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Behind Equifruit’s bold rebranding strategy

In May, Longo’s became the first retailer in North America to commit to carrying only Fairtrade bananas, supplied by Montreal-based Equifruit.

I talked with Kim Chackal of Equifruit BB #:329901 about the company’s change from “crunchy earnest granola Fairtrade” to “The Only Banana You Should Buy.” Here’s how bringing the attitude is also bringing the sales to this Montreal-based company.

Pamela R.: I wanted to talk to you about some just fantastic growth that Equifruit has had over the last few years. And what has spurred that change. So first of all, how are you guys doing in Montreal? And, you know, what was the Fresh Summit that you wish had been?

Kim Chackal: Yeah, thanks. Thanks for having me. This was supposed to be our first time exhibiting at Fresh Summit, too, we were thinking about it for years, and always hearing that it was a great show. And so and we were ready to get started with pursuing the US market. So we were disappointed, I think like everybody else. But had it happened, it would have been our first time really showing everybody what our brand is all about how we empower innovating in a category that has traditionally just been promoted on price, and how we have just a totally opposite business model.

PR: I’ve been well familiar with it for a while. I met you all at a CPMA. It was a few years ago, I can’t even remember how long ago it’s been. And I’ve even visited you in Montreal and spoke to a working group for the World Banana Forum, on behalf of your CEO, Jennie Coleman. And since then, though, we did a little tour of Montreal, and visited some customers. But back then, I feel like you guys were a scrappy little company really just ready to go. And what has changed since 2018?

KC: A lot has changed since 2018. The company’s grown sales have grown tremendously. But a real change for us came in 2020, it was clear to us with the beginning of the pandemic, that life was on hold, all of the networking events were canceled, we started to think about the ways that we could improve. And so one idea for us was to start playing around with our website, which had a very earnest vibe to it. And we just thought if we’re going to open up that can of worms, I put in my two cents and said, I really don’t like our website. I think it’s, I think it’s like it’s nice, but it doesn’t really serve me as Director of Sales and Marketing. It doesn’t serve me as an extension of my sales. I wasn’t proud to send anybody the Equifruit website, it was kind of just, it was just nice but a little bit boring. And it was kind of all over the place, like the journey was confusing. We’re a Fairtrade banana brand. We’re trying to get people excited about our mission as a company with our 100% Fairtrade promise, and that just kind of didn’t come through, it looks like every other Fairtrade company out there. So we were very fortunate with with COVID. But it didn’t impact us negatively as a company, but rather, everybody started. I mean, I remember your posts on banana bread around. I don’t know how many bananas you had on your counter, but like several dozen at one point. So I think everybody was going nuts and buying a lot of bananas. And we were just really fortunate in that it allowed us to immediately invest in marketing. So we partnered with his incredible agency in Montreal called Tux, you know, like tuxedo. And we just said, Look, we want to do better, we want to change maybe our name, we want to change our website, we want to just be able to tell our message in a way that works. And so we signed up for the full package with them, redid our website, redid our social media strategy, we redid the packaging on our bananas. And really, they spent so much time getting to know what works and what doesn’t work. What’s the experience of our customers, they did a ton of stakeholder interviews. And what we ended up with was this branding that I mean, pretty bold, The Only Banana You Should Buy, you know when they first pitched that idea to us. I felt mildly nauseous for a second because I knew that I was going to have to deliver that message in a pitch. And what we learned on the process was we happen to all be women, we are a group of women who are trying to disrupt the entire banana industry and get people to pay a sustainable price for bananas. And we just realized that if you’re not loud and proud about what it is that you do, you’re just going to kind of coast by and people are gonna keep patting you on ahead and encouraging you. And we just decided to go bold or go home. So we went for full 180. Now you jump on our website, and I’m so proud  to send people to Equifruit.com, it feels like a video game. There’s sharks, they’re flying bananas. And it’s as if, even though we’ve been in business for 15 years, it’s as if we’re a new brand. And people are asking us about how we’re doing what we’re doing and how sales have grown. And, and we’re speaking on all kinds of panels about sustainability and marketing to Gen Z and millennials. And it’s just, it’s super cool to see that this messaging has landed, right? Because a rebrand, this is what you want a rebrand. And we’re we’re getting that experience that we had invested in super excited about it.

