Perdue woos consumers with home, sweet home

"You are as strong as your roots are"

  • The farmhouse, built by Perdue founder Arthur Perdue in 1917 and recently restored, is a key part of the poultry conglomerate's marketing efforts.
The farmhouse, built by Perdue founder Arthur Perdue in 1917… (Perna, Algerina, Baltimore…)
November 22, 2010|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

SALISBURY — — The unassuming farmhouse, with long-vacant chicken coops out back, has occupied a rural stretch of two-lane road for decades.

Even now, after a facelift that gave it a fresh white clapboard exterior, bright red shutters and a rebuilt wraparound porch, the house built by Arthur W. Perdue offers no outward clue to its role in the birth of a multibillion-dollar poultry and agribusiness conglomerate. It was there that he started a small egg business in 1920.

The rest is Delmarva history. Today Perdue Inc. has $4.6 billion in annual sales and employs more than 21,000 workers as the third-biggest poultry producer in the nation. And that two-story farmhouse — across Old Ocean City Road from the corporate headquarters — serves as the symbol of the Perdue brand.

Perdue recently announced the restoration of the family farmhouse as part of its 90th anniversary celebration and plans to use it to hold corporate events and training. Executives hope the home conveys a message about corporate values to consumers, customers and employees, said Jim Perdue, chairman and grandson of the founder.

"It's the roots," said Perdue, 60, stepping into the home's living room where black-and-white portraits of his grandparents hang in oval frames on the wall. "You are as strong as your roots are. A lot of companies failed because they didn't know where they came from. We started from humble roots, and we want people to know we really come from a farm family background."

It's also good marketing.

Branding experts say the company is smart to take advantage of its history, which sets it apart from competitors and, to some extent, from faceless corporate America. Family values and nostalgia are proven motivators for consumers to buy, they say. And the reassuring image of down-home simplicity contrasts with the growing industrialization of food, which has led to public concern about the treatment of animals and potential health risks.

"There's no question that there is a lot of mistrust and skepticism of things seen as bureaucratic and corporate, whether it's government or Wall Street or big oil," said Jamie Rice, chief strategy officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, an advertising agency in Baltimore. "So it probably doesn't hurt to remind people [Perdue] is a company that's still owned by the family."

"Not that they don't use all the modern ways of producing high-quality food efficiently," Rice added. "They do, but they're letting people know this isn't a faceless bureaucracy."

Nick Nanton, a partner in the Dicks and Nanton Branding Agency in Orlando, Fla., which specializes in corporate and CEO branding, said consumers "all want to believe the food we eat has been customer-created for us." And, he said, Perdue's use of the farmhouse to convey family values is "a great concept."

"We all want to believe our food comes from a boutique," Nanton said. "What they're doing is taking it down to that level, which is ultimately what we all want to believe in."

The farmhouse was built in 1917 by Arthur W. Perdue, who lived there with his wife, Pearl, and only child, Frank. An accountant who worked as a railway express agent, Perdue was impressed with the business smarts of the Eastern Shore poultry men who shipped their eggs by rail. Five years after starting his own egg operation, he switched from eggs to baby chicks, which he sold to local farmers.

That venture has grown into a corporation that produced more than 3 billion pounds of chicken and turkey in 2009. The company operates hatcheries and a dozen processing plants in 13 states and contracts with nearly 2,000 poultry growers. It produces from 30 percent to 40 percent of all the chickens raised on the Delmarva Peninsula.

A colorful illustration of the farmhouse set amidst a stand of trees has been part of the firm's logo for several years, appearing on packaging, delivery trucks and business cards.

Even after the company began using the image as a marketing tool, executives weren't sure what to do about the house itself. Arthur Perdue lived there until his wife died in the early 1940s. He later remarried and moved elsewhere in Salisbury. No family members have lived in the farmhouse since. Instead, the family rented it to tenants, who used to tend chickens in the backyard coops.

"The Perdue company really hadn't capitalized on the house's potential historic value," said Ray Thompson, a history professor and director of the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University.

But as the company's 90th anniversary approached, company executives considered whether the house could serve a larger purpose. Thompson, who sat on a committee to advise Perdue leaders about a possible restoration, said that at first committee members believed the family would have little interest in such an investment.

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