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Pundit Interviews Branding Expert Lisa Cork:
Three Macro Trends To Feel Positive About

I’m tempted to say we saved the best for last… as this concludes the presentation of our speakers from The New York Produce Show and Conference — Virtual Edition.  Yet this is not quite true, as each one of our speakers provided a truly unique perspective on the pandemic, the industry and the future. We, of course, owe gratitude to all who shared their expertise with the industry as part of the event. They didn’t have to. Their employers didn’t have to permit them to do so. We are all richer because they and their companies were willing to share their experience and expertise:

Jeff Cady
Director Produce & Floral
Tops Markets

Lisa Cork
Owner and Founder
Fresh Produce Marketing

Rich Dachman
Brighter Bites

Matthew D’Arrigo
D’Arrigo New York

Kelly Davis
Director Produce & Floral
Allegiance Retail Services

Marc Goldman
Produce Director
Morton Williams Supermarkets

Jim Hancock
Vice President DMM,
Produce & Floral
Sam’s Club

Mark Jewell
Category Manager Produce & Floral
Hannaford Supermarkets

Paul Kneeland
Vice President
Gelson’s Market

David Marguleus
Sun World International

Ed McLaughlin
Robert G. Tobin Professor Emeritus of Marketing
David J. Nolan Dean of the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
Cornell University

Tony Mirack
Produce Director of Operations
Mc Caffrey’s Markets

Tom Murray
VP Produce & Floral
Roche Bros.

Benjamin Olins

Juliet Olivarria
VP Produce

Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak
President and CEO
Produce For Better Health

Marianne Santo
Senior Category Manager,
Produce & Floral

Vic Savanello
VP of Produce

Jay Schneider
Director of Merchandising
Acme Markets

Ted Taylor
Head of New Ventures
& Business Development
Taylor Farms

Jonathan Valdez
Owner and Founder
Genki Nutrition

Tim York
California Leafy Greens
Marketing Agreement

If you have missed any of these sessions, please do check them out here

Now we are going ahead with live events in New York, London and Amsterdam. If you would like information on any of these, you can email us here. 

In the past few months, we selected a few of our conversations to be part of our New York Produce Show Plus Series and have shared them in this space. This conversation is, though, exceptional. 

We have worked with Lisa for a long time. She has presented at our events in New York, London and Amsterdam, always to critical acclaim. You can learn about some of her presentations here:

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

Fresh Produce Marketing: The Real Deal, Presented at The Global Trade Symposium of The New York Produce Show and Conference

Branding and Packaging Expert Lisa Cork Takes Deep Dive Into Omni-Channel Retailing And The Prospects For Fresh

More From Packaging Expert Lisa Cork:  Omni-channel Retailing Opens Floodgates Of Produce Marketing Opportunities (And Challenges) 

Lisa is unique. She is an American, yet has spent decades living in New Zealand and engaging with the Pacific Rim and with Asia. She built her fame in packaging, but has come to go so far beyond that base.

This piece is long, which is why we are running it as the only piece today.

We would recommend you save the link or print the piece out. You can also email it to others. Just use tool box at the top of this piece. This is a kind of marketing MBA in a box and so well worth the time.

Lisa Cork
Fresh Produce Marketing
Auckland, New Zealand

Q: I’m honored today to be joined by my good friend and an important industry luminary, Lisa Cork, who is coming to us bright and early from New Zealand. Lisa, why don’t you tell the story of how you got to New Zealand, who you are in the industry, and what your story has been to bring you here today.

A: Oh, fantastic, Jim. Well, first of all, it’s always a pleasure to be back and connect with the New York Produce Show. I have such fond memories of speaking at the show. I think it was, gosh, five, six, seven years ago, and it’s fantastic. It was just such a great show. So thanks for allowing me to be part of it even though we’re half a world away.

So I’m really lucky to say that I was one of the people who found my calling straight out of university, and I landed my first job in the fresh produce industry back in 1988, which makes me sound ancient, working for a company called Apio Produce Sales in California [which is now Curation Foods]. And I found my calling, and my calling was to be a fresh produce marketer. I’ve had the absolute joy and pleasure of doing that for the past 33 years.

