By John Johnson
A quarter of a century ago Cotton Incorporated unveiled an emblem that helped stem the tide of a steadily-receding share of market for U.S. cotton producers. This year (1998) marks the silver anniversary of the introduction of the Seal of Cotton, and the role it has played in a dramatic turn-around for U.S. cotton is well documented.
Cotton apparel and home fabrics accounted for approximately 78 percent of all textile products sold at retail in 1960. But, that share soon began to steadily nose-dive to an all-time low of 34 percent by the mid-1970s. U.S. cotton production literally was threatened with extinction. The reason was polyester and other man-made fibers that were being marketed and merchandised aggressively by their manufacturers.
Quickly recognizing the dramatic erosion of cotton’s share of the consumer market, Texas High Plains producers proposed a national marketing and research effort that soon gained the support of producers in other regions and culminated in congressional passage of the Cotton Research and Promotion Act of 1966. That act established a funding mechanism, based on producer assessments, in order to conduct broad efforts designed to recapture market share for cotton which, in turn, led to the creation of Cotton Incorporated (CI) in 1970.
From the very beginning, CI and U.S. cotton producers faced formidable obstacles. Cotton’s share of market remained in a downward spiral, and with the exception of denim jeans, T-shirts and towels, there were few cotton products available on retail shelves. After all, consumers had become enamored with synthetic products for their “ease of care” thanks in large part to the promotion efforts of their manufacturers. Consequently, many textile mills had almost abandoned production of cotton products.
Realizing there would be no quick fix to the dilemma facing the cotton industry, CI embarked on a multi-faceted strategy to bring new cotton products to the marketplace and to build consumer demand for those products. A key factor in the latter objective was the Seal of Cotton.
Introduced in 1973, the Seal served to provide a branded identification so consumers could readily locate textile and apparel products containing cotton in retail stores. Network television advertising was chosen to promote the Seal, to build an image and to create demand for cotton. This advertising medium was chosen for its cost-effectiveness in reaching millions of consumers. CI’s research had shown that women aged 18 to 49 purchased about 70 percent of all textile items. Thus, the advertisements were concentrated in morning news programs, daytime soap operas and other shows reaching cotton’s target audience.
After one full year of the advertising campaign (1974), consumer awareness of the Seal and what it represented reached 18 percent, and it has continued to grow since then. CI’s goal of increasing consumer awareness of the Seal has been realized. The trademarked Seal of Cotton is now recognized by more than 70 percent of all consumers. More importantly for producers, cotton’s market share climbed to 39 percent by 1983, and it hit 49 percent just four years later. Today, cotton’s retail market share is an incredible 59 percent, excluding carpet. Building consumer demand, however, was only one phase of CI’s strategy.
CI knew its efforts to increase demand would do little good if no products for retail shelves existed. Therefore, the organization simultaneously initiated efforts to bring cotton textile innovations to the marketplace through research on product and process development. This commitment to research has led the way in developing improved cotton textile and apparel products including: wrinkle- resistant, 100 percent cotton garments; better knitted, woven and non-woven applications; and 100 percent cotton area rugs to name a few. Additionally, CI offered on-site technical assistance to mills and manufacturers. Agronomic and biotechnology research also has helped reduce farmers’ cost of production to ensure greater opportunity for profitability.
Documenting the success of CI’s programs was a study conducted by Texas A&M University which showed producers receive a 6 to 1 return on investment in the form of increased consumer demand from their cotton assessments to fund these programs. CI funding also received an important boost in 1991 when producers approved changes enabling the program to collect assessments from importers of cotton textile and apparel goods.
Of course, the importers opposed the change. For approximately 20 years they had reaped the benefits of CI research, marketing, and promotion efforts funded by U.S. cotton producers. Today, approximately 30 percent of the CI budget is generated from imports of cotton products made outside the United States.
More recently, the largest agreement for use of the Seal of Cotton was signed by CI and Martha Stewart who has released a collection of 100 percent cotton bed sheets for her Silver Label Collection. The agreement marked the first time the Seal has been utilized by the powerful Stewart.
By increasing demand and conducting research to increase yields, improve fiber quality, and create new textile and apparel products, Cotton Incorporated has proven its value and dedication to ensure cotton will continue to be the dominant fiber as the world moves into the new millennium. Without such efforts, cotton production surely would have gone the way of the California condor; to the verge of extinction.