Want an interesting book for some of those long winter evenings just around the corner? Log on to amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com and order a copy of “Cotton's Renaissance — A Study in Market Innovation.”
While the intent of the book is to trace the history of Cotton Incorporated, the producer-funded research and promotion organization, and its role in rescuing U.S. cotton from its status as also-ran fiber and turning it into one of the 20th century's greatest marketing successes, the authors also skillfully weave into the narrative a wide-ranging roster of the people and events involved in this remarkable story.
There's potential for such an undertaking to be deadly dull and academic. This book isn't. Authors Timothy Curtis Jacobson and George David Smith haven't overlooked the human perspective in their historical account.
Though it chronicles the events that led to the creation, nurturing, and triumphs of Cotton Incorporated, it doesn't lose sight of the grower leaders who've stood by cotton and believed in it through thick and thin — from California's Ted Sheely to the High Plains' Eddie Smith to the Mississippi Delta's Percy family to South Carolina's Johnny Gramling, and many others who've helped bring the industry from mules and hand pickers to the era of mechanization and biotechnology.
It was from the hard times of the ‘20s and ‘30s, which saw the price of cotton drop to around 6 cents a pound in 1933, that the government cotton program was birthed and from which the impetus came for the 1938 formation of the National Cotton Council, the first industrywide, commodity-specific organization in the history of American agriculture.
Oscar Johnston, credited with pulling together cotton industry leaders into the council, said prophetically: “If major problems are to be resolved, it is something we do as an industry ourselves…” Unanimous resolutions quickly followed to unite under one banner of research, promotion, and political alertness.”
The demands of World War II hoisted America, and cotton along with it, out of the Great Depression. But waiting in the wings was a new enemy for cotton — synthetic fibers. To counter the competition from man-made fibers, industry leaders increasingly saw the need for expanded cotton research and promotion, with an emphasis on quality. Everyone connected with cotton knew its superiority, but the buying public needed to be sold.
That need led to the Cotton Producers Institute, under the aegis of the National Cotton Council, and with the rallying cry of “a dollar per bale,” growers were enlisted to support research and promotion, and in 1965 Congress authorized the cotton checkoff program.
But even with money coming in, cotton's promotion efforts paled beside those for synthetics. Industry leaders “were convinced that cotton's insiders were but innocents abroad in the world of marketing…and it was time to seek professional help.”
A report by the Booz-Allen consulting firm bluntly concluded the program “needed shock treatment.” Dukes Wooters, a Harvard MBA and Reader's Digest super ad salesman, was enlisted in cotton's cause, and on a plane from New York to Dallas he sketched out the Cotton Incorporated concept. In January 1971 the new name became official.
Wooters arm-twisted a San Francisco graphics designer into designing the Cotton Seal, which they had no way of knowing would become one of the most successful trademarks in the history of marketing. Later would come “The Fabric of Our Lives” advertising campaign. Combined with the Cotton Seal, it was a match made in heaven.
Cotton Incorporated put together a staff of top researchers whose motto was, “We find solutions to problems.” From their efforts came milestones in mechanization, fiber and seed quality, planting and cultivation, ginning techniques, spinning improvements — the CI research ran the gamut from dirt to shirt, and then into the new frontiers of biotechnology.
The impact of Cotton Incorporated on the markets for cotton is a remarkable achievement in organizational entrepreneurship, the authors say; as an independent, non-political, public-private company wholly dedicated to building markets for its commodity, it is unique.
It has helped growers to increase demand and reduce their costs in historically demonstrable ways, Jacobson and Smith note. “The one thing it has not been able to do is influence the price paid for their cotton.”
What are the prospects that Cotton Incorporated can do as good a job in the future as it has in the past? Can the organizational structure that did this so well domestically be adapted to work better globally?
For the foreseeable future, they conclude, “it will continue to confront the competition from synthetic fibers with persuasive consumer campaigns, deft engineering support, and creative research and development. Its greater opportunity for substantial market support apparently lies outside the U.S. The challenge now…is to cultivate ever more vigorously cotton's markets worldwide, since the gap between cotton's international and U.S. market shares suggests a big opportunity for growth.
“For the most efficient producers of cotton who remain, there are harsh yet salutary lessons to be learned from the history of their industry. There is no time to relax, no time to coast. Entrepreneurs cannot afford to become caretakers of their own achievements. Market victories cannot be taken for granted. In free markets, choices abound and consumers can afford to make them. American cotton, no more a necessity than any of its competitors, is just one of them.”