'Stop wasting your label messages', Cork urges growers
The majority of fresh produce packaging and labeling messages are production-focused and often state the obvious, without much thought into buyer preferences at the final point of sale where decisions are made. This was the argument put forth by Fresh Produce Marketing founder Lisa Cork at PMA Fresh Connections Chile last week, calling it a worldwide phenomenon. After a talk that challenged the industry to think differently, she caught up with www.freshfruitportal.com to discuss bridging the disconnect between large marketing campaigns and the deal-breaking messages on the products themselves.
After traveling through Ecuador and Chile, Cork notices packaged grocery goods such as cereal and juices have a "slightly lower depth of communication" in these countries than what she is used to in New Zealand, Australia and the U.S.
She highlights how in most western countries packaged goods, produced by large marketing-savvy companies like Kelogg's and Nestle, have very effective marketing strategies that harness trends and consumer desires.
In fresh produce this is rarely the case.
"Only 10% of our produce packaging is done well whereas in grocery 90% is done well - it's everywhere, and I guess that's the beauty and the challenge," she says
"Personally I believe the last great bastion of untapped efficiency is our packaging, because every time we do a project we find an untapped or unmet need.
"In produce, the companies that act early will get the biggest bang for their buck because there are so few companies doing it well."
Could it be that fresh produce consumers in the future will look back on today's fruit and vegetable labeling much as Cork sees current packaged goods marketing messages in Ecuador and Chile?
If the industry is capable of progressing to that level, Cork believes there is huge potential in increasing the 'stomach share' that horticulture will capture.
"Why are cereal companies who are selling ‘digestive health’ winning more of your stomach? Because, they’re selling into a need that exists, that’s on trend, so why can’t we do the same for broccoli?
"Why can't we do the same for kiwifruit? Why can't we have a line of fruits and vegetables that are particularly high fiber that’s called the digestive health range, or the liver-cleanse range?
"For example, you see ‘liver-cleanse’ cereals, but what they are is just rolled oats, which you can buy in a bag for 89 cents. They are selling this cereal for NZ$6.99."
The sweet potato case
Cork emphasizes that growers need to conduct, either themselves or through a third party, consumer surveys to find out what niche they can achieve with shoppers to add some kind of value. Once that is done, they will probably need to improve growing techniques and urge changes in their packaging and labels.
She points to a recent case her company was involved in with New Zealand kumara (sweet potato) growers.
"What we found with shoppers when we spoke with them was that they love kumara; in New Zealand we love kumara, it’s our national vegetable, but they did not like the fact that kumara growers grew them big and knobbly, hard to peel.
"But the growers like to grow big and knobbly, so we have a disconnect - the shopper wants to buy medium and smooth, because for the shopper ‘smooth’ means easy to peel.
She says over 15 months the company was able to convince growers and packers to change tack, growing what consumers wanted and preparing a packaging solution that tapped into those needs.
"The brand is love kumara, because kiwis love kumara, so there's a match between those two words. It then goes on to say 'smooth as easy peels'.
"For New Zealand kumara maybe for a bag it’s NZ$2.99 but with this product it now adds value at NZ$4.99. That's NZ$2 more and we’re selling 100 grams less for the bag, so for me that's a great example of how you use packaging to improve your sales."
Bridging geographic and supply chain divides
For many growers this idea may be appealing in principle, but they feel beholden to the marketing aims of those further along the supply chain. This is especially the case for producers who are exporting to distant markets and who operate under the guidance of foreign stakeholders.
But for Cork this is no reason to dismiss the philosophy that more effective physical labels can boost outcomes for growers, exporters, distributors, marketers and retailers. Pushback is common, but it all starts from the ground up.
"It’s always a risk, but if you don’t push, you get the result that you’re getting. If we see the opportunity for change and you think that you can do something on your pack or we think we can find an untapped demand or an untapped marketing opportunity, sometimes it’s that initial flip of the thinking that causes everyone else to be interested.
"I know with my clients, sometimes we are pushing so hard to get basic change, but once they see what we’re trying to do or they see what we’ve done, sometimes you have to just do it without everyone else signing on."
This is exactly what happened with the recent sweet potato project.
"It wasn't until literally the the last three weeks when we were working on the ads that the retailers went, 'oh, I see what you’re trying to do. Wow, now we get it', even though we'd been in communication with them for 15 months.
"Sometimes you have to push. Everybody is telling you ‘don’t’, ‘stop’, ‘you can’t', and that comes down to who believes in your product.
"The growers believe in their product and they have to be the ones who push, because most people in the middle view it as inter-changeable."
Citrus folly in France
Cork brings up a project she is looking at with a citrus marketing organization's operations in France to show what happens when packaging, label, and marketing campaigns are not on the same page.
"I had them send me all their collateral for France. I don't speak French but you get the gist of what it’s talking about, and then I had them send me some of the packaging in what goes to France; you could see the disconnect immediately.
"Here on one hand is a brand talking about their region - it’s bright, it’s sunshine, it’s all these young people - and then you look at the packaging, the labels, the bags, the tags across the top of the bags going into France, and they are two seperate languages; two seperate worlds, no connection whatsoever."
She says the appearance of the product shipped to the old continent was very production-focused.
"It doesn't even have the name of the place in big letters - it didn't take a rocket scientist to see the disconnect between the vibrant message which is young and citrus-loving, and these packs that look like they’re out of the 1920s.
"Then we looked at the other markets; we saw the same in the U.S. and the same in Japan.
"You don’t have this cross-boundary engagement between the marketing desired state and the promotional committees, and the packhouse and the grower, and ultimately who’s money is it?"
South American opportunities
Cork says South American growers and exporters can capitalize on the fact they are on the trend radar, following in the footsteps of the success of açaí berries in recent years, as markets wait for the next big exotic product.
"The question is how do you bring your products to light in that; for the bigger companies looking to export, it goes back to the key question, what is your South American story?
"With a product like merquen in Chile for example, there are two angles - one is the uniqueness of what’s called the goat horn chili; I think a foodie would be asking, what is that? What does it look like? How is it grown?
"The other story angle for a different audience is that merquen seems to be a combination of indigenous and Chilean food – you’ve got a story of a product that’s evolved to become relevant in modern times."
South American growers need not only look at improving their marketing messages abroad, but closer to home as well.
"In Ecuador there was a beautiful pack of peeled and sliced guava in a refrigerated vacuum pack, but the label just says 'guava' and the people buying it already know it's that.
"The missed opportunity is selling the convenience or taste of guava without the hassle. There was nothing on it that really asked a local consumer to pay more.
She says the horticultural industry has a long way to go in improving packaging messages, but the opportunities are great.
"We haven’t even scratched the surface in fresh produce consumption and if we do, I think we can get strong growth because our consumption is stagnant."