These days I now live in New Zealand, so we left the United States in 1993 to do a famed 18-month trip around the world. And as part of those 18 months away, we ended up traveling in New Zealand and basically, we never returned to America. So we emigrated to New Zealand and have been living here full time since 1993. An interesting fact is that I have now been living in New Zealand longer than I lived in the United States, which seems crazy to me.

But the good news is that I’ve been able to carry on my passion for fresh produce marketing and fresh produce branding. And now I just get to do it on a global scale. So I’m actively working with accounts in four to five continents every year and particularly engaged in China and Southeast Asia, of course, with their proximity to New Zealand. And I am actively living, breathing fresh produce marketing and fresh produce branding on a daily basis. So I consider myself truly, truly blessed. I’ve had a long career in this industry with working with amazing people that I just adore.

Q: Well, thank you so much. I guess it’s always best in this pandemic year — where we’re doing the New York Produce Show virtually and we have the benefit of being able to talk to people all over the world — to start out at least with an understanding of how this pandemic played out for the country, for the region, for the produce industry in New Zealand and proximate areas.

Here in America, if I were talking to a retailer about March, they would say there was never anything like it here, that shelves were empty… they didn’t have the ability to supply people with the things they wanted. It was really quite an extraordinary experience. In produce, obviously [this was] really a differentiating moment in which people really felt they were experiencing something they had not experienced before. Now New Zealand’s been unique in how it’s dealt with the COVID so maybe you can talk just to give us a little background about how you experienced this in New Zealand and in Australia and the Southeast Asian region.

A: Sure. I think the similarity that we share with the United States is the early-on experience when suddenly COVID went from something that we were just rarely hearing about to something that suddenly took over our lives. And we shared a very common experience in those initial three to four weeks where governments were exploring how do we cope with this? How do we start to shut down? We had exactly the same thing. We saw an increase in empty shelves, increased demand for the basics and the staples.

I work with a lot of vegetable growers here — core fresh vegetable lines that had storability sold out. So to some degree, those early experiences we shared. But I think where our story probably differs is that we’re a very, very small island, 5.2 million people at last count, at the very, very bottom of the southern Pacific Ocean.

And what we were able to do about the third week of March is shut down the country. So borders closed. So airports, ports, which are our core primary access points… everything shut down. So New Zealand went fast and went hard. My memory was about an eight-week lockdown period of varying levels, what they call Level 4 and then Level 3 and those had various restrictions.

But the amazing news is, Jim, as you know, we kind of came out of that lockdown period with almost no COVID in the country and a pretty strict quarantine process for Kiwis and permanent residents returning back to New Zealand. And we still have those processes in place to this day.

So the country remains closed unless you’re a New Zealand citizen or a New Zealand resident. And if you do elect to kind of repatriate and come home, it’s a mandatory two-week lockdown. You’re in quarantine in specific hotels. But then after that, our life looks very normal. So I don’t own a mask. And I think that’s probably one of the most telling differences. Because we’re small, because we’re isolated, locking down for us was fairly easy, and then managing the borders has been relatively easy. So that’s kind of the great news.

So what are some of the things that we are experiencing? Of course, there’s really no outward-bound travel, where predominantly New Zealand is an exporting country. We’ve now been through a full apple season. We’ve been through a full kiwi fruit season, and those are core primary export industries for us. And we’re able to manage that.

From a production perspective, those were able to be managed very well, and full credit to the growers, the packhouses and the harvesters for really putting in place procedures that enabled us to continue to get large volume, high value crops off the trees and into international markets.

That’s not necessarily looking as clear for 2021 because now we’re facing almost yearlong restrictions on travel, and a lot of our workers come in from the Pacific Islands. So that’s kind of a space that’s currently being navigated. We’re being subjected to just the whole global reorientation of freight. So minimal chilled containers.

I do some work for USA Pears, and we met to have World Pear Day on December 5th, and New Zealand had no pears because all of the pear imports from the United States were trans-shipped through Sydney and so they didn’t make it to New Zealand in time to do the World Pear Day Promotion.

So I think from a human perspective, what the country has done and the way that we’re now able to live our lives and go to events and go to concerts and go to cricket games and rugby games is amazing. I think there’s still some long-term implications for the overall economy and how New Zealand will come out of COVID. And we’re all absolutely desperately missing international travel and the ability to go and see customers in foreign markets.

