Under Michael Castagnetto’s leadership, Robinson Fresh launches its own brand

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This article was first published on PerishablePundit.com

C.H. Robinson launched its Robinson Fresh unit at The London Produce Show and Conference back in 2014, so we can really say we were there at the beginning. Now, Robinson Fresh is adding a namesake brand to its corporate identity. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

michael castagnetto-small Michael Castagnetto
President, Robinson Fresh
Eden Prairie, Minnesota

Q: We’re intrigued to learn more about your major pivot from a behind-the-scenes, global sourcing/logistics powerhouse to a consumer-facing Robinson Fresh brand. Thank you for sharing insights on strategy and retail impacts. What is the overall objective? What is your vision for the Robinson Fresh brand, and how will it fit within produce departments and within the competitive retail landscape?

A: Why don’t we just dive right in? Mira, we’ve been really trying to evolve our story of who we are in the produce industry for several years now. You’ll see in our new branding and our packaging the nod to our history of delivering freshness since 1905. We felt that it was important for us to really start to drive some consistency and focus in our brand as well as gain some recognition for the scale in which we engage our customers in the industry.

Robinson Fresh is the exclusive marketer of several licensed national consumer brands, including Mott’s, Welch’s, and Tropicana, but also owns the proprietary brands of MelonUp!, Rosemont Farms, Happy Chameleon, and Tomorrow’s Organics, which will now consolidate under the Robinson Fresh brand through a phased transition.

We’re realistic, Mira, certainly in how we engage consumers at retail, in digital and through the packaging itself. Our primary method of this brand is going to be to help our customers tell a better story to their customers in the produce department and online.

Q: How will the Robinson Fresh brand be used? Is the intent to market it and turn it into a brand such as Chiquita, Del Monte, Dole, Ocean Spray, etc.? Or is this more a private label for stores that can’t do their own?

A: I guess I’d probably say neither. This brand is to help Robinson Fresh tell our story, and we certainly do that through our customers and through the packaging, but we’re realistic of who we are in the marketplace. I’m not going to have the gall here and tell you that we’re trying to replicate Del Monte or Chiquita in the marketplace.

But we do believe our brand will help our customers tell a really strong story to their consumers. We think it will connect with people’s desire to have healthy lifestyles and to consume fresh produce more and more, especially in light of the pandemic. And as well — as we’ve seen buying patterns shift to ecommerce and online platforms — having a consistent brand is going to be more and more important for our retail customers. And we think this new brand and packaging will help them in this regard.  

Q: Can you elaborate on the consistency issue, and why your branding strategy deals with this problem.

A: Sure. We are unique in that we market commodities across the entire department. Whether it’s greens, dry vegetables, melons… we help our customers department-wide, and we’ve done that up to this point with a multiple of brands. We made the decision to put one brand on it and to represent who we are, because we think now is the right time to do that. We think it’s important we get the recognition, certainly for the scale in which we are engaging with our customers. But we also believe it’s much easier for our customers to tell a story focused on freshness and quality, and to provide the consumer with that healthy product mix if you do it with one brand across all those products.

Q: What is the scope of the products that will carry the Robinson Fresh brand? Could you give us an understanding of that scale and the volume of produce items marketed under that label? What is the timeline for the rollout of the Robinson Fresh brand to retail shelves?

A: Certainly, the initial product rollout is going to happen in the greens category and the dry veg category, so peppers, cucumbers, chiles, those type of items. But really, Robinson Fresh markets across the whole department, so you’ll start to see the brand as Q1 finishes and into Q2 in tropicals, in melons, and then you’ll start to see it in items like corn and other commodities as we get into those seasons.

Q: Are you focusing on particular retailers to launch the program, or is it across the board?

A: We currently work with 50 of the top 75 retailers across the country. So the brand will be hitting those stores as we roll items out, certainly in the commodities we do with that retailer, so it will vary by customer. We expect that rollout to take us mostly through the first half of 2021 to get through our commodity mix and kind of finish the process.

Q: Is there any way you could give us some numbers on the quantities of products that will carry the Robinson Fresh brand for perspective on how large you are and what this means? Is this going to be a situation where consumers walk into a supermarket produce department and see the Robinson Fresh brand in a noticeable way?

A: I don’t think we can give you numbers like that, but we know we’re lucky to have relationships with the leading retailers in the country. We believe that through those relationships you will see our brand in many customers of ours, and I do hope when you walk into those stores, you see our brand all over the place. But I think that will vary based on the time of year and the customer.

