Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Lisa Cork, Fresh Produce Marketing Ltd.
Originally printed in the July 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Award-winning strategist Lisa Cork is American born, and firmly New Zealand-based, yet her arresting influence on the industry knows no borders. For more than three decades, she has imaginatively transformed produce businesses from production-centric to consumer-centric, bucking deep-seated industry thinking to drive consumer purchasing and new revenue streams up and down supply chains.
“Her advocacy for a consumer-centric approach — unusual and revolutionary in an industry largely focused on trade marketing — has helped alter the future of fresh produce marketing,” says David Marguleas, CEO, Sun World International, who nominated Cork for a Produce Business Vanguard Award. A client himself, Marguleas has observed Cork’s multi-faceted produce marketing career since the late 1980s.
Cork pulls no punches, shaking up the status quo in her quest to push the industry forward. Her game-changing marketing and branding programs have rocketed sales and profits, created category standouts, and overturned a commodity-driven, low-margin environment. More broadly, she’s keen to understand the food industry landscape, delving into what it takes to level the playing field with consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies. She addresses challenges particular to the produce industry, and urges companies to re-engineer strategies to adapt to an omnichannel world.
“More recently, I have engaged with Lisa during her time as a Produce Marketing Association board director,” says Marguleas. “Her nomination and selection as a board member, especially given she is an industry service provider from New Zealand, speaks to her global influence and the outsized impact she’s had on the global industry.”
Branching out from her California roots, Cork immigrated to New Zealand in 1994, establishing Fresh Produce Marketing Ltd., a consulting business working with top New Zealand and Australian fresh produce growers and industry associations, and stretching her reach across six continents.
Cork first fashioned a national stir in 1990, after President George H.W. Bush declared his disdain of broccoli, banning it from Air Force One, to the dismay of the entire fresh broccoli industry. Apio (now Curation Foods, a subsidiary of Santa Clara-based Landec Corp.), was one of the top five broccoli producers at the time, and as Apio’s new marketing manager, Cork united growers to take a stand, delivering a 10-ton truck full of broccoli to the White House, and making headlines all over the world. Broccoli’s image was restored, and Cork’s profile was raised as well.
She was also the brains behind Apio’s EatSmart brand in 1992, one of the first consumer-centric brands in the produce industry.
Cork understood the necessity of retail collaboration, and implemented a Retail Buyer Academy while at Apio, flying key buyers out to Guadalupe, CA, and walking them through what was required to grow and pack fresh vegetables — even getting buyers into the fields picking and packing broccoli and cauliflower.
She has represented and advised multiple U.S. and New Zealand and Australian commodity boards, and has been a consultant to some of the world’s largest produce companies.
Recognized as a packaging guru, Cork has focused industry attention on how to unleash the revenue-building power of packaging (what she argues is a neglected tool in the produce industry). She has re-shaped industry thinking on marketing and branding, and has engaged industry leaders with her in-depth research and insights at events across the globe, including the New York, London and Amsterdam Produce Shows.
Karen Caplan, president/CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce, credits Cork with helping shape Frieda’s rebrand, as a result of attending her branding workshop at the New York Produce Show.
“I remember walking out of Lisa’s seminar and calling the director of marketing. I said, ‘You know what, it’s time to rebrand,’” says Caplan.
“I move pretty fast,” she adds. “The New York Produce Show was in December, and we launched our rebranding in February. It was all because of Lisa.”
Cork won the ProducePlus/PMA Australia-New Zealand Marketer of the Year Award (2013) for her work on reinventing sweet potato marketing and branding, leading to a 220% increase in farmgate returns for client DeltaKumara, with Love! Kumara.
Other registered trademark brands she’s developed include Wild About Fruit (Australia), Winter Sweetz grapefruit (Texas), Sweeter Sorts (Florida), Born Pure and Truu Brands (Australia), Naturalls Grapes (Australia), The Chosen Ones stone fruits (Australia), Good Life Organics (Australia), All Rounders Vegetables (NZ), Snackables Whole Baby Carrots (Australia), Dazzle Apples (Global), Edible Gems (Australia), SnakStack (NZ), Smart Kidz (NZ and Little Darlings (NZ).
“In my work with companies looking to future-proof themselves and their brands in an omnichannel world, senior leadership teams that want to be successful, both offline and online, need to change their mindset and skillset,” says Cork.
“They have to become more adaptive, integrated and trust their teams, especially the young teams. I believe fresh produce companies must plan for an online sales world — the thinking required to be a profitable, successful online food or fresh produce brand in the future must be done now,” she adds.
Cork has led the branding, packaging and marketing for clients that are selling omnichannel in China for several years. “I am seeing the future, and this gives me credible insights. I want to help produce companies be prepared for what’s coming. As I have found in China, success will go to the companies that jump in, try, succeed and/or fail fast, then try again.”