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Lisa Cork To Address London Produce Show And Conference: Packaging As A Marketing Tool

The UK is a market where almost all the produce is packaged. Yet it is also a market where most of that packaging, whether in clamshells or other plastic packaging carrying only a small label or store brand, does very little selling.  That sounded like an opportunity to us, and we knew just where to turn: Packaging guru par excellence, Lisa Cork, who wowed the crowd at The New York Produce Show and Conference with a presentation we previewed here.

Lisa is an interesting cross-cultural dynamo. An American, long living in New Zealand, she travels the world spreading the gospel that packaging is a neglected tool in produce marketing. We know she has spoken out about the way private label can limit growth in pieces such as 5 Reasons Why Retail Branding Limits Growth, but when she comes to London, the epicenter of private label, what would she have to say? Where would she plant her flag? 

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Lisa Cork
Fresh Produce Marketing
Auckland, New Zealand

Q: Your dynamic presentation and action-oriented workshop at the New York Produce Show empowered attendees to rethink produce packaging and category branding to drive sales. What do you have planned for the London Produce Show? How do these strategies translate to different retail markets? Are there characteristics specific to the UK market that you need to consider? For instance, major UK retailers have highly developed, extensive private label packaging programs lining produce department shelves.

A: It is interesting that you bring up similarities and differences in the UK and the U.S. It’s important to bring market context to packaging to make it better. In presentations with clients, when thinking outside the box and being innovative, I always go to UK websites for branding and packaging characteristics. I find intense packaging development in the UK retail market with flashes of brilliance. I always say the UK is like the holly grail of packaging, how will I bring this to life in the U.S.?

Q: So now you’ll be talking about packaging in the Mecca of packaging? You’ve presented yourself with quite a challenge…

A: I went on line in the process of discovery. I decided to do a case study, picking an innovative product in the UK and conducting a packaging and on pack analysis. Were rules and norms in the UK for packaging different than in the U.S.? The core difference between the UK and American packaging is obvious: In the UK, exclusive retailer private label branding pervades the produce department. It’s the Tesco brand or the Marks & Spencer brand. In America, you see a dominance of farmer or grower/shipper names taking up key space on the packs.

Q: Is there a better use of that space? In the UK, if the Tesco brand on the package is already a “given” for the Tesco shopper, what other differentiators are there? Could you speak to the descriptive terms used on pack? How did they compare between UK retailers in your case study?

A: UK retailers suffer with the same on-pack issues as products sold in U.S. produce departments — a very pragmatic, matter-of-fact approach. Tenderstem broccoli shoppers are willing to pay a premium for it; why not capitalize on that?

There are six different retailers that do a Tenderstem broccoli pack, using various basic or predictable on-pack phrases; one talks about the fact it is sweet, another that it has a small stem; these are practical descriptions. In looking for contrast, when you go to the Tenderstem website, POS material picks up on fun, unique, standout characteristics and catchy slogans like goodness from head to toe.

There is a list of reasons to love Tenderstem — a more delicate taste than broccoli, more like asparagus in flavor; mild and juicy, it’s loved by all ages from babies to baby boomers and easy to snack on; it’s coined the king of broccoli because of its superior health benefits, and cooks in minutes. The website touts 80 ways to serve it, providing a link to family-friendly recipes.

Q: With limited room on pack, is there a risk of message clutter? Where do you put the focus amid all the in-store signage and myriad SKUs of packaged products competing for a spot in the customer’s shopping cart?

A: You must be invested in understanding your customer and the core reason he or she buys the product to pinpoint the core message and buying characteristics you want to bring to light.

When you go to the Tenderstem website, a key message is its un-broccoli-like traits and that it is so tender and totally tasty from floret to stem and is fast and easy to prepare. Then you go and review the actual packaging at the supermarkets and you see how little of that they are picking up.

While one retailer’s pack uses the word sweet, it doesn’t distinguish the contrast in taste and flavor to regular broccoli and that kids will actually love it, and no one latched on to the fact it cooks in minutes, which could be used to win over a busy mother, or perhaps a working couple looking for easy solutions.

To me, the essence of an effective pack is not putting every message on it. Review the three to five messages that are most important, and create a hierarchy for your market and your consumer profile. What is most cutthroat with my shoppers? If you are a Whole Foods shopper, the message might be quite different than for a Tesco shopper. There is a challenge and an opportunity with packaging to bring the key messages to life on pack.

