Ahead of his presentation at the London Produce Show and Conference 2015, Professor John Stanton at St. Joseph’s University tells Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit why the produce industry must make use of modern technology for in-store marketing to be really successful in the future
We didn’t even have to wait before the CEO of an organization that happens to have been one of the Charter Exhibitors at The New York Produce Show and Conference and The London Produce Show and Conference weighed in:
With great excitement and anticipation, I await The New York Produce Show and Conference and the presentation on Local Preference Versus Organic, by Dr. Stanton.
John Stanton, undoubtedly in my book, is one of the best, if not the best authority on consumer behavior when it comes to purchasing foods and produce.
He continues to “Delight” his audiences with thought-provoking data, information and advice on how to reach consumers in a way that will influence their purchase decisions. Time after time, Dr. Stanton has identified consumer traits that if properly applied in marketing, will end in success!
His presence, along with the other outstanding presenters at the New York Produce Show, is certainly worth the registration fee alone, while the excitement of the show will be a bonus!
— Jim Allen
New York Apple Association, Inc.
Fishers, New York
Well the distinguished Mr. Allen is returning to London this year, and doubtless will be thrilled to know that we have persuaded Dr. Stanton to join the faculty at The London Produce Show and Conference as well. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Q: We’re honored you’ll be presenting at this year’s London Produce Show. London attendees should know they’re in for a memorable, thought-provoking talk, in line with those you’ve done at The New York Produce Show since its launch in 2010. Just ask a varied fan base of industry executives who have found your research intriguing, with some calling your insights no less than “brilliant”. And at the same time, acknowledging, you’re not one to pull any punches in laying out the reality. From your studies quantifying the value to consumers of local versus organic to your collaborative research addressing obstacles in marketing Vitamin D enhanced mushrooms.
You’ve spoken about branding of produce as the next step to greater profits. Will that be a theme in your presentation?
A: It’s close. I have a slight variation on that. Branding is of the same ilk, but with a different emphasis. What I want to talk about in London is about fresh produce people using in-store media. All the major branded companies do that. If you go into a store, you’ll see all kinds of media everywhere. But for the most part, produce people will put something like a sign next to the asparagus that says, asparagus, at so much per pound, as if someone shopping didn’t know what that was.
We did research using Vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms to determine what really would be the best combination of store media. We looked at six different types of store media; the coupon machine, floor graphics, shopping carts, pop outs, simple signage and more complex signage. So simple signage would simply say “Mushrooms loaded with Vitamin D,” or complex signage would say, “Mushrooms loaded with Vitamin D to build strong bones.” Things like that.
We actually did experiments where we had people look at the mushroom section, with different combinations of media. And we were able to determine the best combination of these media to maximize the sales response.
Q: Your consumer marketing research utilizes sophisticated statistical models and analyses, adjusting for multiple variables, and countering unscientific biases and wishful thinking, whittling down to the core what industry executives need to know and act on, to drive their businesses. What does this research reveal?
A: The presentation will have two parts. The first part – it’s really important to start acting as a brand and telling people about your products and making some very positive statements about these things. The second part — if I want to make a statement, what’s the best way for me to do it?
Q: As an overview question in the context of your study, isn’t branding in the produce department challenging? Industry executives grapple with perishability, unpredictable effects of Mother Nature, variances with seasonality, and other cold chain logistics issues, as well as the commodity nature of many products, etc. How can branding overcome those issues? If a consumer has certain expectations with a brand, what if the brand can’t deliver on those expectations?
A: My response to your first point is, things are tough all over. Do you think Campbell Soup doesn’t have trouble finding the quality of the tomatoes they want? Everyone has to deal with problems.
Q: That’s true. It’s just that often when you have a processed item, like Heinz ketchup, isn’t it easier to have a consistent and distinguishable taste and flavor profile?
A: If you talked to Campbell’s, they’d argue just the opposite. They’d say, wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to take 10 different things and mix them together? If you’re selling bananas, you’re selling bananas. We can always find excuses. I like the dairy industry. They’ve had 25 years of decline in sales and they just keep blaming it on everyone else.
Q: Why do you think they’ve had 25 years of decline in sales?
A: Because they put mustaches on people. Can you tell me how putting a mustache on someone in any way encourages you or leads you to believe in buying milk? It’s actually a disgrace.
Q: I guess humor can only get you so far, especially if the joke gets old…
A: I want to make something clear. I don’t think it’s easy. You have hurdles to overcome. That’s why people get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s to overcome hurdles, not to say, it’s a good year. It’s in a bad year that they earn their money.
The one thing I’ve always said: There is no such thing as commodity products, only commodity marketers.
Q: That’s a memorable quote.
A: Commodity marketers are those who failed to see the qualities in their products. There are some examples of effective branding in the produce industry. More and more people are doing it, but in general we don’t see it. I don’t mean so much the typical concept of branding; I mean just tell people about how good your product is.
Q: In the case of Vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms, you have a unique characteristic to exploit, as opposed to more generic choices…
A: When Hass avocados are fresh in the market, have some signage that says, three weeks only. It could be a motivation that it’s limited; it could be that it’s local. There are all sorts of things we could say about our products, but we don’t say anything, except, asparagus.
