Washington State, in the Northwest corner of the U.S., is considered the most trade dependent state in America. This is largely because of Washington's proximity to Pacific Rim countries like China, Japan and South Korea. But marketing products overseas takes some creativity, so Northwest cherry-growers have turned to a Chinese pop star to sell their fruit.
Something strange is happening in John Wingerter's cherry orchard. First, the man climbing down from one of the fruit-picking ladders is a cameraman, Howard Floyd. "I've been up there with my anti-static feather duster," he explains, "dusting off the cherries." Nearby, other technicians are assembling a boom crane for a video camera.
Wingerter, who's in the midst of the cherry harvest, looks a bit amazed. "I thought it was just going to be like the fruit commission coming out and taking some pictures for the China market or something," he admits. "I didn't know it was MTV."
It's not exactly MTV. It's a Chinese production crew that's about to shoot a music video that will air on MTV in China. Wingerter's orchard near Yakima, Washington, is the backdrop, and that's fine with him. "Everybody in China will get to see it."
This is the eighth year in a row that the Northwest Cherry Growers have brought an up-and-coming pop star from an Asian country to the Northwest to shoot a music video. It's a marketing scheme that's proven wildly successful in Taiwan. Sales tripled in five years. Now China is the new focus. Former Washington Governor Gary Locke says it's a market ripe for the picking. "There's just a hunger for things American," he points out. "American fashions, American products, American electronics. There's a love affair with America and with the American people."
But sometimes the best way to market an American product in China is with a Chinese star. In this case, that star is Jing Tian, 19. She wears a simple red dress for this video shoot. As the music plays, she lip-syncs and strolls through the fruit-laden trees stopping to admire the cherries. During a break in shooting she's on-message about cherries: "Cherry is delicious."
This seasonal delight is marketed in Asia as the Diamond of Fruit. Teresa Baggarley with the Northwest Cherry Growers Association says it's part of a campaign to associate cherries with a status symbol. "Diamonds are a girl's best friend, so if you want to impress somebody you buy diamonds for them. Well, in some of the Asian markets, to impress people during cherry season, they will take Northwest cherries to somebody's house as a guest. It is considered a status symbol since they are expensive over there."
It's not just cherry growers who are selling the Northwest brand to China and elsewhere. Hedges Family Estate is one of the largest premium wine-makers in Washington State. Currently the company sells less than one percent of its wine to China, but marketing executive Christophe Hedges is planning to change that. "The potential is greater than we do in total in the United States. If you look at the sheer number of people that live in China, it's easy to put those things together."
But there are potential downsides of growing the Chinese market. B.J. Thurlby, President of the Washington State Fruit Commission, says Northwest farmers are doing a strategic assessment of China. "Is China strength, a weakness, an opportunity or a threat? Which will it be?" He explains that marketers see China as an opportunity, but adds, "If I'm a producer, if I'm a grower, I'm worried that possibly they can produce cherries or apples someday at a quarter of the cost that we can."
But that worry is for another day. Back in John Wingerter's cherry orchard the hope is simply that viewer who see this music video will rush out to buy the diamond of fruit.