Developing Demand

Jim Prevor - The Fruits of Thought


There is something peculiar about branded produce and consumer advertising. It seems that, despite all the advertising investment, brand loyalty has not been fully developed among most customers.

Think of the soup department of your neighborhood supermarket. It probably has Campbell’s Soup and a variety of other brands. It is not uncommon for a store to feature four or five different brands of chicken soup alone.

Supermarkets don’t feature this many brands of soup (or other grocery items) because they love to use up shelf space. Rather, they feature multiple brands of the same item because consumers demand they be given the choice between multiple brands.

For some people, their mayonnaise must be Hellmann’s, while others prefer Kraft. So intense is this brand loyalty that people will literally refuse to shop at stores that do not carry their favorite brands.

Yet, this type of loyalty seems rare in produce. How many stores do you know that always carry three different brands of bananas? Do you ever see Driscoll’s and Naturipe blueberries merchandised next to each other?

The conclusion we draw is that, with only a few exceptions, consumers do not give their grocers any indication that they really have brand preferences in fresh produce. And, as a result, retailers feel no compunction to purchase a particular brand because their customers specifically request it.

So, what is the purpose of all this consumer advertising of branded product? Well, first, there is less money spent on produce advertising than people think. Dole, Del Monte and Campbell’s are all big companies with well-known consumer brands, but the big promotional bucks go toward packaged goods.

In fact, the main focus of consumer produce advertising is not on the consumer at all — it’s on the retailer. Since no one has been able to develop strong brand preferences among consumers, retailers are in control. If the retailers decide to sell Chiquita, that’s the brand consumers will buy.

The quest in the produce industry is, of course, a search for how to make more money. However, the produce industry is frustrating for a producer because prices on most items are determined more by general market conditions than by anything under the control of the producer.

So, advertising to the consumer holds appeal to the producers, who hope to differentiate their products and get a premium for them. But those tempted to follow this route should be aware of some of the pitfalls: It is exceptionally easy to spend a lot of money and get very little impact. This is a big country and a bigger world, and it is easy to spend several million dollars with no effect.

In addition, one shouldn’t count on saving money on trade advertising and promotion to fund the consumer program.

Effective consumer advertising also requires having something to say. That requires knowing what you’re trying to sell and to whom you want to sell it. Lots of advertising dollars are wasted because they are spent on inappropriate media, inappropriate geographical regions, or have no coherent story to tell.

One reason only a small portion of produce marketers have been able to develop a real brand preference among consumers is that only a few companies have really desired it enough to try. Most branded produce operators, for example, will not stand behind their product at retail to the point where they will provide refunds to consumers who are dissatisfied.

This lack of commitment is justifiable. After all, most damage to produce is done at the retail level, and there is great difficulty involved with suppliers of produce preventing retailers from causing damage. But still, one can understand why consumer brand preference has been slow to develop in fresh produce. The very nature of a brand is that it provides an assurance of quality. Otherwise, the brand means nothing to the consumer.

The consumer has to feel someone stands behind the produce. If branded produce marketers tell complaining consumers to take the problem to the store, they are eliminating an important reason for consumers to prefer a branded product. After all, the store will take responsibility for unbranded produce as much as it will for branded.

There is the potential for consumers to develop real brand preferences for produce. It may happen as advances in seed development make it easier to create new varieties of produce, so that one organization’s apple may actually be sweeter than another.

However, I don’t think that having different produce is essential to developing consumer brand preference. What’s required is a marketing program that persuades consumers that there is a difference. Surely, the reason there are so many beers is not the nuances of taste; it is the nuance of image. Intelligent marketing makes one feel like a different person when one sips a Corona as opposed to sipping a generic beer.

A person’s self-esteem is often intimately tied to what he or she buys. Thus, the poorest school children feel the need to buy expensive athletic shoes like Nike or Reebok.

One day, someone in produce will find a way to tap into people’s yearning for identity and persuade them that “Brand X” is the only one to fit their special style. They will position their product uniquely. They will advertise extensively to the consumer, and they will back their product to the hilt. They will arrange for universal distribution, and they will make a fortune. But it will take a lot more than just running a few ads.

Jim Prevor - Editor in Chief

Produce industry icon Jim Prevor, who founded Produce Business magazine in 1985, died Nov. 7, 2022. To honor his legacy as a maverick thought-leader, this space spotlights the best of Prevor’s “Fruits of Thought” column, which garnered more than 200 awards in business journalism.