But to be honest with you, I wake up every day, and I say I’m incredibly blessed to live here and be here. So I feel for you and all of our families in the United States. And I feel for America right now and have huge empathy.

Q: Well, it is, of course, a big challenge in many parts of the world, not just America and Europe. They’ve — in some ways you could say — had it worse than we did at certain points in the pandemic, places like Spain, etc. But I think we’ve done a lot of talking to retailers and shippers and so forth, and in America, the pattern has seemed to be pretty clear: There was this sort of panic for a few weeks. People didn’t know. They thought they were going to be resigned to live in their house for months without being able to leave.

Nobody really knew what was coming. So there was just this mass buying of almost anything they could find. And, in fact, in consumer newspapers and TV, we have all these interviews with people like, “Why did you buy so much… you have how many people in your family?”

“Oh, we have three.”

“Well, why have you bought 600 cans of soup?”

And they’re like, “Well, we don’t know. Maybe we’ll need it. Otherwise, I guess I’ll give it away later or something.”

So you have a lot of this kind of hysteria at first. Very quickly, though, produce for the most part was restocked in stores. To this day, there’s still shortages on things like paper towels, toilet paper, things of that sort. Meat has been very difficult sometimes because there have been big outbreaks at the slaughterhouses and things.

But produce for the most part is in every store. There have been changes like less fresh-cut being used because people are home more. They can cut their own items. The convenience isn’t as important. And money, getting lower prices, has become very important for a lot of people whose jobs have been sacrificed.

Obviously, the restaurant industry has been really hurt, and some produce suppliers to the foodservice sector probably won’t even make it. Some, fortunately, are well capitalized, as with individual restaurants. But for a long time, many restaurants were only doing takeout, and now if they’re operating, they’re operating with lower capacity in most places, especially in big cities like New York that have been sort of the epicenter of this.

And it’s all very interesting and, of course, it’s what we’re living. But we’re also looking forward now. There are some vaccines that have just come out. It’s going to take quite a while before there’s enough to go around. But there’s some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, if you will, that we’re going to come out of this.

Some people who owned a restaurant … they may be bankrupt, and we don’t know how quickly behavior will go back, where people feel comfortable in restaurants, even if they’ve been vaccinated. We don’t know any of those things. But we do know that there will be now a day after COVID.

But when I think about you and your innovations and your engagement with the future, I think you’re the perfect person to tell us all what we should be thinking about, what we should be doing, so that when we get past this situation, we as an industry and individual companies are well-positioned to start to move ahead. And I think you’re the one who can tell us that.

A: Thanks, Jim. Well, it is very interesting when you’re able to move away from kind of the immediacy of either what’s around you or what’s just kind of country-specific and have the ability to start to pull up and look broader and globally and see countries that are at the early stages of returning, even in a small way, to degrees of normalcy. And I think there’s some really interesting observations to share.

I’m deeply engaged in work into both China and Southeast Asia, and have been doing a significant amount of reading on post-COVID research for countries like Vietnam and Thailand, how they’ve come through the pandemic and what they’re starting to see. And when you rise above what’s happening in your own country, and you start to link together the various research studies and the consumer understanding, I think there’s three core things that we are seeing that provide a degree of opportunity for how humanity is going to come through the virus at a macro level.

1. One is absolutely this deeply felt, deeply personal need for more health and wellness. And that to us is such an amazing opportunity because I’m sensing that we’re moving now from kind of telling people you need to eat your five-plus a day; you need to eat seven-plus, to people truly re-evaluating that and saying, “How do I now improve the health of my family? How do I improve the wellness of my family?”

So the audiences we’ve been preaching to for a long time are now absolutely ready to hear and understand, and seek, our core messages around health and wellbeing. And that’s absolutely a trend that we’re seeing in New Zealand and Australia. It’s coming through in the Thailand research. It’s coming through in the Vietnamese research. It’s coming through in the post-COVID China research.

So you can really start to hang your hat on there being a massive consumer pivot happening around understanding health, wellness and the role of food to give me health and wellness and to give my family health and wellness.

