From Pinatex to a cheeky open letter to the Pope, the fruit giant is embracing innovation, creativity and a duty to battle malnutrition and food waste Pier Luigi Sigismondi tells LBB’s Laura Swinton
Creativity and fruit are inextricably intertwined. Fruit is a symbol of plenty, abundance and productiveness. It’s also a playground of sensory delight that gives artists so much to have fun with - zesty, sweet, juicy, tangy, pungent, fibrous, bitter, perfumed, indulgent, fresh, clean, dirty. And fruit is rich with thousands of years of mythic imagery, from the enticing ‘forbidden fruit’ of the Garden of Eden to the bountiful Pomona, Roman goddess of the Orchard.
Dole, the largest producer of fruit and vegetables in the world, takes that connection with creativity seriously. This year Dole took home the ‘Creative Business Transformation Lion’ Grand Prix at Cannes Lions for its groundbreaking Piñatex project. Agency Lanfranco&Cordova, together with Dole Sunshine Company and biotech company Ananas Anam won the prize for their vegan, cruelty-free leather alternative, Piñatex. It not only tackles a huge carbon emissions issue –for every one ton of pineapples produced, there are three tons of pineapple leaves, and those leaves could release huge emissions as they rot – the business has also been using similar creative thinking to help marginalised communities turn banana leaves into fabric in a collaboration with Musa Fabric and Kasilak Foundation.
Aside from these grand, innovation-driven business transformation projects, Dole has also embraced creative thinking in its comms too. In 2021, it plastered ‘malnutrition labels’ on trash cans to highlight the problems of food waste and nutrition inequality. And just recently it reached out to none other than the Pope to take the conversation about fruit and nutrition to the highest level possible.
The roots of this current crop of creativity can be found in the covid-19 pandemic. The business realised that it couldn’t continue doing what it had always done and as the pandemic became ‘normalised’, the business couldn’t retreat and start ignoring the issues around welfare and health.
Indeed, says Pier Luigi Sigismondi, president, Dole Packaged Foods & Beverages Group, Dole realised that the success of their business and the health and wellbeing of society were inseparable and part of the same bigger question.
“The pandemic has made us recognise that we cannot go back to ‘business as usual’; that it is time for a change of direction, of responsibility and of accountability for business. It’s not good enough to say the right things and a stand is only effective when you walk the talk with your actions. That was when we created and launched the Dole Promise - a set of six highly ambitious and interconnected commitments towards purposeful growth, inspired by the Japanese business principle sampo-yoshi, which views the well-being of society and business as interdependent, and ensures the business is beneficial to the seller, to the buyer and to the society,” says Pier.
“Purpose is baked into every aspect of our organisation, including in our marketing strategy. For us, purpose is not yet another advertising brief or CSR campaign; it is what we live and breathe, and the way we build a sustainable business that will last.”
Rather than picking a narrow cause to back, the Dole business has considered all of the ways that the company touches on society. After all, when you’re in a sector like food, particularly fruit, you can’t very well separate it from the complex conversations around the environment and agriculture or nutrition and poverty, or emissions and food waste. And so there are six well-considered pillars that make up the ‘Dole Promise’ - and they go far beyond the marketing department, influencing the whole business.
Their pillars are:
Access to sustainable nutrition for one billion people by 2025
Zero processed sugar in all Dole products by 2025
Zero fruit loss from Dole farms to markets by 2025
Zero fossil-based plastic packaging by 2025
Net zero carbon emissions in Dole operations by 2030
Creating shared value for all.
According to Pier, this really does shape the whole business. “The Dole Promise is the lens through which we make all business decisions and guides our strategy. It is an evolution of our focus on People, Planet and Prosperity (our stakeholders) – where each decision needs to positively impact these three categories, whether it’s product initiatives, marketing campaigns, social outreach, or operational innovations,” he says.
This has kicked off a group-wide effort, as well as a drive to collaborate beyond the Dole family. That’s how the award-winning Piñatex project came about. “We have set some ambitious goals for ourselves, and we acknowledge that we may not have all the answers. Therefore, we have partnerships such as the ones with Musa Fabric (banana fibres woven into fabric), Ananas Anam / Piñatex (pineapple leaf fibres turned into vegan leather), and even Clarifruit (AI-powered quality control)," says Pier.
As well as engaging in the serious issues of food inequality, Dole’s strategy has also been shaped by the swelling trends in the food and lifestyle space. The surge in plant-based diets and growing interest in health and nutrition has created an obvious space for Dole to show up.
According to Pier, that trend has energised the whole Dole business. “A major shift in consumer preferences towards healthier options has definitely been a shot in the arm for us as we reformulate our products to bring the goodness of the earth to our customers without all the bad stuff,” he says. “We also take heart in seeing our peers do the same with their product lines – going clean label and investing in R&D to come up with products that are also better for the planet.”
