Using Social Media To Affect Produce Buying Decisions

Jodean Robbins
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Originally printed in the April 2021 issue of Produce Business.

The influence of social media ballooned during 2020, fueled by the pandemic and consumer habits. “As the importance of social media continues to grow, a brand’s relevancy will be largely determined by its social relevance,” says CarrieAnn Arias, vice-president of marketing for Naturipe in Salinas, CA. “Ultimately, these values will directly impact sales as they are crucial variables in forming the consumer opinions.”

This exponential impact led retailers, marketers and suppliers to heighten the social component of promotion strategies. “You can merchandise all the POP material you want in store, but if potential customers never make it in the front door, how will they know what you’re selling?” says Brittany Rosen, social media manager for Harps Food Stores in Springdale, AR, with 113 stores.

“You can merchandise all the POP material you want in store, but if potential customers never make it in the front door, how will they know what you’re selling?”

– Brittany Rosen, Harps Food Stores

Ivonne Kinser, head of digital marketing and eCommerce at Avocados From Mexico (AFM) in Irving, TX, shares the finding in research conducted by Deloitte LLP in The Digital Divide 2017 that more than half (51 percent) of grocery sales are digitally influenced. “The overall path to purchase is not a straight line, and the path to purchase through the digital journey is not an exception,” she says. “Whether online or offline, sales traditionally are driven by either inspiration or needs. The inspiration can be triggered at any moment through the journey, and here is where social media represents an ideal channel.”

A simple conversation can turn into a sale, according to Cristie Mather, vice president, food at FLM Harvest, a strategic consulting, marketing and communications firm in Portland, OR. “A strong relationship with a brand translates to trust, loyalty and, of course, sales. We see people reaching out on our clients’ social asking where they can buy product. We often encourage them to talk to their grocers’ produce managers, and while consumers are surprised to learn they can actually talk to a produce manager, they ultimately do just that; it’s a win-win-win for the consumer, grocer, and our client.”


A recipe for a California avocado steak sandwich recently landed on Gelson’s Twitter page.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GELSONS

Activating consumers through social media takes time, energy and a focus on engagement, relates Brianna Shales, marketing director for Stemilt in Wenatchee, WA. “But, all the work helps ensure your products and brand are top-of-mind when consumers are grocery shopping,” she says. “It’s not easy to measure the ROI in terms of sales increases, but with proprietary items it does help create consumer pull to seek these out while they are in season.”
As retailers and suppliers navigate the complex maze of social media marketing, a few key principles steer toward sales success.

1. Identify What You Want To Accomplish

Establishing the objectives of a social media strategy is crucial to affecting consumer behavior. “Thinking through ahead of time and optimizing a strategy is what the brands demonstrating success are doing,” says Ashlynn Lowes, senior strategist at Sparkloft Media, a social media agency in Portland, OR.

According to Harps’ Rosen, key considerations revolve around what work best for a specific company and customer base. “Researching your customer demographics on social media, testing multiple different campaign strategies, evaluating and adapting as you go are all very important to determine realistic goals that work for you,” she says.

“…you can advertise on social, but if you’re looking for direct sales attribution, there are better media choices.”

– Peter Baughman, Foodmix

“When shoppers buy California avocados, is it because they heard an ad or saw one of our billboards on the way to the store? Or is it because they know California avocados are in season from a Facebook post?”

Jan DeLyser, California Avocado Commission Analytics and goal-setting are necessary aspects of Ocean Mist Farms’ approach to social media. “Setting specific and measurable goals enables us to track and compare our marketing efforts month-over-month and year-over-year,” says Diana McClean, senior director of marketing in Salinas, CA. “Tracking each goal allows us to see what type of content performs well and which doesn’t.”

Peter Baughman, vice president of communications at Foodmix, a full-service food branding agency in Elmhurst, IL, advises that companies must understand the purpose of social and set realistic key performance indicators (KPIs). “You don’t use social like advertising – to move a huge volume of product,” he says. “Sure, you can advertise on social, but if you’re looking for direct sales attribution, there are better media choices.”