Jim, you and I’ve been in this industry a long time and I don’t think I’ve ever seen or felt the undercurrent of this change more than I’m feeling it and seeing it now.

And yes, we’re in a state of perturbation at the moment, right? You can feel it. People are wanting; they’re seeking. You can see it in some of the immunity fruits and vegetables that have had significant increases in sales. But this is going to be a change that is driving how people eat, how people shop and how people take care of their families.

So this is an amazing opportunity for us to be thinking about how are we going to live into supplying that need, that visceral internal need to eat differently.

2. You can couple that with what you just spoke about: People have returned to the power of the kitchen, and partly because of necessity.You now have to be cooking at home. There isn’t the ability to go out and get what you want at a restaurant. And you can see how that dovetails so perfectly in with people wanting increased health and wellness. Now they’re going to be taking direct control of how they cook food and how they prepare food. So those two trends just dovetail amazingly well together.

3. The third thing we’re seeing is an appreciation — hallelujah — an appreciation for the role of the farmer, the grower and the harvesters and the entire supply channel as absolutely essential for being able to deliver on health and wellness and immunity because we didn’t see huge shortages on the shelves.

And when you truly step back and think about that from a distribution perspective, that’s amazing. The fruit and vegetable industry continued to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables around the world during the largest global shutdown people have ever seen. That’s phenomenal.

I know that people might be feeling a bit pessimistic but, boy, those three macro trends are really something to feel incredibly positive about because we are on the cusp of major, major transition.

And then the question becomes how do individual companies start to live, breathe and take advantage of that opportunity. And I can summarize that in one sentence. How are you positioned as a company to take advantage of wellness? We grow it, but we’ve always focused on what we’ve done from a really introspective production mindset. And now the opportunity is to completely swap that and say, “We’re in the wellness business! And if I’m in the wellness business, how do I now need to retell the story of what myself and my team and my company does?” And that’s the future opportunity.

Q: Well, it’s interesting. I wonder, though, once we are back to normalcy, how the industry will be able to respond when I find I can fly off to China and to Russia and to South Africa and Chile, and I wind up in the airport and may be tempted to not eat the finest quality food because I have to make that plane and all these types of things. Do you feel that the change we’ve undergone will be substantial enough to last beyond the necessity?

A: I do. I’m an optimist; I’m quite intuitive and I can just feel it. I’m starting to see it in some of the thought leadership of some of the bigger companies. There’s just enough evidence all around us that the shift is starting. And I think people will fundamentally change.

So the way that we travel, the way we think about food and our health… I really do believe, Jim, that it’ll change. Even as life moves to get a bit back more to “normal,” I don’t think normal will ever be normal again.

I haven’t had to leave my office for a meeting, even here in New Zealand where I’m perfectly able to go and meet someone who’s 20 minutes away. You know what? We choose to Zoom now because of traffic… it’s just more efficient. And I think that there will be a fundamental shift. Absolutely there will still be international travel, and people will still need to do business and go and see customers, but what this has taught us is that we can now consider that there are multiple options for engagement, and we will make those decisions about which trips, kind of how that fits into our lifestyle.

And I just think it’s going to be fundamentally different. We work, obviously, with a lot of fresh produce companies, and what we’re working with companies on right now is helping them take this opportunity to capture the learnings. Companies, just like people, have had to become introspective over the past nine months, because either your company was incredibly challenged, and you had to pivot because you’re a foodservice supplier and the restaurants closed and you had to do something different — and there’s some fabulous stories of restaurants that pivoted into food boxes because they lost their food service business. Or you were a company that thrived because you were actually selling an immunity fruit or you were seeing increased demand, and you moved to different packaging and larger pack sizes and improved distribution networks.

So companies have changed. Just like we humans have changed, companies have changed in this time. And as we’re kind of entering these final stages of what we hope will be the end of lockdown, I think we have a real gift of time right now to become introspective and to decide how are we going to show up in a changed future, in a world where they’re focused on wellness.

Are we going to continue to be a production-oriented brand? Or do we have an opportunity to think of ourselves differently?

And I think the opportunity isn’t just from a marketing perspective. So like when we talk about brand essence… that’s kind of a marketing perspective. But brand essence is truly the distillation of who you are as a company or who your company is.

