Opinion: Passion vs. efficiency

February 21 , 2019

By Nic Jooste, director of marketing and CSR at Cool Fresh International‭, ‬a Rotterdam-based global marketing organization for‭ ‬fresh produce‭. ‬

This column first appeared in the January edition of sister publication Produce Business magazine.

In‭ ‬his book‭ ‬The Future of Shopping‭, ‬the Belgian author Jorg Snoeck‭ (‬also known as the‭ ‬‘Captain of Retail’‭) ‬writes‭: ‬

‘Anonymous uniformity is a thing of the past‭ ‬‮…‬‭ ‬today’s world is a world of niches‭.‬’‭ ‬

In this regard‭, ‬my recent visit to the New York Produce Show and Conference brought with it a rollercoaster of observations and‭ ‬‘WOW’‭ ‬moments‭. ‬The most significant experience for me was at the trade show‭, ‬where I was again able to observe the amazing passion with which the USA fresh produce industry‭ (‬growers and traders‭) ‬is creating niches by using clever branding‭. ‬

From the minute I set‭ ‬foot inside the Jacob K‭. ‬Javits Convention Center‭, ‬I was blown away by a multitude of amazing brands and innovations‭. ‬The bold‭ ‬combinations of color and text to produce powerful communication concepts made me very happy‭. ‬The future of fresh produce was staring me right in the face‭, ‬and this led me to ask the question‭: ‬‘Why is there such a big difference between Europe and the USA in terms of fresh produce branding and communication‭?‬’‭ ‬

In 2015‭, ‬I did my first presentation at the Global Trade Symposium‭ (‬a co-located conference of the New York Produce Show‭), ‬during which I highlighted the trend among European retailers to enforce the use of generic packaging for fresh produce‭. ‬I said‭: ‬‘In Europe‭, ‬the passion has largely gone out of fresh produce marketing‭. ‬Through this‭, ‬consumers are not being engaged at all in‭ ‬the real stories of fresh produce‭. ‬We are killing our very own added value‭, ‬in regards of which the communication should be all‭ ‬about goodness‭, ‬flavor and taste but is now predominantly based on price‭.‬’‭  ‬

Today‭, ‬in The Netherlands‭, ‬virtually 80‭ ‬percent of all fresh produce items are sold in an unbranded format at retail level‭. ‬Anonymous uniformity has become the norm‭, ‬and efficiency rules the roost‭. ‬I believe that this‭ ‬‘neutral’‭ ‬approach to fresh produce branding has pushed the door wide open for the processed food industry to cannibalize the real fresh‭ ‬produce industry’s market position‭. ‬

If the exhibitors at the New York Produce Show are anything to go by‭, ‬American fresh produce companies have caught on to this phenomenon and are embracing branding and innovation to promote fresh produce‭ (‬and its benefits‭) ‬in the broadest sense‭. ‬This was apparent in every aisle of the Javits Center‭. ‬Powerful fresh produce communication was everywhere‭. ‬From the clever wording of Village Farms’‭ ‬Cabernet Estate Reserve snack tomatoes‭ (‬rich smooth flavor‭), ‬to Booth Ranches’‭ ‬visually stunning carton for its California citrus‭, ‬to the inspirational‭ ‬‘Fresh Food Made Easy’‭ ‬display by East Coast Fresh‭, ‬the entire convention center oozed passionate fresh produce inspiration‭. ‬

The iconic Dutch football coach Louis van Gaal once asked of journalists‭: ‬‘Are you so stupid‭, ‬or am I so clever‭?‬’‭ ‬I should ask the same of the European fresh produce industry‭: ‬‘Are we so stupid‭, ‬or are the Americans so clever‭?‬’

My experience and observations at the New York Produce Show led me to dig deeper‭, ‬and I eventually came to see that the signs have been there for some time‭. ‬In a report released in September 2017‭, ‬the renowned retail research company Nielsen stated that‭: ‬‘Walking through the grocery store‭, ‬consumers have more choices than ever to meet their needs‭. ‬These choices go beyond product type‭, ‬package size and flavor‭. ‬As consumer interest in fresh food heightens‭, ‬so does the focus on product offerings‭. ‬While not historically prominent in the produce department‭, ‬brands now play an increasingly important role in the department’s success‭.‬’

The report then shows some interesting figures over an extended period of time‭. ‬In the USA‭, ‬the overall produce category grew‭ $‬13.2‭ ‬billion between 2012‭ ‬and 2016‭. ‬More significant though is that branded products’‭ ‬dollar share gained 7.7‭ ‬percentage points in that time period‭. ‬On the other hand‭, ‬unbranded produce lost 8.6‭ ‬percentage points‭.‬‭

‬But the most interesting statistic for me was the fact that branded produce represented 72‭ ‬percent of the produce snacking category‭. ‬It is clear that all over the world‭, ‬consumers are moving into a more erratic eating modus‭ (‬see‭ ‬Does Size Matter‭, ‬Produce Business‭, ‬December 2018‭). ‬Healthy fresh produce snacks are becoming a mainstream culinary item‭, ‬and the New York Produce Show showcased‭ ‬many of the innovations that are addressing this massive marketing opportunity‭. ‬

It seems while retailers in Europe have been driving costs down by standardising fresh produce branding and packaging to the level of a commodity‭, ‬in the United States the fresh produce players have instead opted for cross-pollination‭, ‬cross-fertilization‭,‬‭ ‬and co-creating new products and brand stories in partnership with their retail partners‭. ‬

This out-of-the-box approach also is‭ ‬buoyant at store level‭. ‬I walked into a number of randomly selected stores in New York and saw the evidence‭. ‬I saw how branded tomatoes were driving sales of Mozzarella cheese‭. ‬I saw pure coconut water being pulled along in sales of exotic fruits‭. ‬I saw yogurt merchandised next to fresh berries‭. ‬I saw the most amazing ranges of freshly squeezed juices focusing on vitality‭, ‬health‭, ‬immunity and digestion merchandised together with traditional fresh produce items‭. ‬With all that in mind‭, ‬what I did NOT encounter in the USA fresh produce scene was a fear of stepping into the unknown and doing‭ ‬‘new things‭.‬’‭ ‬

It does not require a master’s degree from Harvard to understand that the new generations of foodies have constantly evolving needs‭, ‬especially in the areas‭ ‬of health‭, ‬nutrition‭, ‬convenience and innovation‭. ‬The answer for fresh produce companies lies in adopting one’s business model to meet these evolving needs‭. ‬This requires some business acumen‭, ‬but most importantly it requires guts and stubborn determination‭, ‬such as I observed at the New York Produce Show and Conference‭.   ‬

But that has always been the American way‭, ‬has it not‭? ‬JUST DO IT‭.

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