A Sticky Challenge for Peanut Sellers

Several years ago, Russian housewife Tanya Shiman received six giant cans of peanut butter, two for each of her three children, as humanitarian aid from the United States. After trying it, she gave it away to a neighbor.

"We didn't like it -- not I, not my husband, not my children," said Shiman, who lives in a small town northeast of Moscow. "It sticks to the roof of your mouth."

To this day, American-style peanut butter hasn't had the same success on the Russian market as Mars candy bars or Coca-Cola. The problem, marketers say, is that the Russian palate expects the stuff to be sweeter.

"When we researched the market it turned out that they like it sweet," said Yekaterina Kuznetsova of CPC Foods, which produces Skippy brand peanut butter. "Skippy is too salty for them."

For the United States, the world's third-largest producer of peanuts after China and India, this is a matter of national importance. With consumption of peanut products stagnating at home, U.S. producers are looking abroad for future growth, and cannot possibly ignore Russia's 148 million potential consumers.

One option could be to make sweet peanut butter. But CPC, which only entered the Russian market last year, has no such plans so far: "I don't think that will happen in the next five years," said Kuznetsova. "It costs a lot of money."

The other option is to sell the peanut butter as it is, in the form that millions of Americans know and love. But this requires creating a market from scratch. And when you're dealing with a sticky, salty, light brown paste, success is by no means guaranteed.

The American Peanut Council, a non-profit organization funded by U.S. peanut producers and the U.S. government, is gradually trying to create a market for peanut butter -- and, indeed, an entire range of peanut products -- by convincing Russians that peanuts are not only tasty, but essential to a healthy diet.

The target group has not yet emerged. Kuznetsova says CPC is aiming Skippy at 25- to 40-year-old women in middle- to upper-income categories. Paulina Hubli of BBDO, the Peanut Council's marketing firm in Russia, is shooting for kids.

"Children are our target market," said Hubli. "Our underlying proposition is that it's delicious and nutritious."

CPC and Nabisco, the two leading U.S. exporters of peanut products to Russia, say that sales are growing but do not provide any figures.

"Exports to Russia are not a significant quantity at this point," said Julie Adams, European operations director for the American Peanut Council.

The Peanut Council's marketing effort actually began in the guise of humanitarian aid, when it sent tins of peanut butter to the Moscow Children's Fund in 1992.

"What we really were trying to do was to get it into the school lunch program," said Peanut Council president Jeanette Anderson. "We thought that if we could create some awareness of it in Russia we could help market it."

More recently, the council hired BBDO to organize tastings of various peanut products in the Russian capital, working closely with CPC and Nabisco.

"If we can expand opportunities for people to sample the products, then I think they're going to be very pleased," said Adams. "We're trying to introduce them to ways they can include these foods in their normal diet."

Nabisco, for example, recently brought to Moscow its Mr. Peanut mascot with his trademark top hat and pince-nez. Mr. Peanut gave out 150,000 samples of snack nuts over a 12-day period timed to coincide with Moscow's 850th anniversary celebrations in September, according to Nabisco marketing manager Vyacheslav Aredov.

And last week, the Peanut Council invited some 50 journalists, representing publications from Harper's Bazaar to Ekonomika i Zhizn, to the American Bar and Grill on Zemlyanoi Val for a buffet that included American peanut-raisin chicken, Mediterranean-style char-grilled vegetables with peanuts, peanut pizza and blackberry peanut pie.

Glossy pamphlets distributed to the journalists extolled the virtues of the humble nut: It is believed to help prevent cancer and heart disease, excellent source of protein and healthy unsaturated fat, useful for people on diets, and eaten in its butter form by U.S. astronauts.

"Maybe it's the key to the success that we associate with the American lifestyle," Hubli ventured in an introductory speech.

A short film, titled "The New U.S. Peanut Industry: Forward into the 21st Century," introduced the audience to Georgian peanut breeders, healthy American children eating peanut-butter sandwiches, and the Peanut Institute, an industry-funded entity dedicated to intensive peanut research.

The journalists attacked the buffet with gusto. But the overall reaction suggests that U.S. peanut products still face a long trek to Russian stomachs.

"We're more conservative," said Andrei Tsiplyonkov of Ekonomika i Zhizn, relaxing with a beer. "We'll try it, maybe we'll like it, but we won't buy it."

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