And this is way more broader than just marketing. This is… how have you shown up for your staff in the last nine months? As a working female —I hope this doesn’t get political — but as a working female, I’m lucky that I have an independent 18-year-old who is able to manage himself during COVID.

I was just reading this morning two million women have lost their jobs or have had to leave their jobs because of the balance between childcare and everybody being at home. And so your essence, who you are as a company, is so much deeper than just the marketing application. It’s how did you show up and how does that frame how you want to be in the next five or ten years?

I think there’s a really fantastic opportunity to be introspective and decide if you want to make a change and if you want to be more. Whether that’s moving from production to wellness, whether that’s you want to be an employer who is there for your staff in supportive ways… this is the time. This is a really magical time to be introspective.

I have to take the negative and make it positive. Otherwise I think we’d all go crazy. And that’s kind of how I’m choosing to see it. That’s how I’m bringing my expertise and perspective to the companies I’m working with. Let’s really see this as an opportunity and let’s start to build something amazing for the future.

Q: You’ve been working actually with companies. Can you lay out a kind of case study sort of thing that you have done with someone that is sort of playing into this type of world?

A: Absolutely. So what’s interesting is the overnight success story… the story of the woman who was an overnight success. Overnight successes are always because you have 30 years of experience leading up to the moment when your expertise is showcased! And for me what’s been interesting is as conferences have moved digitally, the ability to be online and seeing how companies showcase themselves has become a lot easier, right?

So absolutely you can walk a tradeshow floor. But ultimately, when you walk a tradeshow floor, you don’t really get to see the company kind of distilled to its essence as you get to see when they’re participating in a tradeshow digitally. So you can log in… you can do a compare-and-contrast… you can see almost like the highlight reel, the show reel, right? They’re showing the best of themselves on display in the digital format.

So recently, there’s been a range of conferences where I’ve really spent time deep-diving and trying… understanding, evaluating how produce companies are showing up, and recently had a chance to do back-to-back comparisons. I’m guessing [we looked at] 100 fresh produce companies. And there’s certain things that I’m looking for. What’s their brand essence? Do they appear to have their brand essence clearly defined? Their PDFs and their showpieces that are talking about innovation… do those appear to be aligned with how the company is then showing up on video or in its brand languaging?

All of those things from a brand management point of view excite me, and I’m passionate about observing this in companies. So this distillation process covers 100 different companies.

What strikes me — and I know we’re going to talk about a case study in a minute — but I think what strikes me is that out of 100 companies, I’d say 10 to 15% only were really clear on their core brand essence, where you could see it, feel it, visualize it… permeated through every single piece of collateral that showcased how they were showing up in the digital event.

So out of 100 companies, maybe 15 where you had a really clear sense of their brand essence. And what that prompted me to think about, Jim, is we don’t talk a lot about brand essence in our industry. We talk branding, we talk packaging, we talk proprietary varietal naming. But it’s rare that we have conversations that go right back to the absolute beating heart of who your business is or who you are as a CEO, leading your business.

And I think that’s what’s differentiated produce from consumer goods for all of these years is consumer packaged goods start with the beating heart and the distillation of who the essence is because they have to showcase that on the shelf through packaging.

And in produce, because we were bulk commodity for so long, it’s almost like we’ve never had to put ourselves through the discipline of truly defining who we are at our absolute core of our beating heart. And that’s what brand essence is, right?

Just like if you’re introspective about yourself, who am I? What is my contribution to the world? You do the exact same process for brands and for companies. Who am I as a company and what am I delivering to the world through my products and my services and the way I treat my staff?

So to give you an example — and I apologize, that was a long explanation — I’ve recently done the brand essence work for an apple intellectual property (IP) variety. And because this was one of my direct projects, I clearly knew exactly where I wanted to go. So the background research… the understanding of the apple’s positioning… its taste profile, what made this apple unique?

And we didn’t just look at a country. We actually had to do this work on a global basis because this is an apple that will be exported to 35 countries. And what we found in doing the brand essence, Jim, is when you get the brand essence right, there is a seamless flow in effect, where everything else becomes easy and clear, and implementation becomes clear. Localization in a foreign market becomes clear because you have absolutely gotten to the heart, the deep understanding of what this product, this apple is going to deliver from a consumer perspective. So that’s an example of when you get the brand essence right. When you get your essence correct, everything flows on from that.

