15 years ago, in 2004, digital marketing was still in its infancy. Many companies were just starting to explore how the internet could become a tool alongside traditional marketing go-tos like radio and print ads. But in a little more than a year’s time, major brands like GM launched their very first blogs, Google added the “Google Analytics” platform to help marketers measure digital performance, and YouTube made instantaneous video streaming a reality. The perceived value of digital marketing gained traction very quickly, and marketers began to test, create and share new forms of content in the digital space.
A Look Back: Fresh Produce Marketing in 2004
The day-to-day hustle for marketers in the fresh produce industry, however, looked a little different in 2004. Produce marketers remained focused on tried and true forms of marketing to help them reach their customers, like print advertising, faxed price lists and tradeshow participation. Tasks like booth design and trade press releases were at the top of the produce marketer’s to-do list, and when DMA Solutions first opened our doors, many of our first projects included new websites. In the mid-2000s, produce companies were starting to recognize the opportunity websites presented as an “online brochure” to communicate with their customers.
Essentially, in 2004 produce marketers focused on traditional marketing tactics to reach customers and left consumer marketing entirely up to the point-of-purchase entities (grocery stores, restaurants, etc). We were at the mercy of whatever the retailers and foodservice providers could or would do to position fresh most effectively...but that was about to change.
A Pivotal Moment for Marketers
As DMA Solutions was just beginning, something else was happening in a dorm room at Harvard that would disrupt the marketing playing field for everyone: Mark Zuckerberg launched “The Facebook,” as it was called then, and just a few years later marketers were forced to rethink everything they thought they knew about reaching their audience.
In 2007, Facebook became available to users without a .edu email address, and from there, digital skyrocketed. Social media afforded fresh produce brands an opportunity to become relevant with holidays and pop culture...to DAILY (and affordably) influence purchase and consumption decisions with mass audiences that we weren’t able to reach directly before. By 2011, we were running “promotions” on social media for several fresh produce brands, many of whom we still work with to this day!
Marketing Game Changers: “Digital” Changed Our Approach
The introduction of social media as a marketing tool, along with the growing necessity for businesses to have an online presence, challenged us as an industry to consider who our target audiences were. For the first time, produce marketers needed to think about lifestyles, incomes, and purchasing behaviors when trying to identify marketing strategies for their products. Here’s a look back at more of the marketing game changers we have experienced over the past 15 years:
Less print, more digital!
The shift favoring the addition of digital marketing assets caused produce companies to start pulling back on offering multiple print pieces at tradeshows. Leads could instead be directed to a company’s website for more information. At the same time, email communications to trade audiences begin to increase quickly, and began to replace direct mailers. We found ourselves debating whether digital would completely overtake print in the next several years. As we all know, that didn’t happen, and while digital has become a primary method of communication, print still has its place in marketing communications.
As social media become a scalable marketing solution to reach consumers directly, fresh produce marketers who invested in building a website to reach their trade audiences began to realize that there was a huge opportunity to rethink their entire website from the mind of the consumer. We began to focus on helping produce companies add resources like recipes, growing region information, nutritional information, etc. to ouronline presence.
The rise of blogging
While blogs were becoming a popular tool for marketers with a “helpful first” strategy by the mid-2000s, produce marketers hadn’t yet fully realized their value. DMA has often used our own marketing as a pilot to determine larger opportunities for the companies we work with, and in 2008 we knew there was something major to this “blogging” thing. In 2009, we launched this very blog, and we quickly began to discover the potential for produce brands. By 2011, we were building blogs and curating editorial content strategies for fresh produce companies looking to reach both trade and consumer audiences.
The pursuit of “measurable marketing”
By 2012, the produce industry had truly begun to lean into digital marketing. We had built websites and a presence on social media, yet this marked a turning point not only for our business, but for all marketers in our industry. We began asking ourselves, so what? We needed to find a way to measure and quantify the success of our efforts in a way that could add value to the company’s bottom line. In 2013, DMA Solutions invested in Hubspot and introduced the inbound marketing methodology as a scalable solution for produce brands to practice “two-way” marketing, which we had the ability to measure effectively while producing audience intel to complement purchased POS data. More than 6 years later, Hubspot remains the “marketing engine” that drives several of our clients' measurable marketing plans.
Rethinking websites again (mobile-responsiveness)
90% of people had a cell phone by 2010, and mobile searches were drastically on the rise. It was in 2015 that Google first changed its algorithm to award mobile-friendly websites with better search rankings compared to those without mobile responsiveness. As a result, marketers had to rethink their websites, and we built completely new websites for several produce companies specifically with mobile in mind. By 2018, Google was not just rewarding mobile-responsiveness, but punishing websites lacking it by placing them much lower in the search rankings, making mobile-friendliness a necessity for staying relevant today.
Storytelling with marketing arrives
Along the way, business practices, philanthropy, food safety, and sustainability became big chapters in our produce marketing stories. Brand communications needed to be so much more than "pretty product + good flavor + good price = buy now." We needed to show depth and purpose, benefit for the greater good, and so in 2016 our marketing became more about storytelling and connecting with shoppers on a new level.
Something to Celebrate: We’ve Come a Long Way
There’s no doubt that we’ve all come a long way in our marketing evolution over the past 15 years. In this industry, companies have gone from an almost complete lack of digital presence in 2004 to working to build multi-million dollar brands with a 360-degree marketing strategy across multiple touchpoints.
The fact that a produce brand, Avocados from Mexico, has advertised during the Super Bowl for 5 years now is proof that our industry can and will pursue more when it comes to marketing. DMA Solutions would not be around today, 15 years later, if our industry didn’t believe in the power of marketing. Our success and longevity is a testament to you, the produce marketer reading this blog post!
So What’s Next?
A great many fresh produce brands are embracing a new way of marketing and trying their best to leverage their budgets to make an impact on sales. At the same time, many fresh produce companies desire to reach the consumer, yet fail to truly embrace the realities of this new frontier. Over the next 15 years, we hope to see fresh produce marketers embrace these opportunities and choose to move away from commodity behavior and focus more on operating “like brands.”
Stay tuned for more posts on The Core in April as we celebrate our first 15 years of fresh produce marketing—we hope to inspire you to surpass new milestones of your own!
Have other big marketing milestones from your own journey in fresh produce? We’d love to hear more in the comments below or on Twitter at @TheCoreBlog!