Without goals in mind, companies won’t leverage dollars as they should, states Stemilt’s Shales. “Goals should tie in with the overall social strategy,” she says. “It really comes down to ensuring that before you spend a dollar, you have thought through your target audience, key messages, and action… and those align with the campaign goal.”

2. Shape the Strategy Accordingly

Social strategy should be crafted based on the business plan to determine what type of content should be leveraged, explains Zac Benedict, online marketing director for California Avocado Commission (CAC) in Irvine, CA. “For awareness drivers, we look at metrics including reach, video views and channel follower growth,” he says. “For brand consideration, we look at metrics such as engagement rate, shares, and comments. For brand loyalty, we look at click-through rates to our website, the store locator page or the California Avocado Merch Shop.”

The National Mango Board in Orlando, FL, employs social media to convert to sales by building awareness. “Many consumers don’t think of mangos when putting together their grocery lists,” says Marissa Khan, senior marketing manager. “The content we share on social media can spark awareness and help consumers learn more about mangos to eventually lead to a purchase, both online or in physical stores.”

“When shoppers buy California avocados, is it because they heard an ad or saw one of our billboards on the way to the store? Or is it because they know California avocados are in season from a Facebook post?”

– Jan DeLyser, California Avocado Commission


Strategies should be specific. “As a produce commodity, it can be easy to fall into the narrative of ‘everyone is our audience because anyone can buy and enjoy our food’,” says FLM Harvest’s Mather. “But that only spreads you thin and dilutes your message. How you target lifestyle-minded Gen Z consumers can be very different from how you target parenting-minded Millennials or health-minded Gen Xers. You want to be very specific about the audience you’re targeting, and gear content and promotions to them.”

Any social strategy must be designed within the wider marketing platform. “Whatever you’re doing in social must be complementary to other activities you have in the marketplace,” says Baughman of Foodmix.

Jan DeLyser, vice president marketing for the CAC, poses the often-asked question of how to measure the impact of one particular part of a plan on sales. “When shoppers buy California avocados, is it because they heard an ad or saw one of our billboards on the way to the store?” she says. “Or is it because they know California avocados are in season from a Facebook post? In a real-world setting, you can’t isolate individual marketing components.

Instead, CAC sets goals and uses key performance indicators to determine if our marketing meets the targets.”

3. Work The Trends

Brands must also weave consumer trends into social media marketing. “Trends and changes in consumer behavior play a significant role in informing social media strategies to devise the best ways to reach people where they are and with highly relevant content,” says Khan. “At the National Mango Board, we swiftly pivoted to more online programs in April 2020 and developed and shared more content geared toward the shift [to cooking at-home]. Our Summer Staycation campaign aimed to create cooking adventures in the kitchen with mango for those consumers who missed travel and experiencing new foods and flavors.”

“If you are selling an ingredient of a recipe going viral, then you want to align with that trend.”

– Martin Stoll, Sparkloft

Sparkloft’s proprietary social listening methodology based on social listening queries indicated major trends stemming from the pandemic include eating local, the stability of online grocery and the increase in home chefs. “Conversations about eating locally saw a 219 percent increase from February 2020 to February 2021,” says Lowes. “There was also a large spike in grocery delivery conversations which coincided with steep decline in restaurant reservation conversations. And there were lots of conversations over ripeness or ingredients.”

According to Martin Stoll, Sparkloft’s chief executive and founder, using social sentiment data allows a company to have its finger on the pulse. “Knowing the trends allows you to leverage the information,” he says. “If you are selling an ingredient of a recipe going viral, then you want to align with that trend.”

Such social trends spill over into real-world grocery sales. “Lately, TikTok trends, including Nature Cereal and the Baked Feta Pasta, have driven demand for berries and tomatoes,” says Amber Gray, digital marketing manager for the Healthy Family Project in Orlando, FL. “During the peak of these hypes, items were wiped out at my grocery store.”

