July, 2008

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Pondering Produce Marketing

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, himself an economist, told a PMA Fresh Summit audience about how economists predicted 10 of the last six recessions. I thought about that because if you get 20 produce marketers together to discuss what marketing tactics best motivate consumers to buy more fruit and vegetables, you’ll likely get at least 20 different opinions. So we recently asked consumers what most influences their purchase behavior. We learned the magic is in the marketing mix.

We asked how many could recall advertisements for produce; 59 percent couldn’t recall any TV advertising. Among the 38 percent witnessing TV ads, only 16 percent were motivated to purchase produce, while 56 percent say the ads had no influence. It is likely TV advertising didn’t register with many of them because so little produce advertising takes place. So that compels me to consider what opinion I would share with those 19 other produce marketers in the room with me.

1. Rethink advertising. (A caveat: Our research comes from talking to consumers, not trade buyers. It is critical to differentiate between trade and consumer advertising budgets — you need to talk to the trade, too.) If you have even a small consumer advertising budget, focus it on the vehicles and markets where it will be most effective. For example, 21 percent of respondents told us newspaper ads influence their produce purchase decisions, 19 percent say cooking shows are most influential, followed by television among 17 percent; magazine and radio ads ranked less than 10 percent of respondents.

So consider creative advertising options to reach end consumers — for example, partner with your retailers or cross-merchandising partners on print ads to stand out from the weekly retail circular. “Cooking shows” don’t have to mean the Food Network; look in your local markets for local food shows and those popular local morning shows, too. Don’t neglect an online presence.

2. All communication is advertising. Consider the whole marketing mix. PMA’s 2006 consumer packaging survey found we could use packaging to communicate much better with consumers. Storage and handling tips, recipes and company information all influence purchases. A PLU sticker can carry a Web address — use that site to tell your story and make personal connections with consumers. And good old-fashioned personal communication right in the produce department shouldn’t be overlooked. Our March 2007 survey found 45 percent of shoppers saying they have no interaction with produce personnel in their produce department, while 65 percent said they’d be more likely to purchase a product a store clerk recommended.

3. Taste sells. Taste drives purchasing decisions more than anything — certainly not a revelation. An April 2007 study shows taste even dictates store choice for 54 percent of consumers, yet only 25 percent of shoppers are truly satisfied with the flavor coming from their produce departments. One way to reassure customers is with product sampling. In a March 2007 PMA survey, of the 31 percent of shoppers whose produce departments have taste testing, 55 percent are significantly more likely to buy as a result. Among the 64 percent who don’t have taste testing, an identical 55 percent report a greater likelihood to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables if sampling were available. Sampling puts good taste within consumers’ control by showing them what ripeness looks like, feels like, smells like and should taste like.

4. Health matters, too. While taste rules, health clearly motivates certain consumers to buy fruits and vegetables. Positive (read: “not preachy”) nutritional information makes 54 percent of respondents more likely to purchase produce, according to PMA’s latest survey. Celebratory messaging — such as Fruits and Veggies — More Matters! — resonates loudest. Produce virtually owns the health card, more so than most other food products. Reminding consumers that your products also taste great — and delivering on the promise — will help overcome the perception that good-for-you food can’t taste good, too.

5. Recalls matter, too. PMA’s current survey again documents the adverse effect food safety recalls have on fresh fruit and vegetable purchases and underscores the importance of working toward an industry-wide food-safety culture. Seventy-five percent of consumers say they are less likely to purchase a specific fruit or vegetable upon news of a recall. No amount of advertising or PR will help us here — if consumers think our products aren’t safe, they won’t buy them; they have other choices.

What my experience lends to the conversation is not an opinion that any one media is better than another. I believe our latest research is a reminder of the bigger-picture common threads I feel we all could rally behind as we work to move from a sales-focused industry to a marketing-focused industry. Successful produce marketing should rely on the cost-effective classic formula of consistent and strategically focused communications highlighting the genuine goodness of our products and delivering on the taste promise every bite, every time.

