USA Rice truck tour gives away free rice cookers to help dispel fears of cooking rice.

• By Vicky Boyd,
Editor •

charley mathews michael klein ridewithrice
Michael Klein (right), USA Rice vice president of communication and domestic promotion, gets ready to conduct a video interview with Marysville, California, rice producer Charley Mathews Jr. Mathews, also USA Rice chairman, toured Klein around the area in the #ridewithrice truck.

USA Rice took to the road this fall to promote the virtues of U.S.-grown rice and try to demystify cooking of the grain.
As part of the #RideWithRice program, USA Rice staff in a bright green decorated pick-up truck traversed the Midwest to the Pacific Coast, giving away Aroma brand rice cookers along the way. They asked people to “get creative — start with rice” and #ThinkRice.

The stops were strategically chosen to target consumers who may not be well-versed in U.S.-grown rice or preparing the grain, says Michael Klein, USA Rice vice president of communication and domestic promotion.

The #RideWithRice promotional effort also provided opportunities for Klein and Deborah Willenborg, USA Rice director of marketing and communications, to talk with consumers.

“We easily interacted with more than 1,000 consumers on each leg and gave out 800 cookers on each leg,” Klein says. “The truck is doing its job of attracting people so we can start a conversation.”

With the help of social media, the #RideWithRice effort generated thousands of additional digital interactions from followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, he says. They were invited to add the hashtag, #RideWithRice, to their posts. Used in conjunction with social media posts, hashtags designated by the # symbol are similar to key words and provide an easy way to search for or follow hot topics and subjects in general.

An easy way to cook rice

The idea for the rice cooker give-away stemmed from earlier USA Rice research that showed some consumers could be intimidated by cooking rice.

“Everybody liked the idea of doing something with rice cookers,” Klein says.

But he was quick to add they weren’t trying to displace using a sauce pan on the stove for consumers who have had success with that method.

“Rice cookers aren’t the only way to cook rice, but they’re certainly a very easy way to cook rice,” Klein says.
Initially, members of the USA Rice Domestic Promotions Committee looked into giving rice cookers to couples who were registered and planning to marry in September, which is National Rice Month.

But Klein says they soon discovered that September is the second most popular month for weddings, only to June, and about 250,000 couples tie the knot in September.

Taking a page from the Oscar Meyer Weiner Mobile, they briefly considered the feasibility of driving around in a big grain of rice.

The committee also toyed with tying into food trucks, since they’re currently popular. Eventually, they settled on a hybrid plan that involved a specially decorated pick-up truck that stopped at locations nationwide to give out rice cookers.

USA Rice contacted a handful of rice cooker manufacturers, and Aroma Housewares of San Diego, California, responded with the most attractive arrangement.

USA Rice had worked with Aroma in the past, but the nation’s largest marketer of rice cookers was more in the background, says Aroma director of marketing and branding Kevin Lin.

“We talked about this campaign, and we thought it was a wonderful idea,” Lin says. “We have the same vision as well (as USA Rice) to help American consumers not be afraid to cook rice. And where we can, we can provide the tools to make that happen.”

Aroma also took to its social media channels and alerted its followers as to the rice truck’s pending stops along the route, he says.

Quick turn-around

truck raffle drawing
Victoria Callahan, 2018 International Rice Festival queen, draws the winning ticket for the #RideWithRice truck raffle at the USA Rice Outlook Conference as A.J. Sabine holds the microphone — photos by Vicky Boyd

With a tight two-month planning window, USA Rice put out feelers to both Chevrolet and Ford for a pick-up truck. Cavenaugh Ford Lincoln LLC in Jonesboro, Arkansas, responded with a competitive price and provided extensive advice about must-have options, such as spray-on bed liners.

To help underwrite the cost, USA Rice sold raffle tickets to rice industry members for a chance to win the truck filled with a suite of different Aroma rice cookers. The winning ticket — purchased by Michael Fruge, a Eunice, Louisiana, rice producer ­— was drawn during the last day of the Rice Outlook Conference.

Katie Maher, USA Rice director of strategic initiatives, designed the catchy graphics that adorned the truck wrap. The specific shade of bright green is the same as is used in other #thinkrice promotional materials.

The promotional committee approved the truck concept in June and it was launched in September.

“Within two months, we got the truck, got the design, got the route and launched it,” Maher says.
On the road again

The 5,000-mile tour included three legs: Midwest and Upper Midwest, Pacific Northeast including Northern California, and Southern California. During each leg, Klein also took the opportunity to visit rice industry leaders and recorded video interviews as they drove around nearby countryside.

In Northern California, for example, he visited with USA Rice Chairman Charley Mathews Jr., who farms near Marysville.

Using three GoPro cameras mounted inside the truck, Klein talked with Mathews, who provided a guided tour of the area around his farm and recounted the area’s rich history. Mathews also discussed rice farmers’ conservation practices as he pointed out flooded rice fields filled with waterfowl and the importance of export markets to the industry.

Yes, there is a free lunch

During each leg, the USA Rice crew gave away 800 rice cookers. Why that number — because that was how many would fit in their rented chase truck, Klein says.

The give-away locations varied, depending on the region, and included farmers’ markets, a craft brewery, restaurants and city parks. Offering a free rice cooker provided a way to open the door to conversation.

“They don’t believe it’s free — they think there’s a catch,” Klein says. “But once they realize it’s free, they become very interested. We talk about recipes. We talk about farming.”

Mathews says the promotional effort turned out better than expected, adding it helps reconnect farmers to the end-user — the consumer.

“You really have to open your eyes to what people have to say, and this provides good guidance,” he says. “We talk farm to market. That means you have to add that relationship in and this adds that stepping stone.”

The only thing USA Rice representatives asked of rice cooker recipients was they answer three simple questions.
1. How often do you cook rice?
2. Are you more likely to eat rice at home or out?
3. What would make you more likely to prepare rice?

The results will be analyzed and should help direct future domestic promotional efforts, Klein says.

As an added incentive to put the cooker to use, recipients were told if they snapped a photo of a dish made with the appliance and posted it on social media with the #ridewithrice tag, they’d be entered in one of five drawings for $100 each.

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