As an example, Dole are focusing on developing fortified products that, for example, boost the immunity or are good for the gut, while still having fruit at their core.
Amid the purpose and serious issues that Dole is engaging with, there is still room for a little levity. Take the latest campaign from Grey London, ‘Unforbidden Fruit’. The humble apple faces a marketing challenge that is millennia old. The ‘forbidden fruit’ and seed of humanity’s eviction from paradise, it’s become a symbol of temptation, embedded in the world’s collective subconscious. So Dole decided to go straight to the top, with an open letter to Pope Francis, urging him to revoke the apple’s sinful status. To add extra bite, they placed this open letter in La Repubblica, His Holiness’ newspaper of choice.
The seed of the idea lies in Dole’s mission to spark up the conversation about nutrition - and the realisation that that requires boldness. “As we continue to work to raise awareness about the importance of good nutrition as a human right for all, we see unconventional methods to spark conversation. Using a tongue-in-cheek approach on the global stage is one way to do that,” says Pier Luigi Sigismondi.
“So we decided to try to redeem the reputation of fruit through a bold idea: send an open letter to the Pope asking for just a tiny update to the Bible, absolving the apple and replacing it with a modern version of what should be forbidden like fried foods or sweets.
“We didn’t expect either the Pope or the Vatican to authorise that of course, but it was a clever way to start the conversation and honor World Fruit Day.”
The tonal shift to humour may feel a little different for Dole but according to Pier, it’s bedded deep within the brand and it’s sunny outlook. Indeed it’s not the first time that the brand has leant into the sillier side. During early covid-19 lockdowns, it explored the tensions of lockdown life and suggested ‘fruit bowls’ as an alternative to swearing when it all got too much.
“Sunshine for all is not just a rallying cry but a way of thinking,” says Pier. “ In addition to raising awareness and improving access to good nutrition, we want to bring a smile to people’s faces. This is not our first foray in using humor to tell a story. In 2020, we launched a campaign called Quaran-tensions in which parents and caregivers used the phrase ‘fruit bowls’ as a euphemism to refer to their kids, or replace a swear word or other taboo topic.”
Dole is a business with a 170-year history. It can trace its roots back to Castle & Cooke, founded by a pair of missionaries in 1851 in Hawaii. In 1901, James Dole founded the Hawaiian Fruit Company - and between the 1930s and 1960s Castle & Cooke acquired the Hawaiian Fruit Company. They hope to parlay this legacy into social currency.
“At Dole, we believe that good nutrition should be like sunshine – accessible, available, and affordable for everyone. We want to champion a world where access to good nutrition is a human right for all. As a 170-year-old company with a very strong legacy, Dole is built on the knowledge that we can only exist by nurturing the soil on which we grow our fruits and delivering its goodness to the market,” says Pier.
“The world is changing rapidly, and we are quickly approaching a threshold beyond which we will not be able to reverse the effects on several issues, including climate change and malnutrition worldwide. This is precisely why, for a large company like Dole, we have to take action and make sustainability and affordable nutrition the core of what we do.”
As part of that rapidly changing world, Dole has started to explore the sprouting seeds of the web3 world. Most recently, they’ve been dabbling in hte NFT space, launching their own NFT collection, #BiteOutOfHunger of digital fruits. The NFTs were created by David Datuna, known as ‘The Hungry Artist’ after eating another artist’s work. Sadly, David died recently after a long battle against cancer but his impact lives on. With this project, all proceeds would go to Boys & Girls Club of America to help feed those who are dealing with food and nutritional insecurity.
“The five-part NFT art collection focused on the intrinsic connection between nutrition and food security,” says Pier. Just as a clear sense of duty has driven recent marcomms and innovation projects, it also shapes the company’s view of the potential of web 3 and the responsibility companies have to shape its future for the better.
“To create systemic change, we need to converge purpose with creativity, innovation and technology. It is always exciting for anyone to get excited about the newest technology or digital platform, but we must remember to stay true and committed to our purpose. Any application of web3 must ensure that we do not impact the planet negatively in any way, or better, that we can create positive impact and shared value.”
Ultimately, says Pier, Dole is committed to systemic change, tackling food inequality. Given its reach, it certainly has the heft to make a substantial impact, but the scale of the issues are such that the business needs to use every tool at its disposal - including creativity.
“The company has long been a part of the nutrition and economic development of many communities around the world. Yet, the divide between food and feed, educated and uneducated, obesity and malnutrition, and the damage to planet we leave behind for our children is growing day by day,” says Pier. “These inequalities have been created systematically, and will need to be undone systemically.”