By Jennifer Strailey
Packaged produce speaks to the consumer demand for consistency and quality.
Branded fruits and vegetables are playing an increasingly critical role in fresh food, boosting the bottom line in produce departments across the nation. It's a trend with benefits for consumers and retailers alike, as shoppers continue to demand more information about the source of the foods they buy and supermarkets strive to deliver greater quality and consistency.
The boom in branded produce is accelerating on two fronts. National and international brands have made a name for themselves in every category, from berries to bagged salads. In addition, the demand for local produce has spurred retailers to build brand awareness for growers in their areas, promoting names and logos of local farms on signage throughout the department.
Both fronts are reaching consumers who want to spend their produce dollars on the best-tasting, highest-quality and safest fruits and vegetables. Many of these shoppers also want to know the story behind the brand. "We try to brand everything we can, because branding connects customers to their food and to our store," says Matt Landi, produce director for New Leaf Community Markets, based in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Claris Ritter, produce manager for Alfalfa's Market in Boulder, Colo., has witnessed the same trend in her store. Even bulk items like fingerling potatoes sourced from a local farm get a boost when placed in little packages with a label on it. "Branding adds value," says Ritter. "Customers today are a lot more familiar with brands and with local growers whom they've met at the farmers' markets. They'll buy tomatoes at the farmers' market and come tell me how much they would love to buy them at our store."
Paul Todak, produce manager of Chuck's Produce and Street Market in Vancouver, Wash., finds that promoting local produce brands can be a powerful draw that brings customers to the store. "It's nice to have a story about where things come from on the signage. I get a picture of the farmer and write a paragraph about where the farm is, what they do and how long they've been doing it. A lot of the customers already know the farms from the farmers' markets," says Todak, noting that he also promotes local produce in the store's advertisements. "When they see Hood River apples or Hurst Farm berries, they come into the store specifically for that," he adds.
The current demand for branded produce is just the beginning, according to New Leaf's Landi, who has witnessed tremendous growth in branded produce in the past decade. "People want an emotional connection to their food, and that's part of what's driving the growth in branded produce. But this trend is going to take off even more. It's about to blow up with QR [quick response] codes."
"People want an emotional connection to their food, and that's part of what's driving the growth in branded produce."
The QR Connection
Wish Farms tracks individual packages of its produce through a patented tool called FreshQC, which allows growers to access a variety of information from the field to the planting date and more. "Fresh QC was originally developed as a system for quality control, but it quickly became a way for us to connect with our customers and hear about their experience with our produce," explains Peterson.
In 2011, Wish Farms launched an optimized mobile website and FreshQC variable QR code on each package of its strawberries, blueberries and grape tomatoes. "People like to know where their food comes from, and with the technology of Fresh QC, we have the ability to educate our consumers about our products and reassure them that they are feeding their families high-quality food," notes Peterson.
Sunkist Growers Inc. recently launched two major brand initiatives: encouraging incremental placement of Sunkist products in complementary areas of the store and consumer education with the help of QR codes. "We realize that consumers may not know how to use a Meyer lemon or what differentiates a Cara Cara navel from a regular navel," says Julie De Wolf, director of retail marketing for the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based company. "We are currently suggesting that retailers use secondary lemon displays in their seafood sections during Lent, because we know seafood consumption increases during this time of year."
Sunkist provides secondary display units, a cling for the seafood case with a QR code that has a recipe link, a recipe booklet specific to lemons and seafood, and coupons.
The RealSweet brand of Vidalia onions from Shuman Produce redesigned its consumer bags last year, adding a QR code that takes consumers to exclusive online content about the brand, including information on how sweet onions are grown and harvested, storage and handling tips, and additional recipes. "I think consumers are looking for more information about their produce as a whole, and I believe branding provides an easily understood and recognizable avenue in which to share that information," says Adam Brady, marketing coordinator for Shuman Produce in Reidsville, Ga. "Where is a product grown and how is it harvested? Answering questions like these in association with a brand allows consumers the opportunity to easily tie a brand to a story and create a connection."
The company has spent some $50 million in advertising Wonderful Pistachios and another $15 million promoting the Cuties brand, with the lion's share of those millions spent on television campaigns. "If we can build loyalty and create consumer demand, we'll help retailers to drive traffic," asserts Seguin. "Traditionally, fresh produce has competed with low prices, and what we are suggesting is that when you have a brand with loyalty, you don't have to have the lowest price." According to IRI data, Seguin points out, Wonderful Pistachios is now generating $400 million in sales annually.
NBC's top-rated television show, "The Biggest Loser," is weighing in on the branded front with a new produce line debuting this fall. The new product launch is the result of a multi-year licensing agreement between Giraffe Interactive and NBCUniversal Television Consumer Products Group. The goal of the agreement is to create promotional programs that leverage "The Biggest Loser" brand while promoting the increased sale of fresh produce.
"'The Biggest Loser' brand has moved beyond pop culture status as an entertainment brand to become an iconic lifestyle brand associated with health and wellness," says Melinda Goodman, VP of marketing for Mound, Minn.-based Giraffe Interactive. "Brands often help consumers make positive connections to products and reinforce purchase behavior. The more opportunities we have to influence purchase, especially with healthy products, the more opportunity we have to help consumers make positive lifestyle changes."
Giraffe Interactive plans to work with retailers and suppliers to develop and launch regional and national campaigns and co-branded merchandise during the next few months. Goodman notes that promotions may include a combination of social media, in-store branding and messaging, and consumer tools, such as a smartphone app and website.
Tjerandsen, who describes the new Chilean produce identity as "vibrant, contemporary, colorful and energetic," has also been working with the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council in Folsom, Calif., on a new branding effort that touts blueberries as "Little Blue Dynamos." "It's a compelling and motivating message that's well supported by medical research," says Tjerandsen. Chile will launch the Little Blue Dynamos logo on its blueberries beginning with the next season, which is typically the second week of December to the end of February.
Tried and Trusted
Ritter of Alfalfa's agrees. One of her roles as produce manager is to merchandise products in such a way as to help customers make good choices and take the guesswork out of shopping the produce department. "Branding produce makes it easier to merchandise," she notes. "It also creates a name for customers in terms of quality and consistency." And while consumers enjoy the tried-and-true quality of a branded product, Ritter appreciates the consistent rings. "Branding also helps the cashiers charge the right price," she exclaims.
While happy customers are critical to the success of all supermarkets, at the upscale Alfalfa's, where quality trumps bargain pricing, ensuring customer satisfaction is more important still. "There's a food revolution happening, where even people who didn't notice the difference between good food and great food are now taking notice," asserts Ritter. These discerning consumers have high expectations for the quality of the products they buy. "People don't want to waste their money on peaches that taste like cardboard, or bad salad," she says, adding that branding produce promotes a positive experience because when customers buy an item that they enjoy, they tend to remember the name and go back to it.
One of her biggest sellers is Organic Girl. "The salads just fly out the door. I can hardly keep it in stock," she says. "They have a really high grade, and even though it's a higher-priced item, people buy it because they can count on it. That brand is reflecting the culture perfectly."
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