What follows is a response from Jim Prevor pertaining to this month’s research perspective. That article can be found here.
Effective communications can be key sales tools in produce marketers’ efforts to persuade shoppers to purchase their products
The news about watermelon is great. It especially bodes well for watermelon growers, the produce industry at large and for consumers who are experiencing watermelon more frequently when dining out. What it means for the future of produce consumption overall is uncertain.
The National Watermelon Board, working with Datassential, has utilized a four-step process by which foods gain currency on menus. It is called the Menu Adoption Cycle, and it goes from Inception — where menu items are mostly in fine dining or ethnic restaurants — to Adoption — where menu items move into fast casual and casual restaurants — to Proliferation — with menu items in casual chain restaurants and some quick service restaurants — and finally on to Ubiquity — where items are picked up in family restaurants and school cafeterias and similar enterprises. There is a similar path at retail, from specialty gourmet stores to dollar stores.
This is all very true, but not as illuminating as one would hope. In retrospect — after items become ubiquitous, we can trace this path — but there are loads of items that just never take off. Evan stalwart produce items, say pears, which have been around for decades, never run the cycle. We don’t really know why some items, say kale, boom, while others, say cucumbers, don’t.
As an industry, we also have to be careful about making too much of these statistics. It is very nice that menu mentions of, say, blood oranges have boomed, but what does that really mean? Does it mean a mention of a squeeze of blood orange juice or a slice of blood orange for color?
Beyond Penetration — the percentage of restaurants that serve the item — and Incidence — the percentage of menu items that feature a food, flavor or ingredient — the industry actually cares a lot about quantity. If a mention of a steak means a 32-ounce serving, and the mention of a blood orange only means a bit of juice on a salad, the increase in mentions won’t mean much in terms of sales or consumption.
If the Watermelon Board can persuade a restaurant chain to add a single slice of watermelon as a side dish with a sandwich, or convert every chicken salad to a watermelon chicken salad, these small changes can mean big increases in sales and consumption.
Indeed, one issue with tracking menu mentions is that we can’t be sure if we are tracking actual changes in dishes served or changes in menu language trends. So maybe the roasted chicken was always served with a slice of orange as a garnish, but only now is the orange mentioned.
Another factor for the industry to take note of is the Watermelon Board’s research points to a divergence from what the industry has traditionally thought most important. Although the Watermelon Board, as with most of the produce industry, has thought it wise to focus on health in its marketing — lycopene and whatnot — the Number One penetration area for watermelon is not on the food side at all — it is alcoholic beverages. And that area has grown by 40 percent in the past four years. Now maybe the healthy image makes restaurant guests feel less guilty when drinking their alcohol, or maybe consumers don’t care much about the industry’s various health claims.
One thing the research also indicates is that an “all for one and one for all” industry strategy can often make sense. Watermelons are often featured with grapes, cantaloupe, pineapple, honeydew and strawberries in fruit cups and on platters. A broader assortment can help sell more of an item than if only the one item is available because consumers often enjoy variety. Different items provide different levels of flavor, different textures and whatnot — so avocados are the top “fruit” on salads, and their creaminess encourages purchase from people who might find solely conventional fruits to be too sweet.
The rapid growth of watermelon in foodservice also points out that small things can make a big difference. If the Watermelon Board can persuade a restaurant chain to add a single slice of watermelon as a side dish with a sandwich, or convert every chicken salad to a watermelon chicken salad, these small changes can mean big increases in sales and consumption.
Of course, the big issue for the produce industry is whether the growth we see in items such as watermelon actually means higher overall consumption. In other words, if consumers eat Rita’s Jolly Rancher Watermelon Italian Ice, does that simply mean that strawberry or lemon flavors are down? Do more salads being made with watermelon mean less protein in the salads? Or is it fewer berries or tomatoes? We don’t really know.
But, at the next convention, we can gather over a Watermelon Jalapeno Margarita and discuss the issue at length.