Fresh Produce Marketing: Then and Now

Fresh produce will sell without marketing. That is a reality, and there is an inherent demand for what we grow, pack, ship, and sell—try and imagine a grocery store being relevant without a fresh produce department! Think about it: retailers and restaurants are never going to serve processed foods exclusively.

Yet despite increases we’ve seen in specific categories (e.g. berries, leafy greens, and the latest craze: celery juice), fresh produce is continually consumed at a relatively flat rate year after year. However, based on this flat consumption rate—in addition to the health crisis in this country—it is evident that fresh produce is far from meeting its potential as a food choice. That’s where marketing comes in.

A Look Back on Fresh Produce Marketing History

Relative to food marketing, fresh produce has been an oppressed food group, so to speak. Food marketing has been dominated by processed foods and fast food chains since the 1940s and ‘50s. The food giants have had the volume and margins (and thus, the marketing dollars) to sell their mostly manufactured, shelf-stable products. They dominated all available marketing channels: TV, print, radio and billboards.

Because of this limitation for our category of food, marketing historically has not been on the “must-do” or “must-have” list for fresh produce companies. As an alternative, we have depended on retailers and restaurants to market our products, which exist on their shelves and menus. Meanwhile, because processed food brands were buying up all available ad space, older generations depended on advertising and what was on store shelves, packaging, and restaurant menus to provide them with both inspiration and information about their food choices. Basically, CPG controlled the consumer food narrative.

In the 70s, we started to see the impact of an increasing dependence on processed foods, which was largely fueled by the monopolistic nature of food marketing. In 1977, the U.S. Senate released a report stating the leading causes of death in the U.S. were linked to diet. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until internet 2.0 and the birth of social media in the early 2000s that we began to fully realize we are in the midst of an obesity crisis, accompanied by a proliferation of health-related diseases stemming from the food we eat.

A Significant Shift in the Food Marketing Landscape

By 2006, Time Magazine’s person of the year was “You,” signifying the importance of user-generated content. People were increasingly seeking to understand more about the cars they buy, the places they travel, the food they eat, etc., on their own time and in their own preferred method. For the first time, this opened the door for brands of all sizes and budgets to use marketing to connect directly with people. Fresh food is a prime beneficiary of the significant shift in societal behavior created by the internet and social media, and for two main reasons:

  1. People eat, period. That won’t change any time soon.
  2. People have always been social creatures, especially when they eat.

For the past 15 years since that seismic shift, we have been trying to find our way as fresh produce marketers. It’s easy to hang on to what makes sense or makes us comfortable—ads in trade publications, booths at trade shows, etc—because even with the door wide open and a seat at the food marketing table, we continue to struggle with integrating consumer marketing into our marketing mix. We want to reach the consumer, yet we fail to truly embrace the realities of this new frontier.

Why is this? It can’t be that we don’t understand the power of the internet and social to reach ANY audience—this fact is proven every second of every day. To be dedicated to this practice requires a significant leap, it can be uncomfortable as hell (like change, even the positive kind, usually is), and it’s challenging. It would be much easier for us to remain the same, ignore the facts, and behave more like a commodity. The most comfortable thing for us to do would be to rely on what’s worked in the past, because quite honestly it’s been pretty damn reliable.

For companies who seek growth, who truly desire to increase margins, trust and relevance for fresh products and services, it is imperative to understand that the same approach won’t cut it. The great news is that marketing has the power to build brands, reach consumers where they are, and ultimately, shape people’s relationship with the food they eat.

Have something to add? We’d love to hear your perspective—leave us your thoughts in a comment below or reach out to us on Twitter at @TheCoreBlog!

Dan’l Mackey Almy’s passion for fresh produce has paved the way for her dynamic career as an industry trailblazer. After selling produce for a decade, she recognized that in order for the industry to progress, it would be necessary for fresh produce companies to focus on how to market products more effectively. Since 2004, she has worked alongside the DMA Solutions team and progressive clients to transform marketing and elevate brands in a once commodity-centric industry. The DMA team is guided by the belief that when anyone in this sector flourishes, there is a net-positive result on people, communities, and society.