Apparel | Monday, August 15, 2011
FROM THE ARCHIVES: ‘How to Lick a Farm Surplus’
By Nancy Boyd
Reprinted from PRINTER’S INK
The Magazine of Advertising, Selling, Marketing
February 15, 1957
Agriculture Secretary Benson, in an exclusive P.I. interview two years ago (April 8, 1955, page 27) said: “In this competitive age the market goes to the man who creates a demand for his product and aggressively merchandises it . . . Farmers should use ad technicians to improve the effectiveness of marketing just as they call on other technicians for better production.”
Today, almost two years later, Secretary Benson has this is say about a group that took his advice: “In our free American economy, the greatest and most lasting gains attained by any segment of the population have always been through their own efforts rather than through controls or aids administered by government. This is as true for agriculture as for any other group of citizens.
“A case in point is that of the 3,000 extra-long staple cotton farmers of west Teas, New Mexico and Arizona, who as recently as two years ago were confronted with the biggest proportionate share of any branch of the cotton-growing industry.
“Then, through research, came the development of a high-yielding, superior quality extra-long staple known as Pima S-1. Banding together to form the Supima Assn. of America, these growers took the unprecedented step of asking Congress to reduce their support level from $3 a bale to set up an advertising and promotion campaign. And they continued their efforts to bring quality to a constantly higher level.
“Now—two years later—there is virtually no surplus of American extra-long staple. Indeed, the Department of Agriculture has found it necessary to almost double the extra-long staple cotton acreage allotment for the 1956–57 season.
“This campaign to build markets through improved quality, modern promotion techniques and competitive prices is in keeping with the best American traditions. This program and philosophy are worthy of study and emulation by all agriculture.”
—Ezra Taft Benson
By Peter P. Crowell, assistant editor
This statement by the Secretary of Agriculture sums up in a nutshell the story of Supima cotton. The details of the Supima success story are even more impressive.
In 1954, growers of the luxury cotton fiber known as Pima S-1 found that 90 percent of their production was going directly into government warehouses. Surpluses were piling up at a phenomenal rate. But rather than sit back and accept acreage cuts and government price supports, the growers decided to get out and sell their cotton.
They had a good product. Their cotton, S-1, is a high-yield successor to Pima 32, an extra-long staple cotton that is similar (but in certain respects superior) to Egyptian and Peruvian extra-long staple cottons. These fibers are used in luxury cotton fabrics and sewing threads. Egyptian Karnak, the major competing fiber, was being imported at a substantially lower price than the domestic fibers could set due to existing price supports. But on the basis of spinning tests on American fibers, growers felt they had a top-quality product to sell, and set out to do it.
As Secretary Benson relates, about 3,000 growers got together and formed the Supima Assn. of America. The name Supima was applied to their cotton as a trademark for recognition purposes. The association then went to Congress and asked for a cut in the support price of 10 cents per pound, from 67 cents to 57 cents, which would put Supima on a competitive basis with imported fibers. They got their cut, and the real work began.
The 10-cent-a-pound cut cost the growers $50 per bale, but they had decided on a big promotional campaign to make the public use Supima cotton. Another $3 per bale was deducted to support the association’s activities. Bolstered by assurances from the National Cotton Council that there was a potential demand for five times as much extra-long staple cotton, Supima opened a New York office under the direction of Mary Alice Stewart, a charming and persuasive native of Mississippi.
In March 1955, Supima got the ball rolling. One of the first problems was to get converters interested in the fiber for woven goods. No Supima cotton had yet been woven into fabric, and the price of the cotton would remain high until August, but at least one of several converters—Hope Skillman, a specialist in American cottons—decided to try Supima. The Skillman fabric was a sheer chiffon called Breeze. In October 1955, Adele Simpson’s cruise-line showing featured Supima-Skillman chiffon. The association ran its first display advertising featuring one of the Simpson creations in December, repeating after the first of the year.
This first ad won three awards—from The American Institute of Graphic Arts, the Art Directors Club of New York and the Type Directors Club of New York. In four colors, it was created for Supima by Douglas D. Simon Advertising, New York. Continuing efforts were made to interest various converters in the fiber, with dramatic success. Thirty-five fabrics—ranging from sheer chiffons and voiles to broadcloths, woven novelties and knits—are now manufactured by sixteen different mills and converters. Designers, too, have jumped on the Supima bandwagon, and such names as Cassini, Estevez, Leser and McCardell are featured in the association’s advertising. Gene Federico is art director for the campaign.
Shift in emphasis
In November things were rolling well enough to allow a shift in emphasis. All ads to that point had been in four-color and featured women’s fashions. Now, black-and white ads were used for the growing line of men’s wear that employed Supima fabrics.
All display advertising is high-fashion type, featuring the best available techniques to emphasize that this is a luxury product, that clothes made from it are luxurious and of high quality and to identify Supima with quality. Three magazines reaching fashion-conscious consumers are used. Ads feature names of designers of the illustrated garments and names of converters whose fabrics are used. The signature incorporates Supima’s slogans, “The champagne of cottons” and “World’s finest cotton.”
Supima’s business-paper ads pick up consumer-ad slogans, and talk about the tremendous recognition they are building for the fiber. Copy also points up the luxurious quality of Supima cotton.
Why feature fabrics?
Brand-name promotion of the Supima story through display advertising does not tell the whole story, however. The Supima Assn. estimates that only about 25 percent of its production goes into woven fabrics. Nearly 60 percent, on the other hand, goes into sewing thread. Why the emphasis on display advertising of fabrics?
Supima feels that essential differences between the fabric industry and the thread industry are responsible. Sewing thread requires high tensile strength. Also, the industry is fairly restricted in the size and nature, and Supima felt personal contact would be more effective. Demand for special fibers for thread comes from the manufacturer, while fabric demand can be generated at the consumer level. Supima has a particular excellence in tensile strength. On the other hand, the thread industry is strongly influenced by price factors. Getting the thread people to use Supima was an entirely different problem from influencing fabric sales.
600 percent increase in consumption
Results of Supima’s efforts to date are impressive (see table). Supplies of Supima in government warehouses are virtually exhausted. The Department of Agriculture has raised the acreage allotment for the 1957 crop 98.6 percent, from 45,300 acres to 83,315 acres; 1957 yield is expected to reach 100,000 bales. This should increase the association’s budget to about $300,000 as compared with about $130,000 on 47,000 bales last year. In the last two years, 240,000 bales of Supima cotton have moved into trade channels, and last year showed a 600 percent increase in consumption of Supima.
In this unusual effort, three points are seen as the secrets of Supima success: (1) a top-quality product, (2) a competitive price and (3) a strong promotional campaign. To these might well be added a fourth—the courage of the men who took a $53 per bale licking on their product to make it competitive.
This is not the end of the story. Next year, with a doubled crop and with 95 percent of the growers contributing to the promotion effort, Supima expects to do even better. Increased advertising, more insertions and more coverage will be financed by a nearly doubled budget. Trade advertising, already extensive, will be increased. More fabrics will be introduced, and more cotton will be sold.
Supima is striving to establish a stable supply of American-grown extra-long staple cotton fiber at a stable competitive price. The difficulties of the Mideast crisis caused a reduction in the supply of Egyptian Karnak, Supima’s major competitor. The resulting price rises across the board were not at all to the liking of an industry trying to stabilize prices. Things at this point are smoothing out, with Supima running somewhat below imported fiber.