pistachio

The branding wizards behind the Stephen Colbert Super Bowl ads

February 3, 2014: 5:18 PM ET

The comedian is the latest face of the fascinating and enormous company that's spending big on pistachios

By Anne VanderMey, reporter

FORTUNE -- In case you were wondering, it's not normal to have a celebrity star in a Super Bowl ad to sell a nut.

And yet, with the spot last night featuring Stephen Colbert's green, shrunken head as a talking pistachio, the famous comedian is just the latest in a string of famous (and infamous) spokesmen for the brand Wonderful Pistachios. Last year, it was Korean pop sensation PSY riding a pistachio with the legs of a Rockette. Other pitchmen have included Bristol Palin's sometime boyfriend Levi Johnston, Jersey Shore star Snooki, the honey badger of YouTube fame, and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.

Typically, the big-budget branding that launches Super Bowl ad campaigns is reserved for products like cars and beer. It's trade associations (think the Sunkist cooperative or the "Got Milk" campaign by the California Milk Processor Board) that do agriculture ads, usually on a much smaller scale.

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But Roll Global, the holding company that includes pistachio maker Paramount Farms, is the industry's biggest proponent of marketing produce. The company's new mandarin brand, Wonderful Halos, will spend $100 million on marketing over the next five years. The $3.4 billion company is the largest processor of pistachios, almonds, and pomegranates in the world. It also owns Fiji Water, Teleflora, and POM Wonderful, whose overpromising ads landed it in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission.

Sunday night's Colbert ads were created by Roll Global's in-house ad agency, called the Fire Station Agency. The in-house model is rare and speaks to the company's near-obsession with branding. (The company's vice chairman, Lynda Resnick, a.k.a. the "Pom Queen," even wrote a book on it.) The two 15-second spots, which don't use the familiar "Get crackin'" slogan, are the first in what will likely be a series starring Colbert. According to the company, he has signed on to be the brand's spokesman for a full year.

Will it actually sell nuts? Probably. If history is any guide, marketing helps. Paramount Farms launched Wonderful Pistachios in 2008. Today, the company's internal sales data say the brand is one of the top 10 bestselling salty snack items in the U.S. -- and the only food on that list that's not some type of chip. Over the last seven years, pistachio shipments have increased some 140% to more than 450 million pounds last year, according to the Administrative Committee for Pistachios.

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Whether or not you can credit Roll Global's ads for that success is up for debate. The American Pistachio Growers association also does its own marketing, though it spends less, and as growers have increased production, consumers have moved toward healthy food generally. Still, the ads definitely didn't hurt.

Colbert himself summed up Roll Global's big branding ethos pretty well. In the first part of last night's ad, he pointed to a bowl of pistachios and said it would sell itself. In the next (not long before his head transformed into a talking nut), he said, "Folks, evidently sales of pistachios have not skyrocketed in the last 30 seconds, due to a lack of branding." Adding, "Welp, let's take care of that."

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