If you’re a supermarket serving a family demographic, a non-broccoli-like taste will appeal to children. There’s a whole unique marketing angle, bringing Tenderstem broccoli to life in that demographic. It’s the healthy vegetable that cooks in minutes. There’s a whole section of recipes on the website for busy moms.

Q: Isn’t it more challenging to distinguish and excite customers with on-pack messaging for commodity-type produce items, where taste and freshness fluctuate based on season and Mother Nature?

A: I believe any product, whether it’s Tenderstem or not, can be quite sexy. All products have multiple stories they can tell in ways to drive sales growth and market growth. Unlock these stories, rather than sell in one expected dimension.

Q: How do pack sizes come into play? Did you find diversity on that front?

A: Most online Tenderstem packs in the UK that I sourced were 220 grams in pack size. There may have been a 180-gram pack in the mix, but the overwhelming majority was the 220-gram pack. What if we were to find a sweet spot around Tenderstem to create a family pack — 400 grams with a unique message on pack targeting families with children; it cooks in minutes and kids will love it. Simply by changing the pack and message, you could create a new market.

Q: So it’s really about mastering different consumer lifestyles and buying behaviors …

A: Where we’re missing opportunity is in our ability to stand two steps back from our fruit and vegetable products. Why don’t we take a customer-led approach? For instance, Tenderstems can appeal to three different segments. We discussed families with kids that don’t like broccoli. What about busy couples on the run, who would appreciate Tenderstem’s quick cook time? You could do a Tenderstem grab-and-go pack, or a microwavable pack for a healthy side dish. In two minutes flat, you have a sweet, nutritious solution. Maybe a third segment is a single serving size, or a 300-gram health pack describing its super food qualities.

Rather than carry on the idea we have one produce department with a bland message, let’s be led by the shopper and approach our packaging and messaging in clever ways to broaden the market for our products. I’m driven by ways to increase revenue for the grower. Sometimes I think I was put on this earth to help growers produce more fruits and vegetables.

Q; With the UK retail sector bent on private label store branding and specific criteria, does that set limitations on the supplier side?

A: In the UK, where there is this dominance of retail branding, you could say it’s an insurmountable challenge. I go about it a different way. Bring ideas to the table. You can’t sit back and be a passive contributor. Ultimately as a grower, you know your product best. I hear growers complain, ‘I wish I had a market for this.’ The retailer only buys the middle spec, the big ones on the end of the tail don’t have a market.

You have to own that. Go to the retailer and turn that around — I think we have two additional opportunities to market this product in store. If the retailer says, ‘How am I going to have the space,’ jump outside the box to figure it out.

Q: A great example of that is when Mann Packing invented Broccoli Cole Slaw, essentially creating a whole new product category using parts of the product that previously were not saleable. Here the concept is all encompassing, starting with a reinvention of the product inside the package…

A: Exactly. We have this conflict of saying consumers need to eat more fruits and vegetables but consumption remains stagnant; maybe we’re not approaching the problem in the right way. I like to push the boundaries. I think going forward, we really have to re-examine how we do produce overall. I’m not the expert to be speaking on the numbers, but consumption is basically flat-lined.

As you point out, there are niche pockets of innovation no doubt. I think of the mini Rockit bite-sized apples out of New Zealand. Maybe one conventional size generically marketed is interesting for a certain percentage of people, but we’re missing out on so many opportunities. We’ve got to find out what resonates when drilled down to the dynamics of consumer lifestyles. Suddenly we’ve gotten increased sales, and we haven’t cannibalized the category.

Q: But is that necessarily true? If consumers now gravitate to Tenderstem broccoli, couldn’t that result in regular broccoli sales declining? Maybe all the great press on blueberries antioxidant properties leads a shopper to switch out strawberries.

A: People are justly wary of new product that rolls out and cannibalizes other product sales. Products tend to cannibalize when there isn’t enough customization to bring in new customers. New product development takes time and money.

Continuing with our discussion of repositioning Tenderstem broccoli, you could still sell 100 packs of 220-gram Tenderstem, but now you sell an additional 75 family packs in this category for increased total sales. We changed the category trajectory by creating a new market. What I’d be hoping is the families now buying the family packs may have been eating canned peas.

