SEBRING — The current image is that of a rotund, leaf-caped, fish-lipped orange man giving the beady-eye to whoever looks at him.
Not exactly an eye-catching image for branding Florida citrus as a part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
As the popularity of comic book characters continues to soar with modern graphics and endless reincarnations in comic books and the movies, the Florida Department of Citrus has teamed up with Marvel Comics to debut a new “Captain Citrus,” the citrus industry’s mascot.
In June, the department of citrus announced it was finalizing talks with Disney-owned Marvel Comics for a $1 million contract to redesign Captain Citrus from the current round-bodied creature from Planet Orange into a sinewy, strong, vibrant male superhero.
The more modern, physically-appealing image will debut in mid-September, said Department of Citrus spokesman David Steele. He said one of the purposes of the redesign is to help transform Florida’s citrus program into a globally-recognized brand.
“The core meaning is health and fitness; we think it’s important that the character delivering that message reflects that,” Steele said Friday. “We want to provide a character more consistent with messages of nutrition.”
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One of the ulterior makeover motives for the new Captain Citrus was also due to the state’s citrus production slump.
Florida’s orange production continues to decline, according to United States Department of Agriculture. It lowered its estimate of the 2014 production to 110 million boxes, an 18 percent drop from 2013. Total citrus acreage is down to just 50 to 60 percent of what it was 10 years ago and net production has been cut in half, according to a report released June 17.
In Highlands County, which grows about 13 percent of the state’s citrus, the decline is relative to Florida overall, said Ray Royce, executive director at Highlands County Citrus Growers Association.
He said most of the decline is the result of citrus greening, a bacterial disease that can greatly reduce fruit production and kill trees.
According to Highlands County Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre, greening has affected about 20 percent of the citrus acres in Highlands County, with one of every five acres containing diseased trees.
Royce and Steele agreed that a revamped Captain Citrus should give the industry a more strong, secure image, and at the same time influence children and teenagers to drink more citrus juice.
He said an upgraded Captain Citrus should inspire more in-store citrus advertising, citrus marketing, public relations and online advertising.
During Lake Placid’s Caladium Festival the weekend of July 25, Royce said the growers association had a booth set up, giving out free orange juice to visitors. He said a boy about 8 years old told him Captain Citrus had visited his school and told him the figure was “cool” — even before the character’s redo.
“You could just tell by the look in his eyes it made an impact. I think they’re (department of citrus) on a great track for marketing to young people because you could just tell how excited that kid was that he met Captain Citrus,” he said.
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Steele said the concept is to have the redesigned Captain Citrus appear in at least one printed comic book and two digital versions with other Marvel characters, such as Captain America and the Avengers.
He said the plots wouldn’t be disclosed until the re-launch, but the department wanted to “cultivate an affinity for the character, deliver a message about the nutritional benefits of 100 percent Florida orange juice and build loyalty for Florida citrus.”
The new Captain Citrus would be designed to continue to accomplish these goals as children grow older.
“We want to capitalize on everything that Marvel has learned about using a character to deliver messages to broad demographics,” he said.
Captain Citrus was created by the department in 2011 to get the message of OJ nutrition into the classroom and Steele said the new captain would be involved in the department’s new “There’s Amazing Inside” campaign, launched in June at the Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference in Bonita Springs.