November, 2010

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Regaining Consumers’ Hearts And Minds

You’re likely familiar with the phrase “share of stomach.” I’d like you to consider a new one: “piece of mind.”

Despite positive signs including budget-minded consumers who are now preparing more meals at home, and foodservice and government looking to promote wellness by encouraging healthier eating, overall consumption of fruits and vegetables has shown few signs of growth in recent years. I believe strongly that this is in part because we aren’t telling our stories — of the integrity and values that go into producing and distributing our products — as individual companies, and collectively as an industry.

In focusing on how we get our products to market, we’ve lost something vitally important: connections with our consumers. Further, we’ve also allowed others to own our communications space, planting false perceptions in consumers’ minds about fresh fruits and vegetables. In the process, consumers have been scared away from the very foods they should be eating more of.

The good news is that it is not too late to take our communications space back. To do so, we must do a better job of telling our stories, individually and collectively — and of better understanding today’s new consumer, who buys not just what we do, but why and how we do it.

To help our members do that, Produce Marketing Association (PMA) recently commissioned two research projects: one to learn more about today’s new consumers and their fresh produce behaviors and perceptions, and another to evaluate claims that fresh produce costs more than other food groups.

Consumers who are not increasing their fresh produce consumption most often cite cost as the primary barrier, according to new research conducted for us by The Hartman Group. And we’ve all seen or heard the claims in the media and from other influential sources, most recently from First Lady Michelle Obama. So PMA commissioned The Perishables Group to study national fresh produce prices. They found that, in fact, fresh produce is a bargain: the national average cost to get nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables is only $2.18 — and just 88 cents for the bargain shopper who purchases the least expensive items. This value is consistent year-round, coast to coast.

Together, these studies present a wealth of information to integrate into our stories, and to tell the real story. These findings give our industry’s producers fact-based tools to talk to consumers about the great value produce offers, and how you can help them affordably shop for and prepare meals that include your products. Meanwhile, retailers should communicate with shoppers that fresh produce is the new value menu, in addition to being healthful and delicious. Few items in the supermarket are available for the low cost of about $0.25 per serving — and certainly, none are more healthful.

(PMA members can access these studies through the PMA.com online Research Center, which contains these and other research reports to help you interact with consumers to grow your business.)

We also now have a science-based tool to help bust another myth that is damaging consumer confidence in our industry and the safety of our foods. A new PMA-supported campaign from the Alliance for Food and Farming is responding to Dirty Dozen-type myths with facts and science. For more information, tools for communicating with consumers, and to contact the alliance to support their work today, I encourage you to visit www.safefruitsandveggies.com.

These latest studies are evidence of the high price our industry is paying for having lost the hearts and minds of consumers over the years, while allowing others to perpetuate myths that keep consumers away from the nutritious foods they should be eating most.

The truths exposed by these research projects also remind us of the importance of authenticity and transparency in telling our stories. Consumers must know about our tireless efforts to deliver fresh produce with the utmost attention to safety, taste and affordability — every bite, every time. By telling our stories and achieving “piece of mind” in consumers’ collective consciousness, they can have “peace of mind” to buy and enjoy more of our products — for their better health, and for ours.

Why The Disconnect In Price Perception Versus Reality?

When consumers say things that aren’t true — that produce is too expensive — good researchers don’t dismiss those claims; they pause to wonder why those surveyed said that. And to a certain extent, that is what PMA did.

Since we know, thanks to the PMA research, that produce is quite affordable, why would consumers say otherwise? Could it be that this is a cover-up of sorts? Consumers know they should eat more produce, but they don’t, so they want to blame some other factor. Affordability is a good choice because nobody will think ill of someone who doesn’t buy an item because they can’t afford it.

We would suggest, though, that consumers actually perceive fresh produce to be expensive because they throw out a great deal of it and that image of waste stays with them. Some of this may be due to factors the industry can potentially control. If consumers throw out fresh produce because they bite into an apple and find it mealy; bite into a peach and find it tasteless; or find a melon lacking in sweetness, concerted effort along the supply chain can help change this experience. However, this change will not come easily and may come only by increasing waste in the supply chain, and perhaps prices, as items will get rejected for not meeting epicurean standards.

However, one suspects that an awful lot of produce goes to waste simply because life is somewhat unpredictable. As a result, the produce purchased can go bad when dinner plans change because the kids’ game goes into overtime or a parent has to work late at the office. Maybe Grandma and Grandpa stop by and offer to take everyone to dinner or a neighbor suggests a barbeque. This is a big problem for produce. Many people buy meat and immediately put most of it in the freezer. Bread from the bakery can go bad, but it is a much smaller department. Deli and, especially, prepared foods aren’t commodities and ingredients in the way produce is and thus, are not expected to be economical.

This all points to an industry need to focus on smaller items. That big head of lettuce may be very inexpensive, but one suspects that consumers who only eat half of it and throw out the rest feel they are being wasteful and, therefore, think the item is expensive.

Another possibility is that our very progressive industry, with lots of innovative fresh-cut items, has changed the very definition of fresh produce. Perhaps many consumers just won’t consider buying a head of cabbage; maybe they will buy pre-shredded coleslaw or, maybe, they want it already prepared and so they buy it from the deli. Maybe even on commodities, consumer perception has changed. Mann Packing used to focus on commodity broccoli; now it sells a more upscale and trademarked Broccolini. Then, of course, the consumers might believe that only organic or only local is acceptable.

The point is that the industry is likely to benefit more from understanding the reality that consumers perceive they are living in than simply trying to persuade consumers that they are wrong.

When the industry steps up to tell its story, one question worth considering is this: To whom should we be talking? Bravo to PMA for supporting the Alliance for Food and Farming in efforts to respond to Dirty Dozen-type attacks. Yet this effort is probably not best thought of as an effort focused on consumers. It is too small an effort to reach many consumers, and the message is kind of complicated. The Dirty Dozen message, with its simple recommendation to purchase organic on certain items to minimize pesticides, is intuitive, even if meaningless.

What might be possible, though, is to “influence the influencers” — and this is important work. After all, when a self-proclaimed public interest group issues a press release, this does little damage. It is typically when media outlets start picking these things up and running them as stories that the damage is done. So a focus on educating and informing those who make the decisions on what stories to run and those who write and report those stories is an important undertaking.

PMA has made a worthy contribution by funding important research. We hope the industry will read it with an open mind. There is no doubt that we have good stories to tell and that we have not always told them effectively. If we are honest with ourselves, though, we will also acknowledge that we could make our story stronger.

Too often, we sell products we know do not taste very good. Too often, we accept the display of that product under less-than-optimal conditions so we can boost sales in the very short term. Both retailers and shippers sell product before it is ripe to grab a fleeting “first” claim with consumers or to catch a fleeting high market. All of these practices and more are part of our industry and all help explain why consumption does not move.

Let us focus on telling our story and also focus on conducting ourselves in such a way that if the whole story was on the front page of The New York Times, we would all be proud to be associated with the tale.