Fresh Produce Has Particular Marketing Challenges

Jim Prevor - Comments and Analysis

Originally printed in the November 2021 issue of Produce Business.

The issue of fresh produce branding is an important one. It is, however, different from the typical analysis of branding in most of the supermarket. What is the key difference? Simple… retailers generally only carry one brand at a time of each fresh produce item.

In other words, when a consumer is interested in chicken soup, that consumer can buy Campbell’s or Progresso or a dozen other brands. Even within each brand, there are numerous options: Classic, Chunky, Homestyle, Low Sodium, on and on.

In contrast, a banana, well, it is pretty much a banana. Cavendish variety. So even if a marketer does a great job of promoting its brand and manages to develop consumer preference, you are basically asking a consumer to go into a supermarket, try and accomplish his or her shopping, then leave and go to a second place solely to buy the brand that consumer prefers.

Since stores sell multiple brands, and soup recipes actually do vary, consumers of soup don’t have to shop elsewhere.

It is not obvious that unaided recall tells us the whole story when it comes to fresh produce. One thing to note is that many prominent fresh produce brands are also on canned or frozen product. So, for example, brands such as Dole and Del Monte always had a marketing advantage as they always had something with that brand name in every store.

It is also notable that this research did not segregate brand recognition on fresh produce. The question asked: “Q. When you think of produce, what brand is top of mind?” Note, though, that this could be canned or frozen, and note also that even the word produce is probably less clear to consumers than asking about fresh fruit and vegetables.

Though sometimes things are true, we have to be careful about jumping to a meaning. Certainly city dwellers shop more frequently. That doesn’t mean they buy more produce. City dwellers typically have smaller living areas and don’t have the capacity to store much in the way of refrigerated goods. When this writer was living in a suburban house growing up with his parents, we had a separate large refrigerator and freezer in the kitchen, another in the garage and still another in the basement. When I moved out of the house into an apartment in Manhattan, I had one combo refrigerator/freezer. Even for non-refrigerated goods, the difference was dramatic. My father would buy a 50 lb. bag of onions that we kept in the garage! I love onions, but in my Manhattan apartment, maybe I bought two onions in one visit!

Marketing produce has specific challenges. Sure, consumers may value “freshness,” but almost all reputable producers ship produce in excellent condition. Indeed, almost all retail chains will reject the produce if it arrives in poor condition. Even reputable retailers typically receive produce in high quality distribution centers and ship it out quickly.

The place where produce typically deteriorates is at store level and in the consumer’s home! So, marketing or advertising one’s product as particularly fresh is very problematic. It was fresh when shipped, but whether it is fresh or not in store or in a consumer household is really out of the control of most marketers.

A third of the top brands recalled by consumers in this study — there are nine — aren’t produce brands at all: Kroger, Whole Foods and Great Value are all retail brands. This study says unaided recall is really low on produce brands. Perhaps. But who actually cares about whether consumers can remember brands in the abstract? Isn’t the relevant question whether when consumers are in a store, or buying online, and they see Ocean Spray, that this makes them comfortable buying the cranberries?

The study claims big differences between urban and suburban consumers, with urban consumers placing more weight on brands. Maybe, though, there are reasonable explanations. Could urban consumers skew younger — and being newer to shopping, look for signposts of the things their mother bought back when they were growing up?

Could urban shoppers frequent ethnic markets — say the famous Korean greengrocers in New York City – and these stores don’t have the prominent store reputations that Walmart, Costco, Publix, HEB, Kroger, Safeway, Albertsons and many others do? In other words, consumers who trust their local Stop & Shop, King Kullen or Gelson’s assume the produce buyers bought the best available this week.

Those stopping at an unbranded city fruit store might not have the same faith. It is also possible that urban fruit stores, buying off a local terminal market, might change brands fairly frequently, as they have the opportunity to actually check for the best quality and the best price. In contrast, a large chain is likely to consistently buy and carry the same brands, in part because it is difficult to just switch vendors when one needs so many trailers every week.

It is not surprising that consumers explain they don’t rank price high in purchasing produce. It is a variable quality product. Even poor people don’t want moldy fruit or items with blemishes or mealy apples. But the quality of produce sold in major large retailers is similar.

Whereas an independent store in New York can walk the Hunts Point Market searching for the finest quality or the best deal, chains with thousands of stores pretty much have to just buy a grade. Once every store in a market is selling Washington Extra Fancy Red Delicious apples, price becomes an important factor.