“Evolution” is a term to which we’ve all become quite accustomed in business conversations. We recognize that we need to evolve as leaders, as strategists, as operational planners, as product developers, as logistics providers—the list goes on and on. We attend conferences, invest in training and hire consultants to help us gain insights and efficiencies that will improve our companies’ competitive position in the marketplace because we believe in the notion that evolution = survival, superiority, success.
But in that quest for profitable change and improvement, many of us have overlooked a glaring opportunity in our approach to marketing. Instead of viewing the methods and technologies other marketers are leveraging to elevate their brands as an incentive to evolve ours, we quickly dismiss those new ideas as short-lived fads, unattainable spends, or simply as strategies and tactics that “work for them, but not really for us.”
From the vantage point of a service provider with 15 years of experience with intimate business strategy and marketing conversations with dozens of fresh produce brands, we can say that the barriers to marketing evolution exist at all levels of our business. That is to say that all the stakeholders in the conversation play a role in either unleashing or restricting the potential of our marketing efforts.
Let’s look at some of the barriers we often see in more detail:
Let’s get this fact out of the way up front: change takes effort. It’s too easy to repeat a past win in the hope that it’ll always be a win. As marketers, we have an obligation to not become reliant on what has always worked (thus far) when the processes, products and services that we’re marketing have themselves evolved. In this same vein, changes in technology are continually shifting the manner in which we are able to share our brand messages, and the lifestyles on which shoppers are basing purchase decisions are equally dynamic. Change is all around us, and we can either harness the positive power of change or resist and fall behind.
We also understand that it can sometimes take a fair amount of justification and presentation to achieve buy-in from the C-Suite when it comes to a marketing spend. Asking for a budget—much less a bigger budget—is not always a simple conversation, especially when marketing is perceived to be a short-term play versus a long-term asset. But persistence is key for underscoring the value of building a brand legacy that resonates with shoppers.
Lastly, marketers are clinging to extreme ends of a spectrum, with many seasoned produce marketers stuck in a rut with “the way it’s always been done” and marketers that are new to the scene who may lead with idealism that does not have the benefit of wisdom and experience that is needed in the perishable space. Somewhere amidst this sharp contrast is a middle ground defined by the discomfort of new ideas and new technologies but that is carefully balanced with a realistic understanding of what healthy, incremental growth and change look like for fresh produce brands.
The fact that we notice when fresh produce brands are pulling back in certain marketing areas (or just maintaining the status quo) is proof enough that marketing efforts impact brand perception—whether a company is operating as a trade name or committed to building a brand. That perception is our brand equity, and it can either be a perception of health, growth and leadership or one of mediocrity, stagnancy and passiveness.
In what other area of our business do we label equity as an expense rather than an asset? While fresh produce marketing has long been treated as a discretionary expense item, we challenge our C-Suite readers to look at marketing as an investment that makes daily deposits in an asset account filled with positive brand equity. As you consider this shift in thinking, we encourage you to not make arbitrary deposits by way of an improvised marketing budget, but with a thoughtful, set figure defined by a percent of sales that makes sense for your business.
There could not be a bigger dichotomy between how we are seeing shoppers value a brand and how we are seeing buyers, particularly at retail, value a brand. Today’s shopper preferences are incredibly nuanced by a multitude of variables, and rarely does purchase decision hinge solely on price. Even a "budget shopper" has a brand preference (despite the fact that they might not always get to indulge in that preference). Yet we often see P.O. decisions being made on little else than price, which completely undermines every other area of brand value that we are investing in daily.
Unfortunately, that’s not the biggest hurdle for fresh produce companies struggling to communicate their value to respective buyers. Retailers themselves continue vying for shelf space, suggesting their private labels deliver an inherent value when shoppers fully comprehend that a retailer does not actually grow fresh produce. Generic private labels are counter-productive to the hard work that growers and shippers put into building brand trust and loyalty that ultimately benefits a retail partner. The brand equity that fresh produce companies bring to a retail partnership should be more of a consideration during the purchase process.
The Industry as a Whole
We would be remiss if we didn’t bring up this last barrier surrounding our industry’s efforts to move the needle on share of cart with industry-centric messaging and outreach. The reality is that shoppers do not support or follow industries: they align themselves with products and brands they believe in. This truth requires that brands commit to harnessing a prominent voice to help shape the fresh food narrative—one that is already taking shape exclusive of our brand stories.
While this summary of barriers exists, they are mostly mindsets, and those are not changed overnight, but rather over time. The fact is marketing has never been more prevalent in fresh produce, and as front-line marketers we can see the impact each and every day. People care about fresh food, cooking and eating in a very different way than they do about other products that are marketed to them, and they are open to continuous, thoughtful dialog with fresh produce brands. The stage has been set, the potential is ever-present and once we commit to showing up the way successful brands do, our ability to drive demand for fresh produce will prevail.
We have been honored to be a part of this evolution for 15 years and are even more excited about the next 15!