PR: It’s an attitude that I feel like knowing most of you folks, for three or four years, at least, I know a lot of you guys have this attitude before. I know, I know. For them to for this agency to come out and really just nail it for you guys. This attitude fits you guys. So well. And I love the post. I follow almost every produce brands that I can get ahold of and the people who are handed handling your social media, it just seems like you’re you’re catching just the right eyes. How have your metrics looked for you guys? And what where did you start with your social media? And what are you getting with it now?

KC:  In the past, we just we had social media, we had Facebook, we had Twitter, I think we had a LinkedIn page. And we have started Instagram, but we weren’t incredibly active on them. We would just keep posting pictures of our farmers and visits to our farmers in Peru and Ecuador. And people were like, Oh, that’s nice. That’s nice. And there wasn’t a lot of engagement. We also didn’t, we weren’t taking the time to invest our time in it as well. The strategy that Tux proposed and now we’re just a team of three on my marketing team that oversees our socials, and we’ll launch TikTok in a couple of months to the strategy was like, let’s move away from that earnest kind of granola crunchy vibe that that a lot of and like bless their hearts, you know that a lot of Fairtrade brands that it’s working for them. It just, it wasn’t working for us.

Nobody was caring about what we were doing as much as we were. And there’s nothing more frustrating than being passionate about something and feeling like you’re just stuck in a box. So this new vibe, really, as you said, it matched our personality, our personality and our boldness, and our passion was always there.

But really one of the strategists well, really the whole team at Tux was incredible, but especially this one strategist, her name is Stacy and she’s like, your whole branding is just not as cool as you guys. You’re a bunch of badasses. And like, I’m not feeling that. So our social media strategy really changed where we decided as a brand that we were sick of being ignored. We’re trying to change the banana industry, we don’t have 100 years to do it. We want to do it as quickly as we can. And so in order to do that, we have to be impossible to ignore. So really bright boxes really crazy messages on our bananas, you know, the only banana to reverse aging. It looks like it has some sunspots on there.

It’s totally nuts, social media, where, as you said we’re at we have a pulse on what’s happening and popular culture and we’re just jumping on to what’s happening and then trying to get people to pay attention to Fairtrade. And why is it important to support Fairtrade? So we’re our metrics are far more impressive than they were in the past. We I have very ambitious goals for the team. I want to get to 10,000 followers on our Instagram page by the end of the year. Our LinkedIn is really exploding our Twitter or French Twitter or Facebook. And now we’re all learning about TikTok and how to do that which I don’t know if you have any hot tips for us. But that’s like a whole that’s like a full time job.

PR: Take a class from Shay Myers from Owyhee Produce who is the TikTok Master, I believe that those of us in the produce industry with an authentic story can take that attitude and tell it authentically and really go far on TikTok because produce TikTok is a wasteland of bad information. So we all need to get out there and actually inject our good information out there to try to catch that and the algorithm is so easy to catch.  Just catch one little thing and it’ll go viral. So I’m excited for you guys to get on to TikTok because I feel like there is a really hungry audience for a fun and funny but also authentic message.

KC: Yeah, thank you. Us too. Wish us luck.

PR: Well, what else? What the other thing that I’ve seen is that not only have you guys grown, your, you know, recognizability, your your cred, basically in the purchase industry and LinkedIn helps a lot with that. You mentioned sustainability panels, of course. But I’m also seeing a lot of business. And a big announcement not too long ago, Costco in Canada. That’s fantastic. Longo’s in Canada — what have those done for you guys? And in just wow, amazing, congratulations.

KC: Yeah, thank you very much. It feels really nice. We’ve just we’ve just started a trial with Costco in Ontario in the GTA that just started a week ago. And it’s going really well, so far. They’ve been supportive. It’s it’s been a long journey. The Costco discussion started five, six years ago, I think that all of these discussions really started. I’m in my seventh year now. And a lot of them started at the very beginning.

If we backtrack to Longo’s, because that was really huge for us. Longo’s. They were the first conventional retailer in North America to make a 100% commitment to an aqua fruit Fairtrade banana program this year. So although we’ve had a partnership on organic bananas for for four years, I think at this point, we just knew that with COVID, it was difficult to innovate, or it was there were just new challenges, right? You couldn’t be sampling, you couldn’t be speaking to your customers in stores. And they also had a much more limited selection in the produce section. So they thought, you know, sustainability is becoming more and more important to them. And the organic Fairtrade program has been incredibly successful, we increase tonnage by at least 30 Points off the bat. So that was very exciting for them. So they said, let’s try it, let’s try to conventional, it was a big, big, big, big risk to go from 69 cents a pound to 99 cents a pound on conventional bananas, you know, everybody else is paying 99 cents per pound for organic bananas. So to move up in that price range.

