Fresh Perspectives on Fresh Produce From Next-Gen Marketers

Unburdened by industry norms, student marketers’ insights provide a valuable lesson for the sector.

By Lisa Cork

I recently returned to California part-time to lecture at my former university. It has been my 30-year dream to be a university professor, and what a joy it has been. Next-gen student marketers, especially senior students, bring new thinking to old challenges, and I experienced this firsthand in one of the classes I teach: AGB445 – Fresh Produce Marketing.

In my day job as a strategy consultant, I am a big believer in context. To create context for the produce marketing class, I had students do a ‘shelf-spotting’ assignment. Shelf-spotting involves going to a supermarket and doing a compare/contrast exercise. For example: ‘Walk the fresh chilled perimeter and pay attention to the meat, seafood, dairy and deli cases. Now, walk the store’s fresh produce department. Compare and contrast your observations. Walk the center store aisles, and look at shelf-stable products like muesli bars, etc. Compare and contrast your observations with the fresh produce department.’ You get the picture.

Student observations were enlightening. Unburdened by industry norms, they shared ideas, asked hard questions and pondered the opportunities and challenges fresh produce marketing faces in a competitive supermarket environment.

You can’t see flavor differences in fresh produce

One insight brought up by multiple students was the ‘lack of variety’ in fresh produce versus consumer packaged goods (CPG). As one student wrote, “My main observation in the CPG aisle was there were so many different brands and product varieties. Focusing on granola bars, half of the aisle was filled with different brands, and every brand had bars with flavors like dark chocolate, cranberry and peanut butter. While the options were all about the same, they all looked different due to differences in their packaging and branding.”

She went on to comment about fresh produce’s lack of variety – except for apples – and was surprised when I told her there were often multiple flavors/varieties of fruits. This led her to ask why produce varieties are differentiated by color and not by use or flavor, like other CPG products. Good question.

I recently completed a consulting project for a grape company. They offered amazing grapes with unique flavors, shapes and levels of crispness. My brief was to explore improved varietal marketing and positioning options for unique grapes, but this work met with resistance. In the United States, the mainstream belief is grapes only get marketed by color because ‘consumers can’t tell the difference.’ It is also easier to manage grapes in the distribution channel if they get treated as if they all look and taste the same.

The reality is you can’t see flavor differences in fresh produce, so you have to market them. Like granola bars, flavor differentiation requires great branding, packaging and storytelling. Cotton Candy grapes, one of the few grape varieties to have escaped commodity thinking, is the perfect example of flavor marketing in action.

Categorization by color is fresh produce’s Achilles heel, and it limits sales and category premiumization. More importantly, it limits the ability to attract Millennial and Gen Z consumers to the category who want to buy what is new, seasonal and interesting.

Moving beyond commodity

A related issue students also observed was how fresh produce is only sold as a commodity and how this limits sales and opportunities. As students said:

• “CPG aisles don’t need to sell you looks/freshness, which is why every item in the CPG aisle is pure marketing. The entire package is covered in things to attract the consumer, whether it be short and easy health facts or colors to draw you in.”

• “Overall, I was not as drawn to the produce section. I found this interesting, because I am a regular buyer of fruit/veg. I had no interest in trying something new as nothing drew me in or told me a story. I believe the biggest issue with the fresh produce section is its lack of emotional involvement with consumers.”

• “Every other aisle in the supermarket was full of creative packaging that jumped out at me while I walked the aisle. It’s like every other department knows they have to work hard to capture my attention. Produce doesn’t seem to act like it has to. Maybe produce assumes I will buy it because it is healthy, but I am looking for more than that.”

• “In fresh produce, it seems like product quality and type are more important than labeling, branding and differentiation. The history of fresh produce has made this the norm, but an opportunity for fresh produce is to shift its marketing more towards consumer preferences for branding and brand story values.”

For me, these student insights are a reminder consumers are always changing, and we must never get complacent about understanding our audiences. Today’s next-gen consumers want to be marketed to, and fresh produce’s reliance on its health and freshness credentials is no longer enough. Younger consumers don’t want to buy a healthy commodity. They want to buy a brand, a story and an emotional connection. This is a powerful lesson for our industry to learn and respond to.

• Lisa Cork is chief executive of Fresh Produce Marketing Ltd and Adjunct Professor of Produce Marketing at Cal Poly State University in California.