Wendy Brannen (BBA ’94) wears a number of hats as executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee, the marketing and regulatory organization for Georgia’s official state vegetable.
On this warm May morning, the perpetually effervescent former TV anchor is weaving her way in and out of throngs gathered in midtown Atlanta for the city’s second annual Food and Wine Festival. Brannen is VOC’s public ambassador—or, in her words, “the face of Vidalia onions.”
A week earlier, Brannen traveled to New York for a culinary conference. The week before, she was in Boston at a produce trade show. “Vidalia onions aren’t just the most famous onions in the world,” says chef Bobby Flay. “They may be the only famous onions in the world.”
Back at her office, Brannen wraps up a phone conversation about Pinterest, one of the newest and most popular social networking platforms. Says Brannen: “One of the tricks of my job is constantly looking at what’s the next best thing—hopping on that fast enough that we don’t get left behind, but slow enough to not waste the farmers’ money on something that’s just a flash in the pan.”
VOC’s most-recent marketing campaign is a two-year tie-in with Universal Music Group of Nashville that utilizes stars like Vince Gill on point-of-sale materials, packaging, and consumer advertising. Brannen previously helped create an “Ogres & Onions” campaign that coincided with the release of “Shrek Forever After.” The promotion escalated sales almost 30 percent for the season, and stories from parents who were surprised that their kids were eating onions created so much online buzz that the promotion made the Wall Street Journal, ABC World News, and FOX Business.
How famous are Vidalia onions? Brannen says she is unable to walk through an airport wearing a logoed shirt without being approached by someone who wants to tell her a story, “about Vidalias and how their grandmother had bought Vidalias in the market, or how their mother had cooked with Vidalia Onions.”
“We are not a global product and we do have a relatively small budget compared to a corporation. I am pleased by the fact that we have been able to do marketing on a level to which we are seen nationally and we do generate a national buzz.”
Of course, Brannen wears less glamorous hats as well. Given the uniqueness of their product, farmers were forced to unite and seek legal protection of their crop and its name. In 1989, Federal Marketing Order No. 955 was established to stipulate how and where the crop can be grown and sold. So at the same time she develops and directs integrated annual marketing communications campaigns designed to motivate purchase of the Vidalia brand and influence the attitudes of consumers, foodservice professionals and retail buyers, Brannen must also administer with the USDA oversight of the Federal Marketing Order (FMO) for Vidalia onions on behalf of all growers and packers.
“I have hundreds of individuals who depend on me to be a wise steward of their money—to make sure that I am spending that money that they work very hard for in the right way,” she said. “These guys are out there literally sweating in the fields from sunup to sundown. I think having that business background and connecting with those hundreds of faces helps me to do a better job.”