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    Budding Brands

    Produce takes a cue from center store, with packaged goods that are fast gaining a loyal following.

    By Jennifer Strailey

    Fresh produce has long been a decisive factor in terms of where consumers shop. These days, that freshness increasingly has a name.

    ?Branded produce is obviously a hot topic,? says Jonna Parker, director of account services at Nielsen Perishables Group, in Chicago. ?In talking with our produce clients, [we find that] all of them have a brand in play.?

    ?Produce suppliers are also stepping up their game,? continues Parker. ?They?re asking themselves, ?How do we operate more like a center store manufacturer?? Produce companies are supporting their brand, playing up brand image, introducing new packaging, and even running TV ads and placing coupons in the Sunday paper.?

    However, leading suppliers aren?t purely focused on selling what they already do well. ?There?s been a shift away from a commodity volume sales mindset,? asserts Parker, who sees produce companies considering the needs of consumers and retailers like never before.

    Whether it?s putting a handle on a bag of lemons, launching lunchbox-friendly veggies and dip, or targeting kids by making fresh foods fun, the produce industry is innovating with unprecedented speed and agility.

    Not surprisingly, sales of branded fruit and vegetables are up. According to Nielsen Perishables Group, branded fruit?s share of total fruit was 28 percent for the 52 weeks ending July 26, 2014, up 2 percent from a year ago. The contribution of branded vegetables to all vegetables was 29 percent for the 52 weeks ending July 26, 2014, also up 2 percent from the previous year.

    Additionally, branded fruits grew a healthy 14 percent in dollar sales over a year ago, while branded vegetable dollar sales rose 12 percent.

    Retailers are staking their claim to the category as well, as evidenced by the noteworthy growth in private label fruits and veggies. Private label fruit is up 5 percent and vegetables up 8 percent over a year ago, according to Nielsen Perishables Group data sourced from key retailers that operate food, mass/supercenter and club chains, comprising more than 18,000 stores.

    Historically, notes Parker, retailers in this country haven?t necessarily wanted strong brands in produce, as fruits and vegetables traditionally have been a grocer?s unique stock in trade.

    ?But now, just as retailers will carry a particular brand of cereal they know their customers want, retailers are starting to carry brands in produce that bring consumers into the store,? observes Parker. ?The strength of those brands is having a halo effect on the retailer, plus the retailer doesn?t have to invest the effort in building brands in produce themselves.?

    Brand Trust

    Ironically, one of the same factors driving the tremendous demand for local produce may also be in play with branded produce.

    ?Where brands really start to matter is where they tie into people having more interest and concern about where and how their food is produced,? says Samantha Cabaluna, VP of marketing and communications for Earthbound Farm, in San Juan Bautista, Calif.

    ?With branded produce, someone can have a relationship with it,? she adds. ?While it?s not the same as going to a farmers? market, you can ? through the magic of digital marketing ? have a conversation with the people behind the product.?

    At Earthbound Farm, having a recognizable brand means being able to connect with consumers in a variety of ways, including the company?s Organic Bound online gazette. Through gorgeous photography, step-by-step preparation tips and interesting recipes, the gazette has garnered more than 310,000 subscribers to date.

    ?People have always known that produce is healthy for you, but people don?t really know how to prepare it to make it delicious,? notes Cabaluna.

    This becomes all the more important as consumers embrace stronger-flavored greens like spinach, kale and arugula for their nutritional value, but are perhaps less familiar with how to prepare them.

    ?The American palate is broadening,? observes Cabaluna, ?and consumers really look to retailers as trusted resources, especially in the produce department.? Showing customers how to make vegetables into a dish that will delight the whole family is a powerful promotional tool.

    ?It?s not about just sticking recipes on a J hook ? it?s the same principle as an impulse rack,? she continues. ?You want the customer to see that if they buy something that looks great, and grab these two other items in produce, that they can make a killer dish.?

    Side Show

    As health-conscious consumers look to get more vegetables in their diets, suppliers are introducing increasingly innovative and convenient side dishes.

    Baloian Farms, of Fresno, Calif., has developed easy-to-prepare side dish solutions by adding seasoning packets to its 3-pack trays of squash. Flavors include roasted red pepper and garlic, as well as parmesan herbs. In minutes, consumers can slice, season and sauté the squash.

    Salinas, Calif.-based Mann Packing is another supplier with a stable of easy-to-prepare sides featuring produce. Its Veggie Mac-n-Cheese meal kits, for example, contain fresh broccoli, ready-to-heat fresh pasta and a cheese sauce.

    Fresh Beverages

    Just as life shows no signs of slowing down any time soon, neither does the demand for the ultimate grab-and-go nutritional boost: fresh beverages.

    ?Grab-and-go is as hot as it?s ever been,? affirms Paul Gregg, EVP of Miami-based Raw Foods International. ?From single-serve salads, juices and even fruit in the c-stores, this is continuing to trend up across all channels.?

    Another trend, according to Gregg, is the desire to adopt ?clean eating? habits, even when it comes to snacks and drinks on the go.

    With that in mind, the newest RAAW (Refreshing Anytime AnyWhere) Juice, Tropical Bliss, is a combination of guava, carrots and pineapple that packs nutritional punch.

    ?It?s probably our most nutrient-dense introduction,? notes Gregg, who expects the new juice to join Raw?s list of other top sellers, which includes Strawberry Purple Carrot, Very Berry Wheatgrass and Passion Fruit Wheatgrass.

    The nutritional value, in combination with the natural energy boost that beverages like these provide, has a growing number of health-conscious consumers turning to them in lieu of an afternoon cup of coffee or energy drink, observes Gregg, who adds that sales of Raw Foods International juices have more than doubled year over year.

