Imagine for a moment a Super Bowl without the avocado.
No tubs of guacamole to be defiled by double-dipping guests at your big game-day party. No chunks of creamy green flesh with which to spike your salsa or scatter over nachos.
If that's hard to picture, it's because the avocado has so completely — and so quickly — attached itself to this utterly unrelated sporting event.
As recently as 13 years ago the avocado wasn't the football juggernaut it is today. It has been a relentless and cunning campaign to victory, achieved in part through marketing muscle.
Back at the turn of this century, Americans ate a mere 8 million pounds of avocados during Super Bowl festivities. Apparently this needed to be remedied, so in 2002 the Hass Avocado Board was formed to promote the dominant avocado variety sold in the U.S.
Today, Americans are expected to consume 79 million pounds of avocados around the championship game. For those keeping score, that's roughly 158 million avocados.
"They are outstanding marketers. We can all learn something from them," Kathy Means, vice president of government affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, says of avocado marketing groups, which also include the California Avocado Commission. "It's part of the Super Bowl culture. It's not just associated with it; it's ingrained in it."
Of course, some credit for the ascendance of the avocado goes to the nation's burgeoning Latino population and the growing popularity of Hispanic foods, including guacamole (which, by the way, dates to the Aztecs). Cinco de Mayo previously had been the top guac day, but that's an association that makes sense.
Connecting foods and events that share no true cultural bond is no simple matter. Plenty of produce lobbyists have tried.
"I used to run the kiwifruit commission," says Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. "We used to try to get some promotion around Groundhog Day because kiwis and groundhogs are both fuzzy. But we never got much attention there."
Hard to believe, really.
So why the avocado and why the Super Bowl? Broadly speaking, it helps that the Super Bowl has morphed from athletic event to all-out national party. And that has meant a windfall for many party-friendly foods on what the Snack Foods Association deems the "biggest snacking day of the year."
Chicken wings, for example. Americans will consume more than 1.23 billion of them this weekend, according to the National Chicken Council's 2013 Wing Report. They also will also eat roughly 15 million pizzas, according to trade publication Pizza Today. And then there are all those beers and potato chips.
Some of the avocado's success is a matter of timing.
Avocados from Mexico and other south-of-the-border points — the source of more than half of those consumed in the U.S. — are in season four times a year. And the Super Bowl happened to be an excellent excuse to market around one of those seasons.
"It was a way to get the season going and get the product on the shelf," says Emiliano Escobedo, executive director of the Hass Avocado Board. "Super Bowl is the ideal time. It is the largest party day in the U.S. after New Year's Eve and Halloween. And I like to say avocado people are party people."
But convincing party people that a tub of guacamole is a Super Bowl must-have wasn't the starting point. Escobedo says the industry first had to persuade grocery stores to stock lots of avocados around the big game. It took a while, but now mountains of avocados greet you at the front of the supermarket this time of year.
Only after grocery stores were on board did consumer outreach get serious. And by serious we mean sweepstakes, recipe contests, promotions at tailgating parties, sports television partnerships and athlete endorsements, all manner of social media outreach — even encouraging consumers to share photos of their favorite guacamole — and signing on of celebrity chefs like Tyler Florence and Curtis Stone to talk up the deliciousness of the fruit.
All told, the avocado industry spends about $37 million a year on marketing and promotion.
That leaves Ali McDaniel, food marketing manager for the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council — the people who in an alternate reality might have brought you millions of pounds of Super Bowl hummus or spicy barbecue lentil loaf — feeling a bit wistful. Her annual budget is less than $100,000.
"It would be nice if we could overthrow the avocado," McDaniel says. "Unfortunately, the price of advertising campaigns are too steep for us at the moment. Hummus is definitely on the rise, though."