A year into his role as Commercial Director and Rob Harrison is shaking things up at Berry Gardens, one of the UK’s leading soft fruit suppliers to retail. With a 20-year background in the drinks industry, Harrison is bringing a new outlook to the grower cooperative, including closer collaboration with customers, and better communication to attract new consumers. PBUK examines the benefits for UK retailers.
Collective Forward Planning
To develop a more strategic approach for Berry Gardens, Harrison is focusing on introducing more rigorous planning, including working further ahead with customers to shape future products and activity. Understanding what retailers and shoppers want ahead of the berry planting cycle will be crucial to shifting towards a demand-based business rather than supply focused.
“This has been an incredibly challenging season, but as an industry we have arrived at a position where availability is broadly there (on paper at least),” Harrison tells PBUK. “We need to recognise that our customers have choices, and that you can no longer grow whatever you want and expect to sell it and get a good return.”
Given the two-year plant cycle, Harrison says is vital to understand what retailers and consumers will want in order to invest for the future. To ensure everyone has a better understanding of the collective objectives, Harrison is keen to bring growers and customers into the planning process earlier.
“This is an industry that cannot afford expensive mistakes,” he warns. “With the challenges of the weather and crop failure, we need to do everything we can to ensure we are aligned with what our customers need for the long term. This is the best route to optimising the returns from the crops we are producing. Commercially, we need to make these plans to ensure that we will continue to deliver a sustainable future for our growers and customers, and I want to involve our customers in that process.”
Although predicting future trends and consumer habits is a challenge, Harrison is keen for Berry Gardens to become a category leader from an insights and innovation perspective. Already, this approach has proven beneficial during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
“Investing into insights and maintaining an open dialogue with our customers allows us to be as far ahead of the curve as possible,” he points out. "It also means as consumer trends change, we can react accordingly. For example, as shopper habits changed at the beginning of the first lockdown, and people were looking for bigger pack sizes as a result of fewer shopping trips, we took this on board and worked with retailers to adapt to this shift.”
The grower cooperative model of Berry Gardens lends itself well to fostering long-term customer-grower relationships. Furthermore, Harrison says buyers gain access to the 'contingency’ of the group’s wider grower and geographical spread, among other benefits.
“There are other models (be they direct or marketing desks) out there, but I think we have a hybrid that is well suited to the future of the industry and allows our customers to have a direct relationship with our growers, whilst having the simplicity of one daily point of contact and one order process,” Harrison emphasises.
“From a technical, agronomic and marketing perspective we can invest more to excel in these areas, and be our customer’s first port of call on the technical side, whilst also helping them to drive awareness, and bring new consumers to the category through our collective marketing investment. It also means that the innovations and improvements we bring to them can be leveraged across larger part of their range.”
Research and innovation are integral to helping any business to prepare for the future, and Berry Gardens continues to invest in soft fruit projects that support sustainable industry growth.
“In 2020, Berry Gardens was part of a consortium that was awarded £2.5 million by Innovate UK to help develop what is widely considered the ‘world’s first robotic farm’ known as ‘Robot Highways’,” enthuses Harrison.
“Likewise, the next 12 months will also be incredibly important to us when it comes to packaging innovation,” he continues. “We are working closely with the industry and our customers to help reduce our reliance on plastic in the future.”
Work is also ongoing with “pioneering” third parties, alongside investment into research, to help bring to market new soft fruit varieties that deliver for both consumers and its growers.
“We have some exciting varietal developments in the pipeline at both the premium and core-end of the spectrum, alongside our marketing and innovation, which showcase the added value that we believe we can bring to our customers over the next few years,” Harrison reveals. “Keep an eye out next summer .”
Complete Marketing Framework
With so many varieties and innovations to shout about, Harrison is eager for Berry Gardens to engage better with its buyers and consumers by establishing a more complete marketing and communications framework.
“The aim of investing more into marketing and communications is to bring added value to our sales, and, ultimately, to directly support retailers' sales of our varieties,” explains Harrison. “The punnet of berries we are selling to retailers then becomes more than just a punnet of berries.”
Last year, Berry Gardens rolled out a fully-integrated consumer campaign for the first time, which involved collaboration with retail customers. This, and future activities, are designed to bring new shoppers into the berry category, and to encourage new consumer occasions. Overall, the objective is to drive penetration and category growth.
