Fresh produce today is much more than fruits and vegetables. It’s synonymous with a healthy lifestyle and total well-being, and as such, the produce department is the heart and soul of a feel-good shopping experience. Savvy suppliers are cultivating healthy produce brands that promote this sought-after lifestyle, while strategic grocers are driving traffic and sales through product variety, merchandising, experiential engagement and community building.
The recent United FreshMKT Expo and Convention in Chicago showcased a bevy of innovative and convenient produce-centric snacks, meals and more. Boasting on-trend flavors, little to no preparation and plenty of nutritional benefits, branded produce is transforming the way America eats and lives.
When it comes to marketing to kids and their families, produce brands that feature characters from Sesame Street, Star Wars, Disney and more are attracting the attention of younger shoppers like never before. “We see kids grab a piece of produce with their favorite character on it and hug it as they walk through the store,” said Devon Hoffer, produce manager of Marketplace Foods in Minot, N.D., during the panel discussion “Retail Observations from Visionary Produce Managers” at the United FreshMKT Expo. “Their superheroes are eating produce, so why shouldn’t they? It’s a very effective tool.”
But cinematic stars aren’t the only way to sell more produce to kids and their parents.Stemilt has found success with its Lil Snappers brand of kid-friendly apples, pears and citrus. “Sales of Lil Snappers are growing every year, and we hit another sales record this year,” says Roger Pepperl, marketing director for the Wenatchee, Wash.-based company. While the Lil Snappers clear tote bag packaging instantly tells the healthy grab-and-go story, it also has the appearance of an enticing snack. “The bag is shiny like a bag of chips,” Pepperl says. “And it still has punch when you get it home.”
With the support of a well-funded TV and marketing campaign, The Wonderful Co. in Los Angeles added more than 3 million new customers for its kid-focused Wonderful Halos mandarins this year, according to Diana Salsa, director of marketing for Halos. This year, the brand is up 8% in dollar sales.
Further contributing to sales growth are the brand’s highly effective “Grove of Goodness” display units. Last season, “stores with [point-of-sale materials] vs. those without saw about two times the velocity growth,” Salsa says. “Two out of three people who saw the display bought.” The Wonderful Co. will expand its Grove of Goodness POS this September.
Halos also extended its target market from primarily kids and their families to include mature adults, with two new TV commercials appealing to this demographic, which also appreciates the easy-to-peel fruit. “The Wonderful Co.’s connection to consumers has health at its heart,” says Adam Cooper, vice president of marketing. “Through this connection, The Wonderful Co. has positioned itself as the No. 1 fastest-growing multibillion-dollar consumer packaged goods company, as well as the No. 1 growth leader in produce in 2017, according to IRI.”
The boom in better snacking
With America’s fastest-growing snack brand in its stable of healthful produce brands, The Wonderful Co. will continue its robust Wonderful Nut campaign this year. The campaign includes digital, print in-store displays and a Times Square billboard celebrating the healthfulness of pistachios with images and messaging such as Fit Nut, Mindful Nut and Skinny Nut.
As a result of the program, the company has seen a 40% increase in consumers’ health perception of Wonderful Pistachios. “The Wonderful Co. is relentlessly focused on driving healthier eating options,” Cooper says. “Over the past 10 years, we’ve invested more than $3 billion in capital and $1 billion in marketing and brand building.”
“We’re always looking for innovation in snacking,” says Emily Murracas, director of marketing for Mucci Farms in Kingsville, Ontario. Mucci Farms’ new CuteCumber Poppers, snack-sized cucumbers packaged with dip, won the United Fresh Produce Innovation Award for Best New Packaging at the 2018 United FreshMKT Expo. “It’s smaller than a cocktail cucumber. It appeals to kids, and you can just peel it open, rinse, serve and enjoy,” Murracas says.
Mucci Farms, which grows, ships and markets fresh produce, is also known for its branded packaging. “We have an in-house design team, and our packaging is sustainable and recyclable to complement the healthy product in it,” she says.
“Snacking is always top of mind,” says Lori Castillo, marketing director for NatureSweet in San Antonio. The greenhouse-tomato grower recently introduced Twilights, a uniquely colorful and richly flavorful snacking tomato featuring a spectrum of green, brown, orange and red hues. Twilights also hold up to heat well, making them ideal for grilling.
Unquestionably, the rise in branded produce has provided a vehicle for fruit and vegetable suppliers to move their products to the coveted center of the plate. This year’s United FreshMKT Expo spotlighted scores of new plant-based meals designed to satisfy and sustain a healthful lifestyle.
“We’ve transformed from a fresh produce company to a fresh prepared meals company,” says Alan Hilowitz, director of corporate communications for Bonduelle Fresh Americas, which acquired Irwindale, Calif.-based Ready Pac Foods last year. “We want people to focus on plants as the center of the plate rather than a side.”
Bonduelle recently launched Ready Pac Wrap Kits, which contain everything (including a utensil) needed to make a nutritious wrap in minutes. Because each ingredient is separate, the wrap doesn’t get soggy. It also expanded its Bistro Bowl line with a Roasted Corn and Pulled Pork Salad. “The vision of our parent company is to be the world reference—the name for plant-based foods that will help consumers, not just with good health, but with well living,” Hilowitz says.