They they went for it. And we supported them heavily with marketing with POS material with social media. And then when they were ready in May, they said, you know, this is working, we really haven’t lost tonnage sales, of course, have increased because they’ve increased the retail price. So we went for that full messaging and just been so excited to see the support. You know, sometimes you don’t know how people are going to receive news until we put it out into the world and such a cool thing about social media. So you know, the the press release that we crafted with their agency just got picked up like crazy. And all of a sudden, everybody was talking about the sustainable decision that longus had made in their procurement policy. And it’s really positioned them as as a leader as a thought leader in the space because nobody else in North America has a 100% fair trade fair trade. One word, this certification, right? Nobody, nobody else has a program, nobody else is selling Fairtrade conventional bananas. Many people still think that Fairtrade is a niche niche niche thing for some organic customers who might care about paying farmers fairly. And we’ve just seen so much research about in the last year, you know, during COVID, that has shown that people care more than ever about paying farmers clearly, you know, as like, like the local movement really exploded, especially with the pandemic. And so now we’re trying to we’re trying to shed that spotlight on growers in the Global South, and the message is resonating.

PR: I read something that really resonated with me as well where we’re talking about what has happened in Europe. And of course, that’s the last time I saw Jennie and if it was just to cut and and to have the one retailer crack, and perhaps this Longo’s here in North America can be your catalyst, your one retailer to crack and to actually have success doing it. That seems like maybe we’re on that moment in North America where we can see more retailers because like you’ve said, I’ve seen retailers that have 100% Fairtrade but it’s usually a co op marketplace, or, you know, one of those very small niche retailers maybe in rural Vermont. See someone like Longo’s, go just 100% just it may be that’s the cracking moment.

KC: Yeah, I mean that and so that’s the real distinction there right so not to take away from the co ops and the independents who have had a 100% commitment, but it’s only been organic because that’s perhaps the only offering. So for a conventional retailer who has both conventional and organic bananas to make that full switch, it’s a big deal, especially when traditionally conventionals can represent 90% of the category, right? So it’s a really, it’s a really big deal. And it’s a big one, you know, I have all of these stickies on my back to my desk to keep me focused. And one of my

I was laughing at this today, March 29 2021. Longo’s. Yes. So we got that. Yeah, I got that. Yes, on March 29. But Mimmo Franzone from Longo’s has called me up to say, you know, the trial has been a success. Let’s put the fruit on the water and let’s on for a May announcement and I literally was in tears like I was on, I have to pull over on the side of the road. And I just, I couldn’t express like, God, I’m gonna get all teary. I couldn’t express the the joy that I felt and the pride that I felt to be able to tell our farmers in Ecuador that yeah, they’ve done it with me. I’ve never been to give me your give me two here. So I mean, but yeah, I mean, look, I’ll add to that when I was my very first assignment working for Equifruit. It was 2014. And I was in the middle of a mat leave. And so Jennie was generous enough to hire me onto the team and we went to the Canadian Fairtrade Network Conference at McGill University. And Harriet Lamb who was previously the head of the Fairtrade Foundation, she came and she shared with us, you know, how the UK became what is now like 1/3 of all bananas sold in the fair, in 1/3 of the bananas sold in the UK are Fairtrade certified. And so she had written this book called Fighting the Banana Wars. And I remember reading it and just like laughing it up and hearing about how Sainsbury’s first started with this commitment. And within six months, Waitrose and the Co Op also made this 100% commitment. And that kind of just changed the dialogue in Europe and set this example. And now you have in Switzerland, there, Switzerland, beating the UK, Switzerland’s at OB over 50%, because you have retailers, like negros who are huge, I have this 100% commitment as well. It just shined a light on what the opportunity is. And when I remember reading that chapter of that book, and just thinking, if I work hard enough, we can do that in Canada. And if we can find strong partnerships in Canada, we can, you know, try to get that attention in the US and try to try to replicate that success in the US and just slowly change the industry.

