The produce industry has a lot of trouble investing in marketing. It is hard to get the margins in produce that support the kind of marketing campaigns that consumer packaged goods companies are able to sustain. One woman though, has a cause of her own, global marketing guru Lisa Cork, an American girl who adopted New Zealand as her home, has said the growing trend to package produce creates a billboard for companies and the industry to sell produce and she wants to make sure the trade uses this asset. We asked Liz O’Keefe, a well-established journalist who works with The London Produce Show and Conference to find out more:
With 26 years’ marketing experience behind her and an award-winning history for increasing growers’ revenue through packaging solutions, New Zealand-based Fresh Produce Marketing’s creator Lisa Cork brings her own distinct brand of enthusiasm to The New York Produce Show and Conference next week with no fewer than two presentations. Liz O’Keefe gets a sneak preview and finds out why no one dare diss broccoli while Lisa’s around…
From seed to field, packhouse to retail, Lisa Cork has worked throughout the supply chain to then set up her own business Fresh Produce Marketing in 1995. The first to put retail buyers through their own paces out in the field and the person behind that broccoli truck turning up to the White House during the Bush presidency, Cork is a fresh produce force to be reckoned with.
Q: Starting out
A: Describing herself as ‘lucky’, Californian-kid Cork bounced into the fresh produce industry straight from university, after a friend told her about a job at the “amazing company selling fresh produce” Apio Produce Sales near her hometown. She soon found that this passion for produce was infectious, as she made her way from sales co-ordinator to an innovative marketing role. “I thought: Why not?” she says of the job opportunity. “So I went down and ended up spending a couple of days there, just observing, and was totally hooked. I knew I would love to come work for this company. So I started as sales co-ordinator, as part of a group of four of us. We were young and passionate – it was an exciting time.
“We had a growers’ group and covered 70 lines. I would get there at 4.30am and manage this huge pad and paper that would hold all these commodities and I would do the hold over numbers, the harvest numbers and orders – working out if we’d need any extra broccoli, etc. After six months I said, I am happy to be co-ordinator, but I’ve just got some really interesting ideas, like an Apio newsletter.
“Basically, that’s how this all got started – I eventually moved from doing the occasional bit of marketing to Apio’s first-ever marketing manager, full time, after getting some traction for various ideas. I was really lucky that they realized I had a talent for marketing and they just let me run [with it].”
Q: The big break
A: It was during Cork’s five years at Apio that, on a whim, the Bush Administration decided to ban broccoli from Air Force One. When the former President Bush stated in 1990 that he never, ever, wants to see another sprig of broccoli on his plate, whether he was on Air Force One or at the White House or anywhere else in the land, Cork was not giving up without a fight. “At the time, Apio was one of the top-five broccoli producing companies and broccoli was big business,” says Cork. “We got the growers together and said that we had to do something about this ‘ban’. Broccoli was cheap, so we got the growers to get-together a 10-ton truck full to send to the White House and, as the new marketing manager, this was literally the first press release I put together. It went global. I went from struggling to get CNN to take me seriously on the Tuesday night to it being big news all over the world by Wednesday morning. Some 150 journalists ended up reporting on it.”
During the 1990s, Cork was also part of the team at Apoi that brought the concept ‘Produce University’ to life – making sure the retailers knew exactly what it took to get perishables through the supply chain. “We got the major retail buyers up to California and I put them to work,” she explains. “We gave them a tour of the business; they had to go to the seed company to understand the process with the seedlings and then through to the fields. What was quite unique at that time, considering in those days these were quite powerful men, is that I put them in overalls and placed them in the field. It was really important that they had a sense of empathy. You’d get them packing and you would reject what the retailers’ standards would reject, so they would see that it isn’t easy.”
After planning to travel the world, Cork stopped at New Zealand and gained residency in 1994. The following year she started up her own company, Fresh Produce Marketing. After working with the likes of the California Tree Fruit Agreement, the Californian Table Grapes Commission and California Pistachios, Cork’s reputation in the US preceded her and she began to look after the market of these imports in New Zealand. “The company has evolved and we concentrate on what I call on-pack communication and category strategy,” she says, who now takes on up to 10 projects a year. “We aim to optimize sales through packaging and the way we deal with consumers, which is a niche that is getting some great traction. Unfortunately, in fresh produce we do packagine and category strategy really poorly.
“If you walk down a grocery aisle, every single pack is selling you on why you should buy that product, be it a cereal or a candy bar. You walk into the produce aisle and we’re caught up in telling you, not selling to you. We tell you they are strawberries, but we don’t sell to you on the fact the strawberries are freshly picked or that they were bred for early season sweetness. We are so busy telling that we are not selling and that leaves a huge gap in growers’ revenue.”
Q: Giving something back
A: “If the delegates go away with one thing after hearing either one or both of my presentations, I want them to think: I’m already paying for packaging, so I’m crazy if I don’t make it work harder for me,” says Cork.
Cork’s first presentation at the Global Trade Symposium, as part of the New York Produce Show and Conference, is entitled ‘Using produce packaging to drive sales’ and the second will concentrate on what has evolved as the main focus of her business, category strategy.
“Category strategy is an easy way to optimize sales by making the most of what you have,” says Cork, who is adamant that growers can counteract the squeeze that they are under from both sides of the supply chain and won the PMA Marketer of the Year Award 2013 for following this mantra with sweet potato producer Delta Produce and it’s ‘Love Kumara’ rebranding project. “We take a product and then target particular customer demographics. This could mean several different groups – for example, what a young foodie couple want from a bag of sweet potato is completely different to a large family on a budget. When I started working with Delta the sweet potato market was stagnant in New Zealand. There was a distinct mismatch between want the growers wanted to produce and what the shoppers wanted to buy. Growers where putting bigger sweet potatoes out on the market because they got a price per ton, but consumers wanted a smaller, smoother skinned product that was easy to peel or didn’t need peeling. So we started growing and packing differently, partially redesigned the packhouse, and grading according to what the consumer wanted. We separated the smooth/medium product for the high-value pack; the little ones for the ready-to-cook 500g ‘Little Gourmet’ pack; and the larger, knobblier sweet potatoes for processing. We changed the quality of the product just by reorganizing the perception of it, according to different target audiences.”
According to Delta, the introduction the Little Gourmet pack achieved a more than 200% increase in sales value. “In the old days, the fresh produce sector owned health and wellbeing, but we have rested on our laurels,” Lisa points out. “We have become a bit lazy with marketing. We let brands like Betty Crocker take the lead, but also, the reality is that everything on the grocery aisle has become better for you health-wise. We had a gap, but it is closing and we are losing the advantage on health claims. We need to pull back that lost consumer interest now, and the best and most cost-effective place to start is in changing the way we think about packaging.”
Her enthusiasm is infectious and her idea is a winner. Turn packaging from an expense into a source of profit. Yet her life story, — a journey in marketing through produce — is at least as interesting. She has flown from New Zealand to exchange ideas in nNw York. We hope you will be there to engage with her.
You can register to hear Lisa give two separate presentations, one at The Global Trade Symposium, one on the show day of The New York Produce Show and Conference just register here or come register on site