    Big Budget for Small Shoppers

    The produce industry continues to appeal to kids with fruits and veggies presented in packages emblazoned with superheroes, princesses and colorful characters. Now a number of retailers are expanding their real estate devoted to kid-focused produce.

    Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle is reportedly installing child-friendly healthful snacking sections in about 200 stores, while Walmart, based in Bentonville, Ark., is aiming to unveil similar sections at some 1,500 stores this fall.

    Bolthouse Farms, of Bakersfield, Calif., has pitched grocers on the concept. The company recently introduced a variety of healthful snack items for kids, including puréed fruit tubes, all-fruit smoothies, and Veggie Snackers, baby carrots that come with flavorful seasoning packets.

    ?Branding produce for children is a big trend right now, and has been for the last few years,? concurs Karen Caplan, president and CEO of Frieda?s Inc., in Los Alamitos, Calif. ?Disney was definitely the pioneer in this area, with placing their Disney characters on packaged produce.?

    Crunch Pak, of Cashmere, Wash., was an early adopter of produce designed to appeal to kids. It continues to promote healthy eating through its Marvel?s Ultimate Spider-Man and Marvel?s The Avengers, which are featured on packages of fresh sliced apples.

    As the industry becomes savvier, Caplan sees a new breed of produce marketer emerging. ?What has happened is many produce growers and marketers are now hiring former CPG marketers to join their teams and educate them on how to sell to consumers,? observes Caplan. ?Until recently, most growers only thought about selling the product to their retail clients. They never had to think about selling it to the consumer.?

    Grown-up Grazing

    As snacking continues to replace three squares for many Americans, a number of suppliers are introducing healthful snacks the whole family can enjoy.

    ?More and more consumers are snacking and looking for snacking solutions, especially on the go,? notes Jeremy Lane, sales manager for Baloian Farms, which recently introduced a grab-and-go cup of mini sweet peppers with a fat-free ranch dip.

    According to Baloian Farms, a recent consumer survey found that 58 percent of those surveyed said they would purchase such a product if it were available at a retail location. ?It?s highly portable and offers another snack solution choice that is fresh and healthy,? adds Lane.

    While vegetables with dips like ranch and hummus have a proven track record, several produce suppliers are introducing vegetable-and-seasoning combinations. For example, Bolthouse Farms? ShakeDowns are a grown-up version of its Veggie Snackers. The product line features fresh-cut peeled baby carrots paired with a natural seasoning packet in two varieties: Ranch and Chili Lime.

    Farmington Fresh, a Stockton, Calif.-based supplier of fresh-cut apples, recently spiced up the produce biz, by striking a deal with Houston-based Tajin International Corp. to include single-serve packs of Tajin chili pepper-based seasoning with single-serve packs of Farmington?s fresh-cut fruit for foodservice. Farmington now offers six SKUs of fruit (sliced red apples, green apples, pears, peaches, nectarines and orange wedges) in 2-ounce to 4.7-ounce packs, each accompanied by a sachet of Low-Sodium Tajin.

    Building Brand Awareness

    As produce suppliers diversify, strategic, impactful merchandising and displays become even more important sales drivers.

    Los Angeles-based Roll Global, parent company of Paramount Farms, POM Wonderful and Paramount Citrus, is known for transforming commodities, such as pistachios, pomegranates, almonds and mandarins, into household brand names.

    ?Raising awareness in and out of the store is extremely important in branded produce,? says Jasmine Hodari, VP of marketing at Paramount Farm and Paramount Citrus. ?One of POM Wonderful, Paramount Citrus and Paramount Farms? main promotional plans is branded in-store displays and bins, as we?ve learned they are the No. 1 trigger for trial of our products.?

    The Story of Salad

    The produce industry is seeing that salads get their due as center-of-the-plate meals. With the addition of protein, and flavorful combinations of fruits and veggies, salad bowls are bowling over consumers.

    Touting them as ?complete meals,? Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A. Inc., of Coral Gables, Fla., recently introduced single-serve salad bowls under the Nature Made brand. The salad bowl range, made with Del Monte fresh fruits and vegetables, includes Caesar Salad with White Chicken, Greek Style Salad with White Chicken, Turkey and Bacon Cobb Salad, and a Chef Salad with Turkey and Ham.

    ?Our focus is the on-the-go consumer seeking a convenient, healthy and complete meal,? says Dennis Christou, VP of marketing, North America for Del Monte Fresh.

    Consumers are also getting smarter about the kinds of convenient foods they choose. As a result, it takes more than buzzwords to motivate them to buy.

    ?Right now, the overarching trend seems to be ?no excuses,?? concedes Tristan Simpson, VP, corporate communications for Irwindale, Calif.-based Ready Pac Foods Inc., whose Bistro Bowl Salads, Bistro Bowl Wrap Kits and Ready Snax Snack Packs offer convenient solutions for consumers seeking fresh and healthy food.

    She adds: ?Consumers are growing savvier, and they aren?t satisfied with foods masquerading as healthy if they rely solely on ?low-fat? or ?reduced-calorie? labels. They want truly natural sources of nutrients, delivered in convenient and efficient formats.?

    ?Produce suppliers are also stepping up their game. They?re asking themselves, ?How do we operate more like a center store manufacturer???
    ?Jonna Parker, Nielsen Perishables Group

    ?Where brands really start to matter is where they tie into people having more interest and concern about where and how their food is produced.?
    ?Samantha Cabaluna, Earthbound Farm

    ?Many produce growers and marketers are now hiring former CPG marketers to join their teams and educate them on how to sell to consumers.?
    ? Karen Caplan, Frieda?s Inc.

    ?Branded in-store displays and bins are the No. 1 trigger for trial of our products.?
    ?Jasmine Hodari, Paramount Farm and Paramount Citrus

    By Jennifer Strailey
    • About Jennifer Strailey

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