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Retail Reflections

Brands and Consumer Behavior

When a company or an organization is marketing an item or service, there is always only one reason: to change behavior—to get end users to either try something new or to buy more. Over the years, brands have played an important role in changing or establishing consumer behavior. Many iconic brands such as Coke, Ford, Kleenex, and more recently, Apple or Nike, have all left an impression in the minds of consumers. But what role does branding serve in the fresh fruit and vegetable industry? Can a producer create a brand?

To answer this question, we need to understand what a ‘brand’ represents. Essentially, a brand does two things: it serves as the promise of a quality standard, and causes a predisposition to trial. In the first attribute, let’s go back to the brand “Coke”—a Coke tastes like a Coke every time you try one. In the second attribute, suppose you’ve never tried a diet soft drink before. If you’ve had a good experience drinking Coke, you might be predisposed to try a Diet Coke. The result of the branding effort in either or both of these attributes is to change consumer behavior. And the history of iconic brands has proven this true over time.

But what about produce? Beyond a few names like Chiquita, Dole, Del Monte, and Sunkist, there are not many highly recognized brands in the industry, though there are some regional players like Driscoll’s for berries and Andy Boy in the northeast.

What you do have are shipper labels that carry high recognition with established produce buyers. “Kandy” melons and “Bud” lettuce are just a few of the more recognized shipper labels; but from a consumer perspective, they do very little to change behavior.

Creating a brand is not only challenging but very expensive. Coke’s annual marketing budget is somewhere north of a billion dollars, and that’s just to maintain brand presence. Chiquita’s marketing efforts go back to the 1940s (how many of you remember the Chiquita jingle?).

With the slim margins in today’s produce marketplace, money is rarely available to effectively maintain a brand, let alone create one. Nevertheless, a few branding elements have been surfacing in the industry, such as adopting a relationship with a media brand. You see this with Disney in the licensing of characters or movie themes associated with one or a range of items. This can cause a short-term spike in sales, typically because the character appeals to children.

Another strategy is to attach a brand that resonates in a dry grocery category to the corresponding fresh range of items. Green Giant, Campbell’s, and Welch’s are some examples. Here again, consumers already trust the brand, so they become predisposed to try the corresponding fresh item. The third area is using the store as a brand through the use of private labels. If consumers have had a positive experience with the store, logic says they will trust items with the store’s name on them.

This has seen a great deal of success in Western Europe, especially in the United Kingdom. In fact, private label brands often have a greater impact than many national brands.

The key to successful branding is to never compromise the “promise of a quality standard” at the heart of a brand’s value proposition. And this is an area in which the produce industry has largely failed.

Of course, maintaining a strict level of quality is challenging with perishables—weather, transportation, store operations, and consumer handling are all variables that can compromise the consumer experience. And once this occurs, you will definitely change consumer behavior…for the worse—think “New Coke”!

So while the idea to brand fresh produce seems desirable, it is both challenging from a quality standard standpoint and expensive from a marketing standpoint. In my view, the likelihood of branded produce proliferating to any significant degree is probably rather small.


Bruce Peterson is the founder and president of Peterson Insights, Inc., a consulting company specializing in the complex challenges of the fresh food industry. Peterson began his career bagging groceries, and went on to work for several supermarket chains, including 17 years at Walmart Stores, Inc. He has owned and operated a wholesale produce company, and served as chief executive officer of both Naturipe Foods LLC and Bland Farms.