And that’s what was the interesting thing about evaluating 100 companies online. For 10 to 15 of them, there was absolute flow, and it was reflected in everything… their naming, their branding, their packaging, their spokespeople, their collateral elements, their video, their brand essence, their brand personality, who they were… you could just feel it and you could see it and it was seamless and you wanted to do business with them, right? You just wanted to know more.

For the other 85, it was hard work. Now you kind of really had to navigate and there was inconsistency and incongruency. And I think what it teaches us, Jim, is that in produce, maybe we’ve been able to get away without being true brand marketers for many, many years because we had commodity products that didn’t necessarily have brand identity.

But we are now entering an opportunistic period where we have to really look at how we’re going to transition from primary producers who grow fruits and vegetables to companies who contribute to the absolute wellness of the world. And that’s where getting the essence and coming back to the basics and starting with your fundamental truths of who you are as a CEO, and who you are as a company, will become so critically important because this next decade for us as marketers in a world that wants help… it should be pure joy and pure synergy and pure opportunity.

And I think the ability to do that right now, to get the essence defined, to get it right so that everybody on the team is living and breathing and understanding who you are and what your contribution to wellness is going to be… that’s our amazing opportunity.

Q: It is exciting. It’s inspirational and you are inspirational. I’m wondering in your conversations with produce companies that are caught in the 85% that you found online… do you find that they’re buying into this idea of a new way of thinking about branding and about their company messages?

Are they interested in this, or are they still mired in a commodity world where they just feel, “Oh, I don’t want to spend money on things,” and all that?

A: My initial feel is that we’re at the typical economic growth curve, right? Introduction, growth, maturity, decline. We’re in introduction and growth. So you’re seeing our thought leadership brands already starting to be actively living into health and wellness in their essence and their positioning.

So that the way this started for the 15% of companies that aren’t necessarily the big brands but are thought leadership brands, you’re absolutely seeing and feeling it. For the 85%… I think there’s one of two things that I’m observing. Number One is you don’t know what you don’t know. So if you’re doing your own self-evaluation, and you’re being proactive in your marketing, and you’re kind of responding to the immediate market need, there will be a part of you that’s going, “Okay, we’re getting on with it. We’re surviving, we’re thriving and we’re growing.”

This is opposed to others who just say, “We do what we do and we don’t care.” Right? So for the percentage who’s caught up in kind of you don’t know what you don’t know, that’s where I think our potential lies.

But it’s a different conversation. This is beyond just the tactical elements of marketing, which is what you tend to get caught up in when things are tough, right? It’s “I just need to do more tactical things… I need to have new packaging…. I need to have bigger bags…. I need to be responding with more marketing campaign…. I need to be improving my social media messaging.”

For the significance of this shift, what I would be saying to companies is — and I don’t mean this as a blank promotion — but have a chat with someone who truly understands the distinction between tactics and kind of a deep heartfelt brand-essence type of strategy. Because from an outsider’s perspective, you can just see it. And maybe that’s 30 years of expertise that enables me to see it. But you can just see the incongruency. And when you see incongruency and gap, that’s the indicator that there’s significant opportunity to rethink and reevaluate and revisit.

So I wouldn’t necessarily say that people are jumping on the bandwagon, but part of the reason I feel that, Jim, is just they’re caught up in the tactics and not necessarily the ability to step back and take the helicopter perspective and say, “Maybe I do need to have someone come and have a look and do a diagnosis of what are the opportunities that we’re missing because we’re really caught up in the tactical.”

And when you’re caught up in tactics, it is really hard to rise up to a higher position and think of the five-year and ten-year opportunity. And I think we’ll see… we’ll see a percentage of companies who are willing and able to do that, which will be fantastic, and those will be the types of companies that find us anyway. And then I think there’s always just going to be a percentage who are going to be… they’ll be dragged along by the momentum of the others. And that has business outcomes.

