of the executive committee at Purdue Farms Inc. in Salisbury.

Perhaps more than other executive spokesmen of the country's culinary past - including Orville Redenbacher of popcorn fame, Col. Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dave Thomas of Wendy's - Perdue shaped the public image of his products.

He helped remold the poultry industry, expanding its product range and making his name a household word synonymous with chicken, observers said.

"He took the trouble to find out what customers really wanted from a chicken and made those aspects better. ... The result was that he had a product that was differentiated and could be branded," said Roland T. Rust, chair of the marketing department at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

"That had not been done before. He was successful at that. And that was more important than simply advertising."

The efforts helped Perdue expand the Eastern Shore egg business founded by his father in 1920 into what is now one of the nation's largest poultry companies, with sales of about $3 billion last year and more than 20,000 employees, according to the company and the National Chicken Council.

The trade group said Perdue might not have invented eye-pleasing yellow-skinned chickens, chicken nuggets, prepared dinners or skinless-boneless breasts, but he popularized them by offering products that looked and tasted the same every time. He made them his own and aggressively advertised them, said William P. Roenigk, the council's senior vice president.

Others followed suit. Americans now consume an estimated average of 87.5 pounds of chicken every year, the group reports. Beef trails with 65.9 pounds and pork with 51.7 pounds.

"He truly was a pioneer in terms of marketing and showing people branding can work," Roenigk said.

Perdue believed good advertising could help build a good product. At the same time, he knew it could hasten the demise of a bad product, "so you better have a good product. Not just good quality but consistent quality," Roenigk said. "He developed a system to deliver that consistency."

The personal face he put on his product had a downside. It provided a person for labor, animal and environmental groups to target.

Advocacy groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Va., and Compassion Over Killing in Takoma Park, attacked Perdue for bringing mass production practices they considered cruel.

Perdue hired growers to raise millions of birds in huge poultry houses, while paying chicken catchers on a piecework basis to grab the birds and cage them for shipment to plants, where they were killed and processed on assembly lines.

In what Perdue called his worst confrontation, a cream pie was thrown in his face at a 1992 meeting of the University of Maryland Board of Regents by a PETA activist dressed in a chicken suit who was protesting the "millions of chickens Frank Perdue killed."

Even in death, Perdue remains a sore point with those groups.

"We're very sorry for the family, but we would like to note that Perdue helped turn American family farms into factory farms and treated animals as units of production, neither of which we consider very laudable," Carter Dillard, general counsel for Compassion Over Killing, said yesterday.

Perdue officials have defended the conditions under which the chickens are raised and processed as well as the way the company treats its workers. Its record on such things as workers' repetitive motion injuries is better than the industry average, they have said.

Rust, the marketing professor, said Perdue led a life of extremes that drew criticism, and "rightly so." But he said the person on the street would remember him for those folksy ads.

Whether the ads accurately captured the man isn't what's important, said Andrew F. Smith, editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.

"He was a cultural icon," he said. "Before him, chicken was just chicken, but he put some personality to it. I don't know if his chickens were actually better, but I bought them. I don't know if I was seeing the real Frank Perdue on television, but I believe I was. He was folksy and part of his humor was poking fun at himself, and that's what made him a success."

Others say Perdue will be copied for years to come.

Ronald B. Larson, associate professor of marketing at Western Michigan University's Haworth College of Business, said, "He taught a lot of people how to brand a commodity."

Larson and other see no disruption in the company's image now that Frank Perdue is gone. His son, Jim, who took the company reins in 1994, has become television's next tough man making a tender chicken.

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