Few issues so engage the produce industry as the drive to increase consumption. Whether from a moral fervor of looking to encourage healthy eating or from the practical business sense that it is hard to grow sales and profits unless consumption grows, the industry stands united on the desirability of boosting consumption.
Yet, the industry has not been successful in converting this passion into anything that translates into actual increased consumption. Countless programs such as The Fresh Approach, 5 a Day, Fruits & Veggies — More Matters and dozens of variants around the globe have come and gone with no notable boost in consumption patterns.
Many in the industry long ago came to the conclusion that the “finger-wagging” or “nanny state” approach, focusing on the health benefits of eating produce, was not going to move the needle on consumption. This is partly because the idea that produce is healthy is well-accepted and partly because such prudential concerns don’t seem to drive many decisions. This is why auto dealers, who mostly sell blue sedans, fill the showroom with red convertibles.
Last year, PMA came out with a study, titled Beyond Health: Promoting Produce Consumption with an Understanding of the Experiences People Want from Food, that focused on an alternative approach to marketing. As PMA explained in announcing the study:
“Our results also confirm that messaging around healthfulness is a powerful foundation that should be built upon. However, healthful claims should not be relied on solely to drive consumption. Marketers, health professionals, government agencies and advocates interested in promoting produce consumption need to attend to those underlying experiences people are looking for when eating in different contexts, and how produce can fit those needs. By appealing to the experiences people are seeking at an implicit level, produce marketing can deliver on consumers’ broader needs and hold its own as a viable, healthy and enjoyable food choice. “
Beyond the message, many in the industry have focused on marketing dollars as the “missing ingredient” in efforts to boost produce consumption. Coca-Cola, for example, spends around $5.8 billion a year on advertising and marketing. The produce industry’s marketing expenditures are a rounding error compared to such numbers.
Yet it is not clear that even vastly increased marketing dollars will boost produce consumption — the problem being that the product is inconsistent, and thus marketing can actually do more harm than good. Marketing expenditures work for Coke because each and every experience of drinking Coca-Cola is equally satisfying. Produce is not like that. A peach can be delicious, or it can taste like cardboard. Blueberries can be sweet as sugar or tart.
Marketing to differentiate a Four Seasons or a Ritz-Carlton from budget hotels can work fantastically — as long as those brands deliver on the promise of the advertising. If the product itself is inconsistent, massive amounts of advertising may bring in customers who are then dissatisfied and turned off from the brand — the opposite of what was intended.
In other words, the factors holding back consumption may be intrinsic to the product itself and not a function of the marketing at all. Fortunately, with investment in advanced genetics in fields such as grapes, berries, stone fruit and apples, combined with more controlled planting and distribution, there has been a dramatic improvement in both the taste and consistency of many produce items.
Yet, massive consumer campaigns aside, there is a sense in which retailers and foodservice operators are failing the production side of the industry — and making it less likely that consumers will increase consumption of healthy produce — by not promoting the very best product.
Think about schools. If there is a consensus in the industry, it is surely that we should focus on building consumption among children — the consumers — and purchasers — of tomorrow. Yet a typical school lunch involves a food cost of less than a dollar. Fruit might cost 13 cents. No surprise that, operating under these budget constraints, few schools are able to offer the proprietary varieties that typically have the best flavor. If we want to get children turned onto grapes, isn’t it a natural to offer them a variety such as Cotton Candy? Unfortunately, most schools buy the cheapest grape they can get.
Foodservice in general hasn’t focused on selling the best produce. Even when chains identify provenance, say naming a local farm as a supplier, they rarely explain why the produce itself is better tasting or distinctive than other produce. In large measure this is because it isn’t! Rare indeed is an explanation that the Waldorf Salad is made with a particularly delicious apple or that the fruit platter is worth paying up for, because it contains particularly flavorful or distinctive grapes. The industry has made some progress on getting operators to pay up for safety, but having reached that hurdle, the operators purchase based on cost. The fruit platter at even a luxurious resort is treated as the purchase of a series of commodities.
Retailers also are very focused on price. We returned from the Global Grape Summit in the UK — our event focused on exciting advances in grape varieties — truly enthused about the future of the grape industry. Shortly after, we had an opportunity to travel to Ithaca, NY, and we stopped by one of America’s truly great retailers, Wegmans. We felt some kind of cognitive dissonance. In London, the leaders of the global grape industry were focused on one great new variety after another, yet, here was Wegmans, with a massive grape display selling something called solely “Green Grapes,” ”Red Grapes” and “Black Grapes.”
Sure there were some organic varieties in smaller displays inside, but the blow-out display at the entrance was generic. Now the executives at Wegmans know what they are doing, so we have no doubt this is the kind of marketing that draws traffic, boosts sales and builds profits. Indeed, we have heard of supermarket CEOs demanding that if their produce teams are to feature an item such as grapes in their ad, it must be at the cheapest price in the market!
Still, it seems that if the future of the industry — and the key to boosting consumption — is not just selling generic grapes, but, rather, educating consumers as to the nuance of different varieties and their flavor profiles, retailers and producers need to find another path.
This problem ricochets through the produce department. If you look at fruit bowls and similar products created by fresh-cut processors, they literally are just marketed with names like “fruit bowl.” So what incentive would producers have to fill their fruit bowls with the most flavorful and more expensive proprietary grape varieties or the best berries, or apple slices, etc.?
The consumer wouldn’t even know!
It is as if the marketing is a relic of an age before product differentiation.
It is not that stores don’t know how to differentiate. In the same Wegmans, a short walk over to the cheese displays reveals many cheese assortments with beautiful little flags describing the name, the age, the origin of each beautiful cheese included in a flight. This creates an incentive to include the more expensive cheeses, and it conditions consumers to recognize which cheeses have superior taste.
Now we have heard of UK retailers sometimes specifying that their fresh-cut processors use only a particular berry variety they prefer. But these are still private-label products sold under a generic fruit bowl identifier. It is possible, of course, that consumers might prefer one retailer’s bowl over another, but this approach does nothing to educate the consumer as to the reason for this preference.
Industry investment in superior flavored varieties is essential to boost consumption. If the industry is to be encouraged to invest in superior varieties, it will be necessary to allow producers to earn a return on such investments. So, just as retailers would not sell a cheese selection just identifying the product as “yellow cheese” and “white cheese,” we need to move past the sale of “fruit bowl” and “green grapes.”
Some producers have packaged and branded product as well as marketing heft, so Driscoll’s, for example, is able to ride a flavor trend. In fact, the same Wegmans selling generic grapes also featured Driscoll’s Rosé Raspberries.
We are all in favor of industry marketing efforts, but we suspect the future of the industry is more likely to be built by working out a way so that children and adults both get exposed to the best fruits and vegetables, not the cheapest.