But what we’re finding is people say, “But you know, this is all soft stuff. Is there a business outcome?” Absolutely, there is a business outcome. And you look at the 15% of companies who are leading and you can just see the success. So this absolutely has business outcomes in terms of sales and key performance indicators and volume share, growth potential and clarity and efficiency of spending. It absolutely has outcomes.

So I live in hope. I live in hope that people will see that we have this amazing opportunity to be thinking about our brands differently because the last decade versus the upcoming decade we’re going to need different skills and different brand tools to position ourselves for success. And if we do it well, we have every opportunity to maximize and align with what consumers are seeking around health and wellness and home cooking.

Q: As we’ve been having conversations like this — many of them with retailers and produce directors, particularly at retail — and one of the things they have expressed some concern about — almost, I’d say fear about — is one of the consequences of the pandemic — and it’s always hard to know how much are permanent consequences and how much are speeding up what was going to happen anyway… one of the things that has changed is that many retailers report that their online sales are triple or quadruple what they were before.

Produce is a little bit of a lagger in this compared to a lot of grocery items, but still there are very substantial increases. But what the produce directors have also been telling me is that’s fantastic, of course, they’re glad to be selling online. But our main tools that allow us to sell consumers more of things when they’re in a store, such as merchandising in such a way that they can see something more prominently, doing demos and sampling, especially on new items … what a lot of retailers in produce particularly have been concerned about is how are we going to sell those new varieties? How are we going to sell new cuts, new varieties etc., when consumers are not in the store? What’s your thought on this concern?

A: Well, you and I have had the lovely chance to have interesting conversations around omnichannel marketing now for a few years, thanks to the show in the Netherlands a few years ago. And boy, it’s a really valid point, Jim. I’m just trying to frame my thinking about whether I can distill this into two or three points. So one point would be the overall impact of omnichannel marketing in terms of fruits and vegetables. So before we talk about repetitive behavior and disruption, let’s talk about the overall essence of omnichannel marketing. And it requires us to think radically differently as marketers. And it’s really interesting to compare and contrast countries.

And there’s — excuse me, I’m not going to be able to speak digital fluently — but there’s let’s say digital frameworks like Amazon where there’s been the importation of a fresh model into the existing technological framework. And we’ve seen that a lot in what I might call the more western countries where they brought fresh in. And fresh doesn’t necessarily work well in the framework that was used in the past to sell books or hard goods. And there’s a range of reasons why that doesn’t work.

But the interesting thing is when you look at something like China — and I’ve had the chance to work extensively with China online through the likes of Team All Flagship Stores and — and it’s interesting because China’s “digital framework model” is very, very different than what we might see in an Amazon framework model.

China’s digital model is very deep and very rich in content. So when you go to a and you look up blueberries, you’re doing it on your mobile device, of course, because China is mobile first. You get deep scrolling ability. So you’re swiping seven, eight, nine screens and there’s depth of storytelling. So there’s everything about brand, provenance, nutrition, recipe usage. There’ll be short format video all designed to really engage you and help you understand the essence of what makes this brand of this product unique.

So one of our core challenges is just digital infrastructure around how fresh marketed online. And what we’re starting to do a lot more is… you have to really bring a degree of innovation to those existing frameworks that don’t accommodate produce well. So that’s things like how do you address your thumbnail imagery? How do you address your online storytelling when you have System A, which means you can get only 60 words?

And then you have the photo descriptive B, which gives you 180 characters, right? You really have to understand the framework and figure out how you’re going to optimize your brand presence in the framework. So that’s kind of the marketing aspect of how do you succeed as an omnichannel marketer. You have to be deeply understanding the model and radically thinking differently about how you portray your brand. I’m hoping that that’s clear. It’s something when you’re in it, you can see it. It’s maybe harder to explain when you’re outside of it.

The second point you bring up, though, is one of disruption, right? So the established shopping list… how do we disrupt? And that’s really our marketing of the future. And I know I tend to be a bit ahead of the curve. We’re starting to work actively right now in the world of banner advertising and deep data analysis to figure out where is the point where we need to disrupt, educate or inform in order to make an impact on established behavior or established shopping lists, right?

And in different countries, that looks different ways. We’re trialing banner advertising at the moment for a client. So when you come into a website portal or an online shopping portal, and you search for fruit, can we put out the banner or an active type of animated file that prompts you to click and want to understand more and then have that amazing ‘add to cart’ button? That add-to-cart button, that proactive button, is really important for conversion. So, I mean this is something we could talk about for another two hours. But it’s the emerging face of fresh produce marketing.

