Opinion: Taste and texture are still the strongest hooks
By Grow My Profits research director Matthew Ernst
Taste matters. At the 2006 annual meeting of the American Association of Agricultural Economists, Colorado State University researchers reported their analysis of a large U.S. produce consumer data set. Their research focused on the importance of various characteristics of produce to consumers, from ‘social’ qualities, such as production location and certification, to ‘intrinsic qualities,’ such as texture and taste.
The study found that superior quality - including taste and texture, as well as safety and competitive prices of products, were most important across the consumer segments analyzed. More specifically, ‘intrinsic characteristics’ of produce accounted for the most variability in the consumer sample. The researchers found intrinsic qualities were almost twice as likely to explain consumer preferences for particular products as were nutrition and production location. Intrinsic characteristics included vitamin content, produce color, firmness, texture…and taste.
That’s right—the data quantified that, in the consumer’s mind, the way produce tasted trumped production location. Considering this research focused on consumers more likely to purchase at farmers markets and other direct outlets, we find it meaningful that taste and other intrinsic characteristics meant so much. Simply put: the taste experience is always at the forefront of the consumer’s mind, even for consumers placing heavy value on product attributes such as local and certified organic.
This study, in addition to other research we have reviewed, simply reflects a long-held truth that is still growing in importance for produce marketers. This truth, perhaps more important as we operate in a consumer environment where word-of-mouth travels electronically, is this: taste matters. Certain produce characteristics, such as ‘local’ or production methods, may receive more consumer press. Other characteristics, such as willingness-to-pay, nutrition and food safety concerns, may vary more widely by consumer demographic. But superior taste remains the one characteristic, particularly for fresh fruit, guaranteed to win over consumers across all segments.
A global truth
The truth that taste matters is also global. A 2011 study, co-authored by researchers in Colorado and Italy, reported an interesting conclusion from analyzing some 40 consumer studies in English and Italian. The purchase of produce with certain social characteristics, such as local, or certifications, such as organic, was not solely affected by the consumer’s preference for those attributes. Such purchases were also heavily influenced by the consumer’s perception, or experience, that produce with particular social qualities also tastes better, fresher or sweeter.
No matter where or how produce is grown, how the product literally tastes remains vital for consumer satisfaction. Consumer research, academic and otherwise, suggests that taste is still far more important than some qualities recently generating more popular press such as ‘local’. We think this is demonstrated in the growth of the snacking tomato category during the past decade. Greenhouse-grown cherry and grape tomatoes delivered classic tomato taste in the off-season, and consumers have proven not only willing to accept the product, but also willing to pay for the desired tomato taste.
Feedback and market knowledge
If taste matters so much, how can fruit marketers capitalize? At the risk of stating the obvious, we simply suggest two strategies. First, the industry must move toward collecting real consumer feedback about produce taste. Web technology makes it a snap to conduct specific product quality programs for monitoring product attributes, such as taste, among specific consumer segments. Recent technological improvements - think smartphones and barcodes - also present tantalizing future possibilities for economically collecting real-time taste data.
Our second, simple recommendation is also basic: producers, shippers and marketers must know the taste preferences of various consumer segments. Fortunately for fruit marketers, fruit that is sweet and juicy trends toward a nearly universal consumer preference. But what of more subtle differences between consumer segments? Again, we are nearing a day where it is more possible to ship product specific to certain tastes, even down to the store or neighborhood level. As Dr Roberta Cook recently wrote: our industry is becoming more about targeting specific kinds of customers in specific stores with the right product and price at the right time. There is an astonishing future potential for brand building and marketing to a fruit consumer’s specific preferences in the emerging consumer environment.
But the product must always ‘always’ taste terrific. Taste remains vitally important in our industry, and fruit marketers should use all available tools, from production and packaging to consumer analysis and social media, to maximize their consumer’s satisfaction with fruit taste.