I’m really excited that when you do see that brand, you’re going to recognize our story. I think you’re going to see phenomenal looking product in really, really well designed packaging that conveys why you should pick that product up.

Q: How will the consumer branding fit within your company’s other businesses? Is this complementary? Are there synergies you can capitalize on? Are there any challenges you face? Could you talk about the logistics aspects of bringing this consumer brand to fruition?

A: I’d say the first thing is Robinson Fresh has always represented the best combination of who we are at CH Robinson, and Robinson Fresh as a division of that. Robinson’s history started as a produce company in 1905, and when we tell our story, it’s rooted in the combination of fresh produce and complex supply-chain solutions, and definitely over the past few years, the integration of technology and information advantage to supplement those two core aspects of who we are. So, I think if you asked the other folks at CH Robinson, they’re as excited as we are to see our brand in the marketplace, because I don’t think anything represents commitment to complex supply-chain solutions more than fresh produce does.

Q: How is the internal structure of Robinson Fresh repositioning itself to drive your consumer-facing Robinson Fresh brand? Is there a new division, for instance?

A: Robinson Fresh is already a division of CH Robinson, so this is really just a shift in how we market products to retail customers. We’ve done that with other internal proprietary brands up to this point, and we believe now is the right time for us to shift that into a single brand. We believe that will best represent who we are, and that is Robinson Fresh.  

Q: Will your consumer-facing brand always be the Robinson Fresh brand on your products? Will there be iterations or other names to complement it, or will the Robinson Fresh signature represent all your products on retail shelves?   

A: The answer is yes. We are going to consolidate all our branded products under one name. We do recognize that will take some time as we do the product rollout. We expect that to be done by Q2, and at that point, you are right, our products will be marketed under Robinson Fresh.

Q: What impact do you think this will have for the industry more broadly? Do you see this move as transformative in any way?

A: This is transformative certainly for us, and for our team. It will help us tell a much better story for our customers combined to hopefully move much more fresh produce to consumers. We are one of the largest produce providers in the industry, so I think for others to see our commitment to our own brand, at a transformative time in the industry with so much going on, it’s a big deal for us, and we hope it ends up being a transformative event for our customers.

Q:  Could you address some of the challenges to create a well-recognized, and well-respected consumer brand in the produce department? (For instance, maintaining consistent quality; the fluctuating flavor profiles with varieties, seasonality and mother nature vs CPG products.) There are relatively few stand-out brands amid a cornucopia of unpackaged produce, towering loose item displays, etc. Your consumer branding strategy coincides with trends in increased packaging, and the exponential rise in online/omni-channel shopping, which comes with its own trials, which were recently highlighted in our article, Gina Garven, Vice President of commercial development and analytics at CH Robinson….

A: We’re very lucky to have our own analytics team to research consumer trends to understand how to better utilize packaging and the combination of packaging and brand to meet the consumers where they want to buy.

You are correct that the produce industry has not been a heavily branded industry, but brand consistency and the ability to tell your story correctly is going to be more and more important as consumer buying shifts, not only in store but also to an online platform, where you need to be able to tell your story quickly and effectively.

So, we believe the time is right for us to be in-brand, to be in the brand that represents where we are in the industry, and we feel very good based on the research our team has done that the brand and packaging represents who we are. It connects with the consumer and the trends that are important right now — healthy lifestyles and their desire to see the product they’re buying is high quality and fresh. So, we feel very good the story we’re telling is correct for the time, and we’re excited for the opportunity to launch this brand.

Q: The pandemic has expedited the trend toward online and omni-channel shopping, and it exposed challenges with that platform, such as inaccuracies or confusion with the way produce items are portrayed on line, quality issues related to selection and delivery logistics, and how that can affect a brand’s image. Can you discuss these problems as it connects to your brand strategy?

[Editor’s note: With great foresight, Robinson Fresh introduced its proprietary omni-channel research at its European headquarters during the landmark omni-channel 2018 Amsterdam Produce Summit.]

A: Yes. I think you listed off a bunch of great reasons why now is the time to launch a brand that helps us be very consistent with how we tell our story. When you shop online, you want to see what you’re buying, you want to know what that product is, from having the right images, having the right copy and communication, and we believe we’re in a great position to execute on that, to help our retail customers execute that on their online platforms. The need to do all those things — make sure to offer consumers a strong e-commerce or online shopping experience — is even more reason we knew we had to have a consistent and focused brand message for the products we offer our customers.

