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Research Perspective: Many Questions Remain About Branded Produce

Jim Prevor

Read the corresponding Research Perspective article Tell your authentic story and you will build brand love

The idea that consumers will pay a premium for the branded produce they love is a break-through, but the research also shows that few consumers really connect with many produce brands. It is almost as if consumers yearn for a brand. What would it offer? Distinctive and preferred flavor and taste? Unique supply chain attributes, such as aligning with consumer preferences on the environment and labor?

Jim Prevor

Branding has been a challenge in the produce industry for many years and, primarily, for two reasons. The first problem is that most produce items are not distinctive. There are varieties, of course… Cavendish bananas or Red Delicious apples, but, typically, these same varieties are sold by many different shippers. They don’t represent a unique value proposition to consumers. The second issue is that produce brands do not, generally, have universal distribution. So it is not enough for a consumer to merely prefer a particular brand of, say, bananas; the consumers have to so prefer this brand that they are willing to switch retailers or make a special trip to get the brand.

One wonders about the actual effect of many of the findings of this intriguing research on purchase behavior. It is expected that consumers, sitting in their living rooms, trust branded produce to be higher quality, fresher and made to the highest standards. The issue, though, has been that when consumers are actually in the store staring at the product, the consumer trust can be overridden by their eyes. So the same consumer who might, in abstract, prefer branded produce, might, when confronted with nice looking unbranded produce, be perfectly satisfied.

The other question relates to how retailers interact with unbranded product. Again, in abstract, branded produce might be preferred, but maybe consumers associate unbranded product as having been selected by the market and, maybe, consumers trust the retailer they are selecting to buy from, so, the unbranded produce can get a kind of branded halo from the trusted retailer.

It does seem that product differentiation is the start because only product differentiation can make retailers feel obligated to carry the item.

There are so many questions. Yes, every survey shows that consumers say they would like to know who grows their food, where it is grown, what journey it travels, etc., yet produce is complicated. Even if all sold under one brand, the pineapples come from a different place than the potatoes. In many cases, this information changes with the season — in the winter coming from, say, Chile, and in the summer from the United States. Even this oversimplifies because as the seasons shift, growing regions, even within the US or Chile, shift as well.

Sure the industry can make videos to explain all this, but with, literally, hundreds of different produce items, whatever consumers claim, are they really going to spend time watching videos about each product they are considering, and then re-watch the videos, say, ten times a year to note the various changes in production locations? This seems unlikely.

Still, there may be an opportunity. This research particularly notes that younger shoppers are willing to pay a premium to get what they want. The challenge for the industry is how to deliver this to consumers so they can pay us more money.

One obvious response is product differentiation, whether by flavor, such as Cotton Candy grapes, or other quality attributes such as the proprietary grapes from Sun World. Maybe, though, it is possible to distinguish through marketing such as Halos and Cuties. Or perhaps the answer is a hybrid approach where a distinctive variety is paired with a branding effort that draws on other cultural concerns, such as environmental sustainability, labor treatment and more.

It does seem that product differentiation is the start because only product differentiation can make retailers feel obligated to carry the item.

One big win for branding in produce may be the growth of online sales. First, the inability to personally see the product makes a consumer more likely to order a branded item. Many consumers who are happy to order soup from a kettle in the deli department do that because they can open the top and see it looks good. They would be uncomfortable buying a can of generic unbranded soup because they wouldn’t have confidence in what the soup would be like.

Equally, going into a store and seeing, feeling and smelling the produce may make consumers happy to buy unbranded produce or produce from a brand they don’t like that much but which looks good today. But ordering online is more like buying that unknown soup can, and consumers might well opt for branded produce in the same way.

If online delivery shifts to distribution centers rather than local stores, it will also be easier for retailers to stock multiple brands. One suspects brands will pay slotting fees to get included and, even if they don’t, why not offer consumers whatever brands they prefer? In a grocery store, the volume won’t allow for this, but in a big online distribution center, why not?

If there are consumers out there willing to express brand preference by paying premium prices, there will be producers and retailers willing to help make that possible.



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