The reality is in the Western World we’re not going to eat any more food, so we are playing a substitution game. Everyone talks about growing incremental units. The goal is to substitute out less healthy or less profitable choices.

Q: Some of those less healthy brands have built strongholds in the market with decades of powerful marketing…

A: Brands like Kellogg’s have been around since 1906 and are embedded in the consumers’ minds. Today, I believe the nature of brands is changing. If you walk the aisles of Whole Foods, branding is a bit more inventive. There’s a new generation of brands speaking to the needs of the shopper.

In the U.S., a company called Happy Family Organic Superfoods (Nurture Inc.) captures the core motivations of a mother — Happy Baby, Happy Mama, Happy World, speaking right to her heart with beautiful packaging and messaging.

Another example in the freezer section is those fruit bars with vibrant, colorful images of blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries on the package with the message, The Power of Fruit. We should own that in fresh produce. We all know fruit is good for us. The manufacturer of those frozen fruit bars harnessed the brand of the fresh produce department!

In the produce industry, we’ve always looked at packaging pragmatically, as a protective vessel; it could be a bag, clamshell, or cello wrapped in some way, and all those vessels have a certain amount of space, for legal information, the required facts, and in America, a predominance of grower/supplier names covering the packaging.

If you went to four different stores in the UK, the product essentially looks the same except for a different retailer brand on it; it’s the same in size, weight, and name position on the pack. There are really no distinguishable shopper characteristics.

Q: When you speak of distinguishable characteristics, such as tenderness and taste in branding, doesn’t a processed or frozen food manufacturer have an advantage over a fresh produce company in insuring consistency? Mother Nature and a myriad of other factors in the product’s short lifespan create additional challenges in upholding those kinds of claims.

A: The fundamental underpinning is that if you have lousy quality product, then you’re not allowed to read this interview. You can only do revolutionary packaging knowing you’re delivering quality product; paying attention to the temperature and other issues in the supply chain.

Because we’re dealing with perishables — and from the shopper’s view, produce can taste and look different every week — your packaging needs to have visibility. In most cases, the consumers want to see what they’re buying.

I never recommend covering product up. There has to be a balance of effective branding that talks to the shopper, while showing the high quality. Consumers do expect to see the produce they’re buying, although that changes over time with trust. Then a successful brand can get away with more messaging coverage.

There will always be a percentage of consumers driven by value-pricing, and there will be those wanting to go to a Tesco or Waitrose related to convenience and proximity of the store regardless of the package. But there is potential for retailers to rethink the produce department from the consumer perspective: We’re just turning out Tenderstem broccoli. How can we work with suppliers to package it differently?

UK retailers have consumer data that I would salivate to get. They are savvy in collecting that data. How can they use it better?

Q: In the UK, deep discounters are stealing market share from the Big Four retailers, which are also feeling the pinch from Waitrose and other specialty retailers. Could rethinking packaging and branding strategies be the way out of this turmoil?

A: Tesco does product tiers — a premium, mainstream and value line. If Tesco is losing the value side to Aldi, maybe now there’s a demographic driver to target products for families with children, for instance. The retailers have lived in this space of very strong retail branding, but that’s 20 years old. Maybe it is time to reinvent themselves and work off different sets of criteria.

Q: Could you talk about your award-winning work in this field for inspiration?

A: Our work in the sweet potato market in New Zealand was based on consumer segment differentiation. In our research, consumers said the Kumara sweet potatoes were too big, and not smooth enough. They wanted smaller ones that were easier to peel, cut and serve. We went to the growers and told them they needed to grow smaller-sized, smoother potatoes and get them to grade and pack differently.

We launched two new products, and both were based on consumer feedback. The strongest story was working with growers to pack 900-gram packages of easy-peel medium-size Kumaras. That was a success story with a 26 percent increase in return for farmers. In addition to that, consumers also talked about wanting an easy-to-prepare crossover product for roasting that didn’t have to be peeled. From that research came 500-gram bags of little baby gourmets, to give a wash/scrub and throw into the pot.

This produced a 231-percent increase in farm gate return. That keeps growers profitable and farming. We’re just about to release a third product, taking the same core research and development to deliver another differentiated product geared toward families.

Q: What precipitated your targeted work on the Kumara sweet potatoes with Delta Produce? Was there a noticeable drop in sales or particular problem you were trying to rectify, or a new market segment to penetrate?

