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Foundational Excellence Program Showcases Latest Research On Generic Promotions, Varietal Development And Consumers’ Response To GMOs

We have been fortunate to have Cornell’s Brad Rickard participate in every New York Produce Show and Conference since the beginning. His talks at our events in the US and Europe have included subjects such as these:

Cornell and Washington State University Team Up On New Research Interactive Presentation At New York Produce Show Gives Industry Buyers A Chance To Weigh In On What They Prefer 

Cornell Professor Brad Rickard Returns To London To Unveil New Study: QUANTITY, VALUE AND DIVERSITY — The 10-Year Evolution Of Consumer Purchase Preferences For Packaged Produce

Is Zero Waste The Optimal Standard?
Cornell’s Brad Rickard To Present New Research At The London Produce Show And Conference

What’s in  A Word? Sell By, Use By, Best By And Fresh By.. Can A Word Alter Food Waste Significantly? Cornell’s Brad Rickard Speaks Out

Cornell’s Brad Rickard Returns To The New York Produce Show And Conference: Will ‘GMO Free’ Be The New Organic?

What’s In A Name? Professor Brad Rickard Of Cornell Produces New Research That Indicates Shakespeare May Have Been In Error… On Apples At Least

Cornell’s Brad Rickard To Unveil Generic Produce Promotion Research Done By Cornell And Arizona State University At New York Produce Show And Conference

In recent years, in addition to presenting important research results on the main show day, Professor Rickard has been an important part of the Foundational Excellence program that we present jointly with Cornell University. His role is to get attendees thinking about key issues in the produce industry and he does it by giving riveting, rapid fire summaries of key research he has been conducting related to the industry.

So we were very excited when we learned what he planned for the Foundational Excellence program this year. We asked Pundit investigator and special projects editor Mira Slott to get us a sneak preview.

Brad Rickard

Ruth and William Morgan
Associate Professor
in Applied Economics and Management
Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Q: Since the pioneering Foundational Excellence program launched, your unique, rapid-fire presentation condenses your extensive research studies into an invaluable capsule for attendees. It complements talks by your Cornell colleagues, spurring dynamic, interactive discussion on your findings. You point out the cyclical value. How this often leads to follow up questions and further research long after the NYPS concludes, providing more material for next year’s show! [Editor’s note: you can view the 2019 agenda and a video about last year’s program here]

You’ll be doing a doubleheader this year, also sharing the stage for an Educational Micro-Session on the show floor with Aaron Adalja [Assistant Professor of Food and Beverage Management at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business].

Let’s first discuss some highlights of your Foundational Excellence talk, and then we can do a separate piece in which we bring in Aaron Adalja for a sneak preview of your joint presentation.

A: That’s a good plan. This Foundational Excellence program is a great opportunity for people relatively new to the industry, whether younger people recently out of school or senior people, experienced in areas such as marketing, food safety or management, but relatively new to the produce industry to gain an overview of key issues, and give them a chance to network with folks they may not have met before, but are working in the same industry, and in other parts of the U.S. or around the world. That’s always a big plus.  

Then there’s this opportunity to listen to this group of professors from Cornell talk about these various topics. Another nice benefit is it’s a very informal program. We try to encourage participants to stop the presenters and ask questions. Just that process of exchanging information. It’s kind of like being back in school, but you really don’t have to go back to school; you just get to go for a day. We try to tailor the program so that it will have topics of interest for people in the early stages of their career or in some cases, executives who have switched careers and are new to produce.  In some cases, people have been in the industry, and they just want to come back and reflect.

Q: Participants say they are amazed at the amount of vital information crammed into this one-day event. It’s a lot to absorb. Can you address that aspect?

A: It’s definitely a very intensive day. There’s a lot of information. I’m grateful to be presenting earlier in the day rather than later in day! But the people at Cornell and Jim (Prevor) spent time organizing the day to create flow from one session to the next, and then leave this time at the end of the day for a Q&A session and suggestions for further professional development, which is moderated by Jim with all the Cornell professors — because sometimes it takes a few hours for some of these ideas to sink in and develop your questions. It allows people to ask questions that cut across these different presentations and brainstorm together.

In some cases, it gives you just little nuggets of information to start thinking about some of these topics. There are always people who follow up with one or more of us after the program is over to learn more about a specific topic. I think that general breadth is a good thing. It’s a selling feature. If you’re not interested in a particular topic, then in 30 or 40 minutes there will be a new topic.

Q: It’s admirable that there is an opportunity for people to follow up with you and that you’re available and welcoming to them…

A: In some cases, maybe they’ll get to participate in one of these Executive Programs that Cornell does a few years down the road, and it will be a similar cast of characters who do the teaching, but those programs are often a week long, so they have more time to go in-depth with many of these topics.


Q: During our video interview at last year’s Foundational Excellence program, you shared how you benefit from the back-and-forth information exchange with attendees as well, and it gets you inspired for new projects…

A: A lot of times I do. I get ideas from people. I tell them what I’m working on and they tell me related ideas they’ve been thinking about, and often it’s something that requires research…

Most of the things I talk about at the Foundational program are things that industry folks brought to my attention, and then I did some research, and this is a way of sharing and communicating my results back to people in the industry. It’s circular in that way, which is nice.