Our recent survey was conducted Feb. 25-27 by Opinion Dynamics Corporation using a national telephone survey asking 1,000 consumers about their produce shopping habits. The full report and other consumer surveys from PMA’s research center can be accessed by calling 302-738-7100.

Five Challenges To Marketing

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. 

 — John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

The thought expressed above explains why surveying people on the subject of what motivates them is a short-term phenomenon — they don’t know the forces behind the scenes.

Mighty brands such as Sunkist live today on the reputational capital they built through advertising in the early 20th century. It has been decades since they spent much money on national advertising, but it is difficult to pick up issues of The Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post, the great mass media of the first two decades of the 20th century, without seeing a Sunkist ad.

So when children today think Sunkist when they think oranges, it is the influence of their great-grandma reading The Ladies Home Journal in 1922 that is reverberating through the generations. Such is the immense power of advertising.

Yet despite the immense power of consumer advertising, it is a tool inappropriate for most producers. Five problems:

1. The margin isn’t there. Advertising costs money and with many products it is possible to establish a set price that includes a margin for marketing. In fresh produce, we are dealing principally with commodities; the producer is a “price-taker” not able to insist on that margin for marketing.

2. The product isn’t there. When Heinz, Campbell’s and Coca-Cola advertise, they can count on having product in almost every supermarket in America, so advertising has a far better chance of moving product than with fresh produce. Even the strongest produce brands, say those of the banana giants, may have any given product in only a third of all supermarkets. Some, such as Dole, because of its fresh, frozen and canned products may, together, have a branded product in every store — but not necessarily the product being advertised. If the product isn’t universally available, the advertising will be less effective.

3. The consistency isn’t there. To market a product, it must be consistent, yet few branded efforts have maintained this consistency. Mother Nature doesn’t produce consistently proper-sized, flavorful product at a reasonable price. Still, marketers have an enormous investment in shelf space at retail and in consumer habits. They also have infrastructure costs — warehouses, offices, salespeople, etc. Marketers are loathe to simply announce they won’t be shipping this month because quality is not up to snuff. Most will try to keep shipping with the best available product — but that offers the consumer a variable-quality value proposition and reduces confidence in the brand.

4. The commitment isn’t there. Proper consumer advertising is typically an exercise in long-term brand development. Yet we frequently see companies begin consumer-marketing efforts, then pull back because of a bad year or a bad crop. Consumer attitudes and habits toward food change gradually and require persistent exposure to a message over extended time periods. One needs to have the capital or financing in place to see the project through regardless of short-term fluctuations.

5. The money isn’t there. Even if margins are adequate, a widely distributed, consistent product is offered and management is committed, changing national eating habits is expensive. It is easy to imagine a requirement of $50 million a year to begin to move the needle on national consumption of an item.

This means consumer advertising is out of reach for most marketers of fresh produce. As an industry, we have the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters program but it is underfunded and its health orientation and inclusion of canned, frozen and juice make it a problematic vehicle for fresh produce industry promotion.

So if consumer advertising is unreasonable for most companies and the trade does not have an overall effective marketing program, what is a company to do?

The best answer right now is to piggyback on interest in sustainability and use what assets one has — packaging, labels, Web sites, PR — to communicate the authenticity of one’s product. Every produce item starts with a real farm, and the authenticity of that message can resonate far.

Many companies — Frieda’s comes to mind — have never had the money for extensive advertising but have effectively used PR, labeling and branding to build a reputation with the media and consumers.

Every year some company or commodity promotion group drags us to its booth at PMA to show us its new TV spot. We all applaud and rarely see it again as the company runs it in a few cities as part of a deal with a local supermarket, a kind of trade incentive. Basically we need to abandon the trade’s “TV envy” and use the impressions we gain from product on the shelves, effective PR and the tools of viral marketing, social networking and other Internet options to market to consumers in the way we actually can.

One day the industry as a whole will realize we are competing with dairy, beef, pork, etc., all with one hand tied behind our backs. Then we can rally behind an industry-wide consumer-marketing program that would actually be large enough to make a difference.