An apple by any other name…

Shoppers seeking value and consistency are gravitating toward branded produce.

By Craig Levitt

In today’s economy, consumers are constantly struggling to find ways to save money at the supermarket without skimp­ing on quality, which has been a boon for many private label prod­ucts through­out the su­permarket. However, even in these times of calculated spending, industry ob­servers say branded produce has been, and continues to be, well received by consumers.

In fact, some industry executives say the concept of branded produce was essentially spearheaded by consumers who were looking for the same consistency in their produce items that they were used to getting from their other groceries throughout the store.

“Over time consumers would typically reach for the best products and came to know them by brand,” says Simcha Weinstein, director of marketing for Bridgeport, N.J.-based Albert’s Organics. “So shoppers who tend to seek out quality and have come to notice that quality comes consistently from the same brands will move forward by looking for these brands when they shop.”

While there is currently a sizeable amount of branding going on in the produce department, observers admit it has been a bit of a slow process. Most believe however, that done properly branding in the produce aisle will eventually be as successful as it is in other categories.

There are challenges of course, as not all products—particularly when it comes to unpackaged fruits and vegetables—have visible or noticeable tags to identify the brand. Branding certain produce items can also be difficult because often they are often being sourced from multiple regions throughout the year.

Packaged produce obviously lends itself much better to branding. Industry experts say areas of emphasis should be items such as salad mixes, mixed vegetables and baby carrots. Weinstein says packaged brands are especially beneficial in the organic segment because it assures the organic shopper that the products they are looking aren’t mixed with non-organic items.

While organics and salad mixes seem like obvious choices where branded packaged produce would succeed, one not so obvious item has done well for Oneonta/Starr Ranch Growers. According to Scott Marboe, director of marketing, the Wenatchee, Wash.-based grower has had great success with its line of packaged cherries.

Impulse Buy

Marboe says the packaging features eye-appealing graphics as well as the company logo and website information. He says that, combined with a reasonable price-point, encourages consumers to pick up the fruit, look it over and eventually buy it. He adds that it probably helps that cherries are an impulse buy, available at only certain times during the year.

“I think branding is more effective with impulse items, to a certain degree,” says Marboe. “We have received a ton of email compliments from consumers saying things like ‘your graphics caught my eye, the cherries were great and now I’m going to buy cherries every year when they are available.’ You can have the greatest graphics in the world, but at the end of the day it’s the quality of the fruit that gets people to come back.”

Marketing support is also an issue. For center store items for example, the company doing the branding usually invests heavily in the brand. That support is tends to be lacking for many products on the produce side. Observers say it can be hard to place blame however, not only because there are so many smaller companies, but more importantly because many of these smaller companies have seasonal items.

“It’s hard for them,” says Seth Pemsler, vice president retail/international for the Eagle, Idaho-based Idaho Potato Commission. “How are you going to put a ton of money behind something that is short-fused? So the real branding has to be done by the associations, like the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) because those are the types of entities that have the resources to create awareness of a category or a brand.”

Patience is required as creating that awareness takes time. Pemsler emphasizes that the Idaho brand was not created in just a few years. The IPC has been putting money behind the Idaho brand for 75 years in effort to create the reputation it has today. The IPC efforts have paid off of course, as Idaho represents about one-third of all potatoes sold at retail.

While Idaho-branded potatoes come from numerous growers—and all growers in Idaho are required by law to put the Idaho logo on their bags—the IPC has a legal department dedicated to enforcing Idaho potato standards. He says the IPC is also legally entitled to audit any company that packs the Idaho seal, regardless of the company’s location. For example, the IPC could examine the company’s records to ensure that the amount of potatoes purchased and the number of bags match up. Pemsler says it’s the only way the IPC can ensure the integrity of its brand.

It’s easier now for the IPC, because they do represent such a large total of the industry. Establishing that kind of brand awareness in other categories is harder because they simply don’t represent that high a volume. Secondarily, it can be hard to develop a brand in the produce department because you can’t always be sure consumers will approve or not.

Pemsler uses Chilean grapes as an example. He says when the Chileans began promoting their grapes many consumers likely thought ‘grapes come from California, why am I buying them from Chile?’ However, over the years they have worked hard at educating consumers and building a comfort level with Chilean products.
“Now consumers associate Chilean fruits with high quality and retailers are actively promoting Chilean fruit with signage and the like,” says Pemsler.

Safety and value

Although consumers are trying to pinch pennies, most observers say shoppers are willing to spend a bit extra to ensure that their food, especially produce is safe. They are also looking for value, not wanting to throw away an item that either tastes inferior or rots before its time, thus completely wasting the money spent. That is where branding can really play a large role.

“As consumers become more aware of produce brands and food safety continues to be top of mind, people are going into stores looking for brands they can trust, such as Del Monte, that deliver consist, safe, premium quality products,” says Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing for Coral Gables Fla.-based Del Monte Fresh Fruit.

“In more difficult economic periods, consumers become even more picky about quality to ensure the maximum value is derived from their fresh produce purchases,” says Bil Goldfield, communications manager for Westlake Village, Calif.-based Dole Fresh Fruit. “Known brands like Dole instill that value concept.”

When it comes to produce, most observers agree that consumers shop with their eyes. If  consumers don’t find the fruit or vegetable visually appealing, they will pass it up. They say the consistency of branded items can help eliminate the amount of unappealing produce retailers receive.

Consumers are also generally more comfortable and confident buying items that they recognize and have had positive experiences with, leading many observers to believe that consumers actually are looking for branded produce items.

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