And my sense is the skills, the tactical marketing skills, that have made us successful as produce marketers, we need to rapidly develop, hire or contract a new set of skills around digital marketing excellence, digital data understanding. What are the trigger points that bring people into the funnel? How do we shorten the consumer journey funnel using key opinion leaders or influencers?

And just like my digital conversations I’m having in China and Vietnam and Thailand do not look anything like a marketing conversation in other markets because we’re moving to such an online environment in those countries that it just requires a completely different skillset, I’m in learning mode hourly when I’m working in those countries to really make sure I’m trying to understand how the entire marketing conversation changes when you move into a different digital and omnichannel format.

And I’m very early in my learning, and I’m actively involved in it now for the past couple of years. I can tell you there’s just a heck of a lot to learn, and it requires you to think really differently because the customer journey is changing in the online world. And one of the trends that we’re observing globally is the increase in online shopping. Absolutely. We’re seeing it in China. We’re seeing it in Vietnam. We’re seeing it in Thailand. So we have to be thinking about it and we have to be addressing it.

But boy, it’s a radically different set of skills than what has brought us to where we are in terms of our produce marketing journey. And it’s different than your social digital marketing skills. It’s a much more scientific approach to deeply understanding the shoppers and their online purchasing habits and where you have opportunities to disrupt and introduce your new products and then how you go about doing that. So those are great questions, and I wish I had the answers. But I’m only just starting to unpack them myself.

Q: Well, God willing, we’ll get through this pandemic and right now, people have been in a sort of scrambling mode to adapt to rapidly changed circumstances. But when we get past this, and we start to look ahead ten years and we’re looking at technology, we’re looking at changes in the population, we’re looking at all kinds of differentials in what the world is going to present a decade after COVID is done and gone, how do we take stock of that?

How do we take this knowledge that we have experienced in this moment in time and move ahead ten years so that we can position our companies and our industry to be successful looking down the road?

A: I’m going to say this…I’ll try to answer this simply. And I appreciate for some companies that a simple answer may seem too simple. You’ve got to go back and understand at your essence who you are as a company because only when you understand who you are, can you determine who you want to be. So what the past nine months have given us is the gift of absolutely unpacking, breaking down, disrupting who we thought we were, and I believe revealing our true essence.

So how we coped, how we changed, how we pivoted… if we did, or if we didn’t, how did we treat our staff, how did they cope, how did they evolve along the journey with us? It’s only when we’ve unpacked that and been able to analyze and literally capture our essence as a company that provides the go-forward point to reshape the future, because the future will have you deeply embedded in it.

It will have your essence embedded in it and the opportunity for growth has to start within. So again, in working with companies, for me, from an outsider’s perspective, it’s so easy to help them see this and to help them find it. And when you’ve found it, it is this amazing revelation. You can almost hear the angels sing on high when you’ve been able to reflect back to a company their brand essence because there’s just a palpable sigh of relief, like yes, that is us. That is who we are. And then crafting the future from there becomes incredibly easy.

Q: Well, Lisa, I’m hearing the angels singing and appreciate so much your joining us for this. I thank you very much for your time and your insight and hopefully, next year we’ll have you back live at The New York Produce Show and Conference. I appreciate everything you’ve done. We could continue talking for hours. But thank you very much and we’ll see you soon.

A: Thanks, Jim and thanks to everyone who’s joining the New York Produce Show. This show is an absolute treasure, and we will see you in New York in December 2021.


A few lines that stand out:

So I live in hope. I live in hope that people will see that we have this amazing opportunity to be thinking about our brands differently because the last decade versus the upcoming decade we’re going to need different skills and different brand tools to position ourselves for success.

What can each of us — as individuals, as companies and organizations and as an industry — draw from this pandemic?

With vaccines flowing, we can begin to glimpse a post-pandemic future. But what have we learned? How can we progress? Will we see the future and make the most of it? Well, as Lisa does, we can all live in hope.

We are fortunate, indeed, to have people such as Lisa Cork to show us the way.



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