Q: Could you walk us through your research and share some insights?
A: We took those six major in-store media and created a lot of signage and examples of each one of those. We had consumers, about 1,000 of them, view pictures with different combinations of those media. We actually used video, which was kind of interesting. From a distance you could see a sign, but then it would zero in exactly on the words on the sign, and then zero back again. It would focus on the floor graphic so you could see the words, etc.
We used a reasonably sophisticated technique, called conjoint analysis. From that analysis, we could estimate how much each one of those media increased the likelihood to buy.
Q: What are the parameters of your research? Did you focus solely on Vitamin D mushrooms and a particular shopper base?
A: Yes. You can have theories, but at some point you eventually want to do research on a single product. Consumers we targeted were the primary food shoppers in their families and had bought mushrooms in the last three months. They had to be mushroom users to begin with.
Q: Could you give us a sneak preview of what you learned?
A: I don’t want to give away the bottom line. I can say three of the media had a significant impact on forecasted mushroom sales. We actually forecasted sales with and without the media.
The bottom line message is not that everyone should go out and use these three exact media things, rather to demonstrate that if you do some of this in-store marketing, it can in fact have a positive effect. For apples, it may be a different combination of these things. The fact is, we showed it worked on at least one fresh produce product.
Q: What happens if the produce company determines the best solution to market its product is having floor signage and other in-store media, but the retailer is not game? After all, the retailer can’t let every produce company do all those media combinations, because the produce department would end up being a cluttered mess.
A: That’s correct, and true for any product category. A retailer could take this concept to increase sales of fresh produce. It’s not a question of branding it, as much as letting people know how good the product is, and drawing attention to the product. If it’s a retailer like Wegmans, it may have a branding effect, but it may not.
Q: What is your assessment of marketing strategies that have worked in the produce department and others that haven’t?
A: For the most part, the produce industry has not kept pace with the other categories of the store, in terms of using signage and in-store marketing to really share the benefits of its products, whether it’s from the producer or from the retailer.
Q: What do you think of these national produce campaigns to boost consumption?
A: Oh, another one. It’s a question of execution. First, if you create a concept, and the retailers and distributors don’t fall in love with it, it really doesn’t matter. PMA is a really good organization, but investing $1 million is a drop in the bucket, even $10 million won’t matter if the concept isn’t right. If you have a generic campaign where you bring in celebrities, what are you going to do, put mustaches on them like they did for milk?
I’m a marketer. I’m focused on getting the consumer to stand in front of broccoli and buy it because it’s really delicious or really local… anything you can say to persuade people, I think I’ll try it. It’s when they’re standing there in the store, in front of the shelf. That’s where you have to hammer people, when they’re shopping, not at 9:00 at night when a celebrity comes on the air and says broccoli is good for you.
Q: Maybe the message sinks in subliminally?
A: It’s at point of sale when you have to grab consumers. That’s why the consumer products industry in general spends over half their marketing dollars on in-store and trade-marketing. Things like displays, or it could be an ad in the circular for the retailer, but it’s the actions in the store. We’re not selling automobiles. We’re not selling something that someone’s going to spend three or four weeks thinking about, looking at, and researching. You’re going to walk in the store, stand in front of the sign and you’re going to buy it or not.
Q: So there’s a spontaneous element. When you go into the produce department, maybe you’ll have some things on your shopping list, but you’ll veer from that list to pick up what appears freshest, in season, looks beautiful or is a good value, etc. Aren’t many of those characteristics quite apparent with minimal signage?
A: But what if there’s a wonderful sign that says why you should buy it, that tells you the benefits of the product, there’s a floor graphic to draw you to the product… If it’s fresh or local you put that sign up. You use the signage right on the shelf that’s going to have the biggest impact on people. It’s what everyone does except the produce industry.
Marketing budgets are not an excuse. A paper sign is not that expensive.
Q: In the case of Vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms, the category didn’t take off at retail. Why? Is it your conclusion it wasn’t marketed properly?
A: That is correct. The mushroom industry did not embrace the concept of Vitamin D mushrooms; and in my opinion the industry has let that opportunity pass, as consumer interest in Vitamin D has slowly waned.
Q: Vitamin D was a hot topic for some time.
A: Part of the issue is, because it’s the antithesis of their particular behavior, it really took the industry a long time to absorb the fact that they needed to promote it, and by the time they did, and some of the companies started to promote it, the spotlight moved. A couple of companies were behind it, but you really needed the whole industry to get behind it.
Q: Monterey Mushrooms and Dole were taking a lead role in research and development and in trying to build enthusiasm at retail…but in the end efforts seemed to fizzle. In Perishable Pundit interviews with company executives, one of the challenges they expressed was in convincing retailers the additional cost for the value-added mushrooms would pay off…
A: Yes. I remember. But what did they expect? It takes a while. Retailers are used to putting a product on sale at a reduced price and selling a lot of product. That’s not marketing. Marketing is getting people to believe this is the product they need and want. That doesn’t happen by just putting two for one and a logo. It takes a little building. They’re not used to that. They’ll say, OK, we’re going to run a promotion. How did sales do last week?