Q: Let’s give attendees a preview of the issues you’ll be covering for a head start on the Q&A part!

A: My presentation is different than others in the program, because I’m sharing the results of different research projects that I’ve been doing related to the produce industry, whereas my colleagues’ talks are more overview summaries with pertinent details of issues facing the produce industry. I think it’s a nice balance.

I picked three controversial topics of interest to people who work in the produce industry, where I have done extensive research:

First, examining advertising efforts for fruits and vegetables, what works and what doesn’t; second, issues related to new licensing and patented fruit varieties — how consumers think about that and what it means for the supply chain; and third, consumer response to genetically engineered technologies for fruits and vegetables.

How do we get inside consumers’ heads and understand effects of various labels on fruits and vegetables, looking at local, organic, sustainable, Fair Trade, and GM on purchase decisions? It’s more of a session on my research results, but hopefully, it provokes some thoughts and challenging questions from the audience.

Q: Attendees always appreciate your engaging and contemplative responses…

A: This presentation is essentially broken up into three parts. For the advertising section, I spend some time getting the audience to think about the best way to advertise and promote fruits and vegetables… who should pay for the promotion, what’s the objective, etc. I contrast collective promotion efforts in various parts of the world (Canada, UK, Australia and the US) as compared to advertising an individual fruit and vegetable or a small bundle of say stone fruit… how consumers respond to those kinds of messages.

Q: Do you analyze the interactive impacts of produce department sales and the bottom line? For instance, if the objective is to increase produce consumption, would a stone fruit promotion just redistribute sales of the department from one type of fruit to another… or would it create excitement to drive consumers to produce and boost traffic and purchases overall? 

Over the years, industry organizations have tried numerous collective, generic campaigns. Why has produce consumption in the US generally remained stagnant over the years, despite all these different approaches?

A: We have pretty strong evidence that broad collective efforts tend to be the ones that boost demand the most, but then we talk about the complications — that it doesn’t boost all fruits and vegetables necessarily the same, some fair better than others. Then there’s this question of how do you pay for it?

In the US, these generic programs can operate on a modest budget funded by license fees for promotional materials and by voluntary contributions from producers, food and farm associations, food distributors, and agricultural companies… 

How do you organize an effort promoting baskets of produce, which could encompass 300 to 400 different product choices? There are so many logistical details, and that’s probably why we don’t have one of these programs in any significant way in the US.

Still, we do have some evidence from our research that it’s the best way to increase demand for fruits and vegetables in general.  

Q: Did you have a chance to see the PRODUCE BUSINESS October issue with the cover story on the Plant-Forward Movement. The Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) recently launched the Have A Plant campaign, aimed at Millennials and Gen Z consumers, in a move to rebrand the produce industry’s identity.

Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president and CEO, argues that Have a Plant moves away from finger-wagging and ‘should’ language of earlier campaigns that have been ineffective in encouraging produce consumption.

A: That’s right. I’ve got your cover story here on my desk, and wow, it’s substantial. I’m still absorbing all the information. We have not seen a significant increase, or really any increase in consumption, especially with certain demographics and age categories. So, we’re looking for new ways to promote fruits and vegetables to try to increase demand.

There are other countries in the world that have done this, and have seen some success, places like Australia, Canada and France, where they have these broad message campaigns. It’s not the silver bullet, but there’s been some progress in certain cases.

Q: Freshfel Europe is pursuing an EU-wide Follow Me To Be Healthy campaign targeted at young Europeans [See Produce Business European Market columns here and here on the Freshfel campaign.]

A: There’s also the question of whether the promotion should be more about the health benefits, or the taste and the quality of the produce, and these are a lot of the more subtle issues that need to be explored. Part of the purpose of my presentation is to open discussion with the audience and find out what kinds of questions and ideas they have.

The second part of my presentation will then shift gears to the rise of patented or club varieties being introduced in the US, New Zealand, and Europe, developed by private breeders typically, and sometimes a private/public arrangement, often with selective, high quality fruits, and in some cases vegetables. There are many questions on how they should be introduced to supermarkets and consumers, and what price they should be posted at. And as you work up the supply chain, how do these new varieties get distributed to growers and handlers. Should it be a very exclusive arrangement or more open?

Industry players are struggling with this, and what kind of impacts these varieties could have on demand for fruits and vegetables more generally, especially as more are coming out every year around the world. Some are very exciting. Some consumer demographics are very interested in these new cultivars.

We’ll explore some of these issues around consumers, how some of these varieties should be introduced to the consumer, at what price, what kind of promotional strategy. Then there are the supply chain questions, which I’ve been working on more recently.

I’ll have new research to discuss here on how these varieties should be distributed through the supply chain to generate the most interest.

Q: What did you discover?