A: The Kumara in New Zealand is a staple here. A large and diverse demographic population buys Kumara sweet potatoes. The only consumer research requirement was that you were a Kumara shopper. I always look for the evidence that something positive is happening in this market and not in this market and what is the reason for the incongruence.

In the U.S. in 2011, Time magazine featured the sweet potato as the product of the year for its health benefits. It had become a popular item. However, there was a decline in Kumara sales in New Zealand at this time. Why were we seeing stagnant sales and the product in decline? It didn’t make sense. Part of the reason for the decline was the product was not being grown, packaged or marketed to consumer preferences.

Q: Why aren’t more companies realizing this?

A: One other important point I’d like to make is that growers and retailers say packaging doesn’t mean that much. I’ve searched global research, and packaging matters. If you’re truly looking to document this fact, research is really hard to find in produce. That’s why Brad Rickard’s research at Cornell University on apple variety branding, which he presented at The New York Produce Show, is so interesting. It documents the impact of branding.

Q: So for the doubters, what are the main points you want to engrain about packaging, on-pack messaging and branding?

A: Packaging is one marketing tool you have that works really hard for you if you get it right. It’s seen by hundreds of shoppers a day. Your packaging is at the point of decision. When the consumer is standing at the retail produce display, it’s where you’ll be able to influence him or her the most — the final 10 seconds in buying decision. The messaging on pack is always on your product, 24/7, 365 days that way. There is no other advertising marketing medium that does that.

In advertising, there is a big trust factor that the consumers will see the message, trust it, remember it and use it when they go shopping. Packaging is as close to the product as you’ll ever get. Retailers and growers are already paying for packaging. Turn a passive marketing opportunity into an active selling tool. When I say this to people, they often react, ‘I had never thought like that before.’

The beauty is that it’s only the innovative companies that are utilizing packaging in this way, when you have a crowded, busy grocery aisle, the well researched packs will stand out among the produce packs that are plain and perfunctory.

In the UK, there’s increased opportunity because so many products are packaged compared to the U.S., where produce departments are merchandised with more loose items. These are some of the world’s best marketers in the UK, but when you drill down there’s still plenty of opportunity.

There is a trend toward customization. The shopper doesn’t want to buy a commodity. By breaking down product by demographic household and lifestyle interests, maybe that’s our pathway to growth. We need to be customizing more to be relevant. We’re not going to drive consumers to eat more food. We need to woo them into substituting fresh produce. If we’re only turning out plain and perfunctory that doesn’t capture the consumers’ needs and motivations, we will continue to fall behind. 


Lisa really focuses on two facets of the packaging issue. First, she argues against one-size-fits-all branding in favor of focused elements that appeal to specific customer segments. In many cases, UK supermarkets have adopted a kind of “economic man” focus, in which the companies segment by price and quality but don’t recognize the demographic and psychographic differences that drive consumer decisions.

In America, there are a lot of people who want to fly Virgin America but hate the idea of flying Southwest. This is not because there are enormous differences in the aircraft or airport gates; it is because subtle shifts of product, combined with substantial marketing differences, lead people to feel that the airline serves a certain type of person — and they feel an aspirational connection with Virgin. Others may feel put off by the very same Virgin characteristics and embrace a Southwest ethos. Lisa’s critique is that we in produce often miss out on opportunities for sales because we don’t connect  product and marketing with specific customer segments

Secondly, Lisa wants to move the produce industry and retail buyers in the direction of creating products and marketing — including the packaging — that recognize consumers differ from each other in ways that can’t be captured by three or five price tiers.

The focus on packaging as opposed to other forms of marketing is recognition that with tight margins the industry needs to take advantage of what assets it has. Since the industry is paying a hefty sum for packaging anyway, shouldn’t it make sure that investment does double-duty? Contain the produce safely and market it effectively. Lisa has a plan to suggest how the trade can do just that.

If you are a retailer who does private label… if you are a retailer who has to select from shipper packaging… if you are a producer who has to use packaging… you will benefit greatly by seeing Lisa Cork’s presentation at The London Produce Show and Conference.

In fact, if you are smart and interested in how the industry can more effectively engage with consumers, you don’t want to miss it. You can register to attend and hear Lisa speak at The London Produce Show and Conference right here.

Book a hotel at the event venue at our discounted rate here.

And if you are interested in exhibiting or sponsoring an educational session at The London Produce Show and Conference, just let us know here.

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