It is a challenge getting retailers on board. I remember when bagged salads came out, and the retailers thought that was the worst idea they ever heard. No one would spend three times more for the same salad, when they could buy a head of lettuce. And we know what’s happened there.
Look what happened to the cheese people. They started selling shredded and grated cheese, and retailers said that’s ridiculous; consumers prefer to grate the cheese themselves. Now it’s hard to find a block of cheese. The mushroom people quit too soon.
Q: That’s a serious point to reflect on…
A: You have to believe in your idea.
Q: And it helps if you can find an innovative retailer to come on board with you.
A: Absolutely. The one thing we know about food retailers; they all want to be first at being second. Really getting one of the big chains to buy in is a major step forward.
Q: To conclude, what are the key points you’ll want attendees to absorb during your presentation?
A: The produce industry, which is distributors and retailers, must make use of the modern technology of in-store marketing. To really be successful in the future, they have to tell people why their product is great, what are the benefits, and that it’s delicious.
Where you see this a lot is at independent grocers. There’s a sign, the freshest asparagus anywhere you can find. I always say, use some adjectives.
Q: Does it relate to what you put on the package as well? Lisa Cork, a dynamic speaker at both the London Produce Show and New York Produce Show, has put forth powerful evidence to that point. It parallels many of the issues you’ve raised.
A: It could relate to the package, but most produce is not packaged. But if it was, that would be important as well. If you asked people in the industry, they’d say they want to put their brand on the packaging. But they’re talking about their logo. I always say to them, it’s not a brand. A brand has to do what the consumer thinks about you, it’s not about you aggrandizing yourself with a picture.
But that’s a whole different issue. I’ve done a lot of packaging research, but I don’t want to get into the packaging part of it for this presentation. But what we say in our packaging research is exactly what Lisa Cork says. It’s of the same ilk. You’re trying to give people reasons to buy. It’s not that complicated. But this industry really hasn’t done it. There are riches and niches, and you need to focus on who you’re trying to sell to. It’s absolutely about good marketing.
Professor’s Stanton research and the thoughts that have grown out of it are intriguing and the ideas can impact the industry at all levels.
The first big message is that these things can and should be researched and tested. Does having movie stars, recording artists or athletes say that produce is great lead people to consume more and buy more? And, if so, which one of these categories is better? To what extent? And do these categories have impact on different customer segments? These things can all be researched. If we had to give one critique of virtually every produce promotion program proposed over the last 30 years, it would be that the proposed efforts were not researched and tested.
Second, all marketing is not created equal. So much marketing is, in effect, designed to win awards for the agency. So often, organizations and analysts, in defense of promotions, will point to things that have little to do with increases in consumption. So this presentation out of Berkeley highlights benefits of the “got milk?” campaign:
- The “Got Milk?” campaign did it with humor and suddenly it became cool to drink milk.
- Focused on increasing awareness of milk’s use in losing weight and staying healthy.
- Not only that, the campaign became immensely popular with consumers and “Got Milk? ” became a phrase used in common conversation.
- Items with the “got milk? ” logo printed on them became popular: kitchen items (baby bibs, aprons, and dish towels)
- Outdoor ads along high-traffic commuter routes, television spots, billboards, bus stops, decals on grocery store floors, etc.
- In 1998 the slogan “Got Milk? ” campaign expanded to include the faces, but not the names, of celebrities. By adding the celebrity cachet, awareness of drinking milk has increased 90%. Today the slogan is an international icon and the phrase has been parodied more than any other ad slogan.
But despite this upbeat tone, the graphs speak for themselves:
Professor Stanton’s haunting question — “Can you tell me how putting a mustache on someone in anyway encourages you or leads you to believe in buying milk?” — reminds us that just being cool, increasing “buzz,” even selling towels — may not be enough.
We have heard some of this related to the new FNV program — the program Professor Stanton references that PMA is donating a million dollars to help jump start, which seems to be built around a slogan: “Prepare To be Marketed To”. Is that really something that consumers want and will make them eat more produce?
Third, Professor Stanton points out that what is effective in terms of marketing is product-specific. A lot of the marketing of produce may be more effective if done in store. If you are buying a new car, one might research quite a bit, but the bananas either look good or they don’t.
Fourth, produce vendors at all levels need to move fast to stay on trend. Vitamin D was hot; now it is less so. Though vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms are inherently a good thing, their day may come again – thus showing that one also needs a willingness to sustain an effort.
Fifth, don’t assume that everything is too expensive. In fact, a lot of marketing is quite inexpensive — a sign — yet what that sign says can make a big difference.
We suspect that this message is especially useful in the private-label-dominated UK.
As we mentioned just the other day, one of the problems with private label is that it reduces the amount of money available for marketing and R&D. But the stores then “own” the brand, and they have to invest to grow it. Fortunately they also own the in-house space, so retailers are ideally positioned to use the tools Professor Stanton is going to talk about to boost produce sales.
Professor Stanton is knowledgeable and insightful. Having him join the faculty of The London Produce Show and Conference is an honor and a treat.
Please join us in London and engage with the good professor as he makes his case.
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