To align with the start of the 2019 California avocado season and to tap into a major cultural event, CAC created and posted a piece of content alluding to the hit HBO series Game of Thrones. “When monitoring consumer social conversations, the team noticed that fans of the show were comparing dragon eggs to avocados,” says Benedict. “Using that insight, a piece of creative asking ‘Avocados or Dragon Eggs?’ was created and shared, complemented by messaging about ‘The California Avocados Are Coming’ (a play on a famous line from the series.)”

Benedict reports this opportunistic post was one of the brand’s most successful posts ever from an engagement perspective. “It also generated a lot of conversation about the upcoming California avocado season keeping the brand top of mind for consumers as California avocados began entering stores,” he says.

4. Lead Consumers To Action

A healthy dialogue may result in actionable sales decisions by engaged consumers. “According to research, users who consume four or more pieces of content are 18 times more likely to take a desired action, whether that action is a click, a download, a registration, or a purchase,” says AFM’s Kinser. “In the case of digital and social marketing, we can purposefully develop strategies and tactics to keep that consumer within our platforms for the longest time possible and engage with the highest number of pieces of content as possible.”

Social marketing includes the ability to link consumers to the purchase. “We can hear their thoughts, provide helpful content and drive them to make in-store purchases,” says McClean. “Something we capitalize on at Ocean Mist Farms is driving shoppers to our Where to Buy page on our website. This page tells them exactly which retailer closest to them sells our products.”

“Something we capitalize on at Ocean Mist Farms is driving shoppers to our Where to Buy page on our website. This page tells them exactly which retailer closest to them sells our products.”

– Diana McClean, Ocean Mist Farms

BrightFarms in Irvington, NY, specifically targets consumers within a small radius of every grocery store it sells with messages about product available in the specific local retailer. “For example, if you live in the New York area near a Stop & Shop, you are likely to see BrightFarms ads with links to buy BrightFarms at a Stop & Shop near you,” says Jessica Soare, senior marketing manager. “Our retailer-specific creatives are so hyper-targeted, they generate consistently high results, with lift rates averaging 17 percent and high frequency with people seeing the ad at least once per week.”

Amassing 570 social posts with select hashtags and impressions of 4.4 million, Stemilt’s partnership with Eugene of @ World_Record_Egg “catapulted followers from a few to thousands in a short time.”

Naturipe’s Arias notes proper social media management links questions to answers. “For example, when we post content promoting our Boost and Bliss Bentos, consumers comment asking about the product or where they can find it,” she says. “Our response creates the action for the consumer to go purchase the promoted product and creates a human element behind the brand,” she says.

5. Activate Retail Programs

Effective suppliers collaborate with retailers on social media campaigns. CAC has seen great success when partnering with specific retailers for custom social media content that drives directly to partner retailer store locators. “This is done while also providing consumers with either a compelling avocado image or an inspirational California avocado recipe, paired with messaging about California avocados being available in stores now to drive consumers to their local store for purchase,” says Benedict.

“A recent study we conducted showed the greatest synergistic impact was seen when digital/social marketing was run alongside our in-store promotions and trade activity.”

– Laura Sterling, Zespri

Ocean Mist Farms regularly supports its retail partners through ads set up to target shoppers in a particular zip code or area. “We’re able to let customers know that our product is available at a specific store near them and gauge purchase intent by their interactions,” says McClean. “This cross-promotion is beneficial to both parties as it drives shoppers into stores to purchase Ocean Mist Farms.”

The best promotions combine social and in-store. “Integration between sales and marketing is vital for success,” says Laura Sterling, assistant brand manager for Zespri in Orange County, CA. “A recent study we conducted showed the greatest synergistic impact was seen when digital/social marketing was run alongside our in-store promotions and trade activity.”

AFM’s 2021 Super Bowl digital campaign illustrates the power of social media linked with in-store promotion. “Inside our guacamole hub GUACWORLD, we built a virtual football stadium,” says Kinser. “Once you click on the stadium icon, you enter AFM’s Super Bowl 2021 experience, the Guac Bowl: a virtual stadium that is a multi-experience platform.”