A: On the consumer side, we’ve done some fun experiments… we find a new variety that has great taste, great color and flavor can do well in the market place, but there are some simple ways it is introduced to consumers that can make a big impact. Even the name you use to describe the new cultivar, for example, can have a pretty big impact on consumer demand for the product. Even when people think the name is not so important, it turns out that it is. 

Q: Your Foundational Excellence presentation is a snapshot of what NYPS attendees experience each year with your more in-depth educational sessions on the main trade show day. You were surprising attendees early on with your research on the powerful impact of a varietal name on consumer demand…

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Q: These topic summaries at Foundational Excellence help the group think about these issues for further exploration…

There’s a lot of controversy about who gets access to these varieties, and there are some substantial economic questions surrounding that too. We have some evidence to suggest the way these new varieties are licensed to growers and handlers can have a pretty big economic impact on new releases.

A: There is some evidence — and industry support as well — to have licenses that are less exclusive, inviting more growers to grow the varieties, which seems to be the preference of the grower community. However, when you think about the overall cost and the overall economic impact of the variety itself, other evidence suggests a more exclusive strategy might be preferable.

So, you can imagine there is tension between the groups. People spend a lot of time building contracts and trying to establish these relationships. I will be able to share some results and get the audience to understand the tension and balancing act.

Q: How does this play from a retailer’s perspective, for those retail executives in the audience? Is there a goal to get as many of these new varieties into the supermarket, or to develop exclusive arrangements? Does inundation of varietal options create complications, and is there a risk of losing quality control when a variety becomes more widespread?

A: I think it’s the same story whether you’re a grower, a handler or retailer. This question about exclusivity creates the same type of tension. When things become more exclusive, it’s good for those that have these exclusive rights. On the other hand, it might not have the financial benefit to the variety given more general access. It’s a trade-off.

Q: On the consumer side, does this mean more people will have access to a new variety at a cheaper price?

A: Yes, but at some point, as these things become less exclusive and these varieties become more readily availability, then quality problems occur. It’s finding the right amount of balance and exclusivity.

Q: And there’s still one more area of research you’re looking to cover?

A: Yes, and my presentation is only an hour long!

My last research piece will build upon introductory and summary thoughts by other program speakers, about how we’re inundated with all these labels and messaging on food products. I have done some research specifically looking at consumer response to GMO and non-GMO labels on produce compared to other categories.

Q: Your work in this area has been quite extensive over the years.

Cornell’s Brad Rickard Returns To The New York Produce Show And Conference:
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Your colleague Miguel Gómez will be doing an educational micro-session on his new, just-published research: Signaling Impacts of Mandatory GMO Labeling on Fruit and Vegetable Demand. In addition, Ben Campbell [Assistant Professor, Agricultural & Applied Economics, University of Georgia Extension] will be taking a different research angle during his micro-session, also sparked by the new federal labeling laws taking effect January 2020. 

Both Miguel and Ben referenced your fascinating research in preview Q&A’s for their talks. [Editor’s note: you can read Miguel’s preview Q&A here, and Ben’s preview Q&A here

A: I’ll be sure to mention this to people at the Foundational Excellence Program so that they can attend those presentations. There’s evidence that the words you choose to describe these new technologies, the ways you educate consumers matters in how they accept them, the number of positive and negative and neutral words you use. We’re doing a related study with grape varieties, some of which might be using these different technologies. There are many interesting questions within that space.

Q: You’ll be teaming up with Aaron Adalja to present new research on another eye-opening topic during the main trade show day at the Jacob Javits Center. Attendees will be excited to learn what you have in store after last year’s intriguing session. [Editor’s note: Aaron joins Brad in his office for a sneak preview Q&A, which will be published in an upcoming Perishable Pundit]


It is interesting to think about the interactions between the discussion topics Professor Rickard will raise via his choice of research to present.

1. Generic advertising

2. The growth of Club varieties or proprietary produce

3. Consumer acceptance of GMO and GMO-free labeling and products.

Of course, if a company is spending millions to differentiate itself with a Club variety or via labeling about its status related to GMOs or other issues — this will probably make the company hesitant to support generic advertising that implies that “apples” or “grapes” or “produce” is some undifferentiated mass that can and should be promoted together.

We know, for example, that organic producers have specifically petitioned to either be exempt from required assessments or that the funds go into a separate pool to promote just organic produce.

Years ago, when there was talk of a California Navel Orange Board, Sunkist, which at the time was the only shipper that did consumer advertising, was willing to go along — provided there was a credit on the assessment for those who spent money on their own consumer advertising.

There has been a lot of research done on generic advertising in produce, but most of it was done before anything like Cotton Candy grapes were commercialized. Does the win for this proprietary product come from spending money to promote its unique attributes or from pooling together with a broader industry promotion? Maybe that will be Professor Rickard’s next research project!

If you or a team member would like to be part of the Foundational Excellence program presented jointly by PRODUCE BUSINESS and Cornell University, you can register right here.

If you need help getting hotel rooms, let us know here.

And, of course, you can register for the overall NY Produce Show and Conference at this link.

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