Most commodity boards are created by a referendum and an act of law, and are guided by a marketing order. Legislation can be either state (the California Milk Advisory Board) or federal (the Almond Board). Category programs, including ad campaigns, can also be run by industry associations. A common misperception is that public taxes fund these programs. Typically, industry (or association) members are assessed  on an agreed-upon formula. The industry nominates a board of directors from its ranks and hires an executive director and staff to manage the program. In turn, the staff directs a range of independent contractors, such as public relations and advertising agencies, and market research companies. If legislated, the state or federal department of agriculture has ultimate oversight. With few exceptions, the overriding goal is to increase demand for the crop or products the industry produces.

It’s important to know what commodity boards can and can’t do. Most critically, commodity boards cannot: 1) set or influence prices; 2) promote or favor one brand or industry member; 3) control quality or supply; or 4) lobby. Moreover, they do not sell products—members do the selling.

On the other hand, boards and associations provide invaluable services. They can:

- Take on categorical issues and obstacles. For example, over the past five years, the Cherry Marketing Institute has dramatically changed the perception of tart cherries from pie filling to a leading superfruit.

- Conduct market research normally beyond the scope of individual members. Large-scale consumer awareness and attitude studies can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, an industry group can successfully employ such strategies. In the early years of the National Potato Board program, an attitude and perception study determined that consumers classified potatoes as a “white starch” with very little nutritional value. This led to repositioning potatoes as “America’s Favorite Vegetable.”

- Lead strategic alliances with non-competitive brands. The classic example of this was marketing partnerships between the California Milk Processor Board and cereal and cookie companies. “Got Milk?” ran on boxes of Cheerios; Pillsbury allowed its Dough Boy icon to be used in a “Got Milk?” T.V. ad; and Nabisco introduced an Oreo sandwich cookie embossed with the “Got Milk?” logo.

- Build strong, sustainable consumer relationships. While the news media and bloggers resist heavily branded messages, they’re often open to category stories, especially when founded on strong nutrition science. For example, as a result of an integrated marketing program supported by a core of consistent, science-based messaging, tart cherries have received endorsements from Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz and the Today Show’s Joy Bauer. Importantly, tart cherry processors can link this to increases in sales inquiries and calls.

- Make a crop or industry more competitive. Pork was considered to be a fatty, unhealthy meat. Yet, through generic marketing and brilliant strategy, pork was transformed into “The Other White Meat.” Linking pork with poultry, rather than beef, helped reshape consumer perceptions, making pork a more competitive source of protein. pf