Kinser explains the extension of that activation in-store. “In each of the experiences within the virtual stadium, users could access a photo booth to request an autographed picture with our celebrity partners,” she says. “In stores, users could also access this digital experience on their phones via a QR code placed on the avocado bins, which led to all the digital experiences inside the stadium. That campaign resulted in the most successful digital campaign to date delivering over seven billion social impressions. And although we can’t attribute the sales to the digital campaign, we believe that the combination of digital and in-store activations contributed to record-breaking sales.”

6. Utilize Influencer Opportunities

Another partnering aspect affecting purchase behavior involves collaborating with consumer influencers, who have developed a following from loyal fans. “These have become a bigger portion of marketing budgets,” says Baughman of Foodmix. “We use influencers from the general branding story but also cherry pick influencers that live in the geography we want to impress. And we will have them call out that they got something at the local store.”

In August, Stemilt wanted to increase brand awareness for its Rave brand during its short season. “We set out to make it the World’s First Verified Fruit on Instagram,” says Shales.

“We partner with influencers we call our Mango Tribe, who educate consumers and share innovative recipes and flavor ideas.”

– Marissa Khan, National Mango Board

Stemilt partnered with Eugene of @World_Record_Egg, who almost broke the Internet in 2019 by posting an image of an egg and breaking the world record for most-like Instagram image. “Eugene and Rave teamed up to spread positive messages and Rave’s quest to become verified,” says Shales. “This catapulted our followers from a few to thousands in a short time and sparked lots of great ‘raves’ and attention on this apple. The all digital campaign had a heavy part on the social side and the results were fantastic… 570 social posts with select hashtags and impressions of 4.4 million.”

Another remarkable example of leveraging social influence came to FLM’s client, the National Watermelon Promotion Board, last year. Through FLM’s social media monitoring, they discovered that BTS, one of the most popular bands in the world, were big fans of watermelon. “In fact, one member created a video of himself chopping watermelon, and BTS’s social media followers (who refer to themselves as the BTS Army) went wild,” says Mather. “So we took the opportunity to jump into the conversation on Twitter and engage a new audience. In many ways, the BTS Army became an army of watermelon influencers by sharing the content not just from the band, but also some of the Watermelon Board’s content.”

Khan shares that the Mango Board has found educational how-to content, showcasing the versatility and nutritional benefits of mango, influences consumers’ decisions to purchase by building confidence in how to use mango and inspiring new and exciting ways to use mango. “We partner with influencers we call our Mango Tribe, who educate consumers and share innovative recipes and flavor ideas,” she says. “By tracking overall sentiment and user intent for recipes, we can see that social media drives awareness and excitement, as well as consumer purchase intent.”

7. Partner Up With Suppliers

Collaborating with additional suppliers may help shoppers pair items for purchase. During back to school, Healthy Family Project brings several brands together for its Power Your Lunchbox campaign. “We’re able to showcase brands and their products in healthy, easy lunchbox ideas for families,” says Gray. “We see tons of user-generated content from families on our #PowerYourLunchbox throughout the year.”

Ocean Mist has seen success with social media cross-promotions with other produce brands. “Partnering with another brand is a great way to share products with a whole new audience, while also building relationships that are mutually beneficial for both parties,” says McClean.

“We’re able to showcase brands and their products in healthy, easy lunchbox ideas for families.”

– Amber Gray, Healthy Family Project

Mather suggests making a list of brands to align with. “Start by reviewing your recipes,” she says. “Are there any products you’re already promoting by including them in your recipe ingredients? Those could make for great partners. Another way to identify partners is to reference your research. Do you have shopper research that can tell you what else ends up in the basket with your product?”

Once you identify potential partners, Mather explains the next step is to do your homework. “Successful partners share target audiences, goals, and values,” she says. “It makes sense to approach brands with shared audiences, but there can be exceptions. For shared goals, identify how your partnership would be mutually beneficial. And then make sure the partner has a good reputation, especially in today’s marketplace where consumers want to support brands that align with their values.”

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