No one ever knew quite how she did it.
When Wendy Brannen took over the helm of the Vidalia Onion Committee in Vidalia, GA, in July 2005, she inherited a favorable situation. Market penetration and consumer awareness of Vidalias were already considerable.
But she also took on the formidable task of raising that bar even higher, despite working with tight budgets and a U.S. economy that ranged from disastrous to sluggish during her eight year tenure.
By the time Ms. Brannen announced March 8 that she was leaving the VOC after the start of the 2013 Vidalia season to take a post with the U.S. Apple Association in Washington, DC, she had accomplished that mission. Dramatic pairings with Hollywood and Nashville and Ms. Brannen’s ceaseless efforts on the industry’s behalf propelled the Vidalia onion to an even more revered spot on the food chain than it previously held.
This is a product about which well-known television chef Bobby Flay has said, “Vidalia onions aren’t just the most famous onions in the world; I think they may be the only famous onions in the world.”
So how did Ms. Brannen make Vidalia onions even more famous?
“She just basically took something that already had great visibility and knocked it out of the park,” said Richard Pazderski, Vidalia-based director of business development for Utah Onions, Inc. “She has brought an even greater visibility to the Vidalia onion industry, the area, and the marketing potential a program like this has if you utilize your resources well. She has not had an unlimited budget by any means and in fact has been far restricted. But she’s been efficient and frugal in ways that allowed more bang for our buck. And she worked well with the shippers and developed relationships she needed to further stretch our resources.”
Ms. Brannen toiled tirelessly and at a frenetic pace in the spotlight and behind the scenes promoting Vidalia onions and also managing the market order. She made legions of friends and became well-known in the produce industry. But even as her personal star rose, she never stopped worrying about the needs and expectations of the growers and shippers she represented.
Ms. Brannen hit the ground running with the VOC, revamping the organization’s website, introducing the industry to the world of social media, expanding retail outreach through broad-based consumer programs and advertising, and spurring plans for a Vidalia Onion Museum, which opened in 2011 and draws visitors from around the world.
But it was 2010 when she hit her first grand slam, a partnership with Dreamworks Studios and its summer family blockbuster movie “Shrek Forever After.” The promotion was an instant success, garnering so much publicity that Ms. Brannen and the VOC were featured in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, on ABC World News and FOX Business and in countless other consumer media. More importantly, the “Ogres and Onions” campaign spiked Vidalia sales by 30 percent and did what no one had ever thought possible — made onions appealing to children.
The campaign created such a whirlwind that Ms. Brannen privately worried about topping it (and at one point imposed a moratorium that forbade her friends from even mentioning the name “Shrek”). But in 2011 and 2012 she again raised the bar when she partnered the VOC with Universal Music Group-Nashville’s roster of country music stars.
In 2011, a national Vidalia Onion Jingle Contest resulted in more than 136,000 visitors to the Vidalia onion website. The winning jingle is now used in radio ads across America. Last year, the VOC launched a new Facebook page that raked in 36,000 fans in four months. And more than 50,000 retail coupons for Vidalia onions were downloaded online.
Said Walt Dasher of G & R Farms in Glennville, GA, “We wish her the best and congratulations to the U.S. Apple Association. They are getting a good one. Thank you, Wendy, for all your hard work and vision.”
Added Jason Herndon of Herndon Farms in Lyons, GA, “It has been a pleasure for us to have Wendy on board for the last eight years. We hate to see her move on, but we all understand the name of the game. She has really helped us to become a major marketed commodity and shown great leadership and focus in helping to ensure our marketing strategies were successful. We will sincerely miss her but wish her the best.”
Said Bland Farms LLC Director of Marketing Sarah Seebran, "It’s hard to imagine the Vidalia industry without Wendy Brannen. She has been the cornerstone to our recent marketing promotion successes these past years. Her dedication and enthusiasm for our Vidalia sweet onion and people is unmatched. We have been blessed to have her."
“Wendy Brannen has played a big role in introducing even more consumers to our great product,” said John Shuman of Shuman Produce, Inc. in Reidsville, GA. “We’re very grateful for what she’s helped us accomplish and her success is now a part of Vidalia onion history. We will miss her and we wish her well in Washington.”
As significant as Ms. Brannen’s contributions were to the industry, it is still the onion that makes Vidalia what it is. And there is still room for more growth and recognition for the world’s favorite sweet onion.
“The Vidalia onion is the predominant factor in the sweet onion market. There are other sweet onions but none match the Vidalia for flavor and desirability. [Still], supply and demand control the market so we need to continue Wendy’s fine work promoting the Vidalia onion,” said Steve Roberson of Roberson Farms in Hazlehurst, GA.
“We need to continue to produce a superior product with exceptional packaging as we have in the past. Wendy put together another great promotion [in 2013] with ‘The Flavors of Summer’ campaign for retailers. We hate to lose Wendy with all she has done to increase consumer awareness of our Vidalia onions. We wish her the best of luck and continued success.”
The VOC will no doubt land another stellar executive director, but the search will not be easy and Ms. Brannen’s legacy will loom large.
She’s done a great job,” Mr. Pazderski said. “That’s a big shoe to fill.”