PR: Yeah, I mean, it can happen. And I’m, I’m kind of at a teary moment here. Myself, too. I just I see the potential. And I see how you guys have changed over just the short amount of time I’ve known you since 2014.

KC: I mean, this is it. This is this is our moment here. Well, you know, I can remember the moment you came to our booth, I think it was CPMA 2015. And you were wearing one of your amazing produce outfits, and you had your pen and your paper. And I just remember you coming over and we’re like, you know, trying to pitch you on Fairtrade bananas. And you’re like, Yeah, I know. Yeah, I know the history of the banana industry. And oh, yeah, I know about this. And I know about that, and this dark stuff. And we were like, oh, there’s somebody else here. Who knows? I’m like, it was kind of this beacon of hope for us. Because not everybody knows the history of the banana industry. Not everybody knows why bananas are so cheap. We just assume that it’s economies of scale. But like, everybody listening to this call, we all work in produce, has your shipping price gone up? Has your operational costs gone up in the last let’s just talk about the last two years, right? Imagine for banana farmers were in Canada, banana prices have not been adjusted for the cost of inflation even for the last 50 years. So somebody is bearing the brunt of this low cost bananas, and we just have to correct that. It’s just time. And I know it sounds like it’s a little bit overwhelming. But the great news is, is that it’s it’s Firstly, it’s an affordable switch and that banana sharp shoppers really buy on color they don’t buy on price for so we’re so you know attached to that. I don’t know. I don’t know where that data came from. It’s false. It we’ve never been able to objectively stock it up against the opposite, right? If bananas have only ever been cheap, and we can’t say well, if we increase the price and nobody will buy them, because who are we getting that data from? globally? We have bananas at a price that’s unsustainably low. And so you have to look at example of an Equifruit or any other Fairtrade banana importer that are growing sales and are driving tonnage and innovation in that category.

PR: Yeah, it’s and I’ve probably had this conversation I know I’ve given this conversation many times about the idea that everyone perceives a retailer, retailers value on their price of bananas is attracting my grandmother as a shopper, it’s not attracting me or you or any of the other half Gen X, millennials down to Gen Z. And, you know, as the research has shown us, my good friend, Anne Marie has some really great research about how the different age groups shop and their attitudes for shopping. And while Gen Z may only control $1, out of 100, they’re going to own the future of the dollars, five years. So this is where this is where looking at your value proposition as a retailer, it’s not 48 cents bananas, it’s not 36 cent bananas, where I’ve even seen 28 cent bananas.

And it’s not there anymore. And that’s where I become unobjective as a, as a retail observer. In that, you know, that that the idea I had a retailer tell me that maybe maybe 15 years ago is when bananas were in a force majeure contract pricing issue, and they told me, nobody’s gonna raise the price of bananas, they’ll just take a loss on it, because everybody knows you based on the price of your bananas, and that is 20 years ago. I know. I don’t think that’s now.

KC: Yeah, well, whoever did the keynote at that conference, like everybody was there, memorize, like, if there was one thing they left for, and retained. After that conference? It was that one piece of data, which I think we’ve just disproven, I was doing a podcast this morning with this young woman who’s in university and telling her a little bit about the produce industry and about bananas, and how come they’re so cheap. And she’s like hearing about exploitation in the industry. And she’s like, how is that happening, and 2021, just like her mind was blown. And I think everybody’s mind should be blown. Like, we really need to rethink it. And the cool thing is that it’s still affordable. When we adjust the price for sustainable production on bananas, we’re not talking about like a $10 per pound banana, we’re talking about adding cents. Like, you know, adding 20 in the States is probably worth looking at adding 20 cents a pound, which works out to like seven, eight bucks a year, on your budget on your food budget. Less than $1 a month it’s totally affordable. So there there are all these excuses out there. And they’re they just don’t make sense. And so what’s exciting is Equifruit comes in as a brand. And the partners that we work with, we’re very loud on social media, we’re very loud to position them as a sustainable retailer. And not only are we driving sales and tonnage, but then we get to partner with them on the sustainability side. And we get to talk about the impact of where that Fairtrade money is being spent. No, because Fairtrade is all about paying these stable sustainable FOB prices to the farmers and then also paying a $1 US per 40 pound case. And, you know, we get to share the stories of how how that impacts farmers and