Q: Did you get requests/feedback from your customers for this branding? What are the key points you want to get across here?

A: The most important thing we want our retail customers to know is that Robinson has always delivered high quality produce through the combination of produce expertise and complex logistics solutions. This brand is really just helping us tell that story more directly and consistently to them and the consumer. You see it in our packaging message, delivering freshness since 1905.

We’re very proud of who we are, and the solutions we bring our customers, and we think that combination of high-quality produce, complex logistics solutions, and the information and technological advantages that we have will be told through our customers and extremely well through this new brand.

Q: Could you talk about the marketing, merchandising and promotional plans for the Robinson Fresh brand? Will you be working with different retailers on customized programs, or is this more of a national brand concept, where you just deliver the products and produce departments integrate them in the mix, and do their own marketing and promotion? Are you also looking to do a consumer media/social media campaign to interface with consumers directly?

A: I’d say it’s a little bit of all of that, depending on the customer. We’re going to focus on the front side on digital and make sure we get our message out to as many folks as possible.  Certainly, in light of the pandemic, it’s changed how we might normally do a product launch. Based on the time of year, we might have been launching this at The New York Produce Show, and had a great outlet to share the information there.  But that’s just not happening right now.

We’re going to focus on the digital aspect of it and work directly with each customer to make sure they get what they need. They all go to market in a different way, and need different levels of support. But we’re very confident our marketing team is ready to help them support our customers in any way they need. And we’re excited to get the product into the marketplace.

Q: When you say digital, that’s mainly with the trade then? Will there be a concerted effort to go direct-to-consumer in the future?

A: As we talk about social media approaches, we’ve primarily focused on LinkedIn because we’re a B2B company, but knowing we need to connect with consumers in-store and with online opportunities, we’re making sure recipes are available, so they know how to utilize the product. We’re becoming more active on Instagram, and the more consumer-focused channels are really where we’re starting to lean. We know we’re not going to go overblown too deep, but we’re making sure we can relate and absolutely connect with consumers on the right online channels.  

Q: From a personal standpoint, could you share a little about your career leading up to this news. I remember you were one of the PRODUCE BUSINESS 40 Under 40 Award Winners at age 32 back in 2009!

A: All you did is make me feel really old there! I’ve been in the industry since 1998. I grew up in Salinas, California, an agriculture hotbed of the industry. I’ve been with Robinson since 2005 and I’m on the Board of United Fresh. This is my career. I’ve never worked in any industry but fresh produce.

Q: When you received your 40 Under 40 Award, you were director of operations at Foodsource, a C.H. Robinson Company. Much has transpired since then. Your future goals included the continued evolution of the company’s role as a vertically integrated service partner to customers, while simultaneously identifying opportunities to pursue expansion into the global economy. And now, as president of Robinson Fresh, you’re championing this multi-faceted integration with a consumer-facing brand on store shelves. When did the decision take place to create this all-incompassing Robinson Fresh brand?

A: We launched the Robinson Fresh name in 2014, and really over the past several years as we’ve evolved our strategy and our story, we’ve come to the realization we needed to be much more consistent with how we told that story through our products. Near the middle to end of 2019, we made the decision we had to have a much better product and brand-based strategy. It really became apparent pretty quickly the best way was directly under our own brand, to tell our story of who we are, delivering freshness since 1905, and being such an integrated part of the fresh produce industry.

Once we made that decision, it’s been really exciting for us to work for the last year developing the brand, the packaging and the story, and we couldn’t be more positive about the direction we’re heading and to let the marketplace see this unfold.

******

We wish Michael Castagnetto and the whole Robinson Fresh team good luck with this rollout. There is no question that, in some ways, this is a no-brainer. After all, it is easier to market and support a brand if you are dealing with a larger base of products.

Yet, you have to admire the gumption of the team at Robinson Fresh to want to make this happen. The big growth in grocery is in private label, and Robinson Fresh has been a leader in licensing well known consumer names and applying them to fresh… which is where Mott’s, Welch’s and Tropicana come in.

This is something different. Although it will have the advantage of many consumer impressions in the produce department, there is no indication Robinson Fresh will be spending big bucks on TV to roll out a national consumer brand.

With brand display, in-store marketing and some use of social media, the question is whether Robinson Fresh can make consumers confident that the brand means quality.

It’s an audacious goal, but if they succeed, consumers will be more confident and thus more willing to buy. That would help producers and retailers both, so let us wish them well in this brave new world!

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