Building on the success of its Cauliflower Crumbles, Green Giant Fresh of Salinas, Calif., has introduced a line of vegetable-based bowls in tasty and nutritious varieties, including a Pad Thai Bowl with carrot noodles and a “Fried Rice” Bowl with cauliflower crumbles. All of the bowls are 360 calories or fewer and can be made in minutes.
Mann’s, now a part of the Coral Gables, Fla.-based Del Monte Fresh Produce family, has expanded its Nourish Bowls line with Basil Pesto and Tomato Bolognese. “They are the first-ever warm veggie meals to feature plant-based protein, with vegan Chick’n in the pesto sauce and vegan sausage in the Bolognese,” says Jacob Shafer, senior marketing and communications specialist for Mann Packing. High in plant-based protein and low in calories, both Nourish Bowls can be prepared in four minutes in the microwave.
The vast majority of millennials—72%—would rather spend money on an experience than things, according to a report from CNBC citing a Harris Group study. As a result, experiential marketing (think yoga classes offered at Lululemon or pop-up shops of all kinds) is changing the way people engage with brands.
When it comes to supermarkets expert in brand building through engagement, Alex Jackson Berkley of Frieda’s Inc., a specialty produce company in Los Alamitos, Calif., says, “Hy-Vee is the one to watch on community involvement.” She points to the West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee’s smart use of its team of in-store registered dietitians and the fitness center it opened adjacent to one of its stores.
“The fitness center says, ‘We promote your health,’” Berkley says. A Hy-Vee Fitness membership includes access to wellness programs, such as free nutrition and menu planning classes with a Hy-Vee dietitian. “Empower your RDs and produce managers to focus on health.” Grocers who pay extra attention to feeding kids healthy food while making it fun will go a long way in building customer loyalty, she says: “Millennials are having kids and are feeding them better than they feed themselves. Capitalize on that. Entertain their kids.”
Heather Gengler, produce manager at the Hy-Vee in Springfield, Mo., agrees. Gengler, who also was on the “Retail Observations from Visionary Produce Managers” panel, said Hy-Vee offers a free piece of fruit from the kid fruit basket to the store’s younger shoppers, as well as balloons from the floral department. A parent of a young child herself, she personally engages with kids on the store floor, making it easier for their parents to shop.
As for experiential marketing for all ages, Hy-Vee has that covered with dietitian-led demos. “We have a dietitian in the store, so anytime we sample, we try to make an event out of it,” Gengler says. “If we’re demoing jackfruit, the dietitian offers recipes, samples and explains the nutrition, so customers stop and interact and don’t just walk by a demo.”
Social and digital storytelling
Maintaining a strong digital and social media presence is increasingly essential to building healthy brands in produce. “When I started in marketing with Village Farms 10 years ago, the idea was that marketing was very important, but we’d probably never be a name brand like Dole or Chiquita,” says Helen Aquino, director of brand marketing and communications for Village Farms International, based in Heathrow, Fla. “We’ve seen that change with the advent of social media.”
Historically, fresh produce has had less opportunity to tell its story than other categories, and while the move to more packaged fruits and vegetables has allowed brands to share more origin stories, social media has been the game changer. Village Farms works with brand influencers, who employ Instagram and Facebook to drive consumers to its website and Facebook page, where consumers can read comments from other people who have tried and enjoyed its products. “That’s the best endorsement we can get,” says Aquino.
This year, the company’s social media focus is “Take Back the Table.” “We want to demystify how to use produce,” Aquino says. Village Farms offers scores of simple and delicious recipes on the “What’s Fresh” section of its website and through its bloggers’ sites, she says.
At Cal-Organic Farms, a division of Bakersfield, Calif.-based Grimmway Farms, social and digital media provide an opportunity to share the story of organic food in a healthy lifestyle.
“Millennials and Gen Z are aspirational, passionate and purpose-driven,” says Kellen Stailey, VP of marketing. “Social media is the preferred platform to express themselves, their preferences and positions. They often learn about new products, seek guidance or are influenced by brands on social platforms, either from brands themselves or through digital recommendations from friends and family.”
Cal-Organic leverages digital media to develop platforms such as its “Handled With Care” campaign that educates consumers on certified organic growing practices; the health benefits of fresh produce; and simple yet delicious ways to prepare its products. “As more consumers take a holistic approach to food, viewing what they eat as an integral part of overall wellness, we feel a responsibility to develop branded content that educates consumers on the health benefits unique to each of the 65 vegetables we grow,” Stailey says.
Cal-Organic targets its marketing campaigns to health-minded shoppers and partners with food-focused influencers and dietitians who are enthusiastic brand ambassadors. “Building healthy brands is critical to long-term success, as today’s consumers are becoming more conscientious about how their choices reflect who they are as a person,” Stailey says. “In addition, they’re looking for advice and guidance on how to live and eat better, and they expect food to fit into their lifestyles, which are busy, ever-changing and focused on living healthfully.”