In particular, the group is investing heavily in growing the sales of its premium berry varieties, including: Driscoll’s® Zara™ Strawberries, Driscoll’s® Maravilla™ Raspberries and Driscoll’s® Victoria™ Sweet Blackberries.
These efforts are being coordinated primarily through a new consumer-facing portal called Berry People <berrypeople.co.uk> which centralises information about Berry Gardens’ growers, varieties, and marketing initiatives. According to Harrison, since April 2020 the platform has achieved 130 million impressions, and over 200,000 click-throughs to retail customer websites to directly support sales.
Activity-wise, meanwhile, the group is taking an alternative approach to marketing by promoting new eating occasions and usages for soft fruit. The goal is to help retailers to acquire new shoppers, especially younger, health-conscious consumers who prefer to eat berries in healthy porridges, protein shakes and salads.
“The older demographics have always over-indexed on soft fruit sales, but we have seen increasing growth in consumption within younger demographics,” Harrison points out. “Every indicator (IGD, Kantar, and retailer feedback, among others) is pointing to the idea that, in the future, proactive health management will be more important than ever. This is particularly evident with younger generations, which will be a core focus within our 2021 marketing activity.”
While most people associate berries with their heritage of being paired with or coated in cream, sugar, or other ingredients from which consumers are increasingly moving away, Harrison says youngsters are more focused on healthier options.
“If we want to attract new consumers, we need to highlight why our berries are fundamentally brilliant from a health perspective,” he states. “Berries contain a wide range of vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, anthocyanins, and other goodies, which mean they’re low calorie, low GI, low carb, and good for the skin, heart, gut, weight control, immune system and inflammation reduction, and the rest.”
In line with those findings, Berry Gardens also rolled out its Fitfluencers campaign for Driscoll’s® Victoria™ Sweet Blackberries during the summer of 2020. The group partnered with a leading outdoor gym brand and recruited key fitness influencers in the UK to demonstrate what the pandemic lockdown had done to their fitness, while positioning Driscoll’s® Victoria™ Sweet Blackberries as ‘the ultimate’ pre- and post-workout fuel.
Blackberries were selected because Berry Gardens’ blackberry sales were the lowest of its five berries during 2019, despite the opportunities for growth. Additionally, many consumers, especially those under 35 years of age, are unaware of the robust health benefits; instead considering blackberries as sour or tart, and more suited to the older generation.
To reach this younger demographic, the messages were communicated largely through social media. The results were “astounding”, claims Harrison, with more than 7 million social media accounts reached, and over 300 pieces of content generated across the four-week campaign. The Fitfluencers campaign was nominated for three industry awards.
Alongside its generic marketing activity, Berry Gardens has launched its own brand, known as 'Berry Collective’. The label covers both British berries from May to September, and internationally-sourced fruit during the counter-season.
“The [berry] category has largely always been ‘own label’, and, to that end, I have seen very little marketing that really cuts through to help acquire new customers and communicate new usages and occasions,” Harrison notes.
“We have seen growth in the soft fruit category over the last year (up 8-10 percent despite Covid-19), and a number of key trends are playing out in the food sector, including: health and wellbeing, food on the go, convenience, growth of e-commerce and heritage. The launch of such a brand allows us to address these new macro industry trends, encourage new berry consumption occasions, and support customer growth outside of our traditional sales.”
Considering the challenges of Covid-19, Brexit, climate change, rising inflation and a recessionary environment in the UK, this type of collaborative, targeted approach is certainly one way forward. Indeed, despite solid sales growth of 8-10 percent in 2020 there is no room for complacency for the berry sector.
“The dynamic changes from this year showcase the need to understand changing consumer habits,” advises Harrison. “As a result of Covid-19, we expect consumers to have increased awareness of healthy eating, and we need to shout more about the health benefits of berries both in store and on pack.
“In a recessionary environment, consumers may also start to pull back on spending money on expensive items, but increase spending on small, healthy treats, which is where berries lend themselves very well. There has also been an increased usage of online channels, especially among the older demographic, so we will make the most of that through our online marketing.”
Berry Gardens also encourages retailers to be as dynamic as possible with their merchandising to entice shoppers both at the point of sale as well as thorough their websites and social media. “We will be supporting retailers’ merchandising through our own marketing efforts, but next year we envisage British prominence following Brexit, and health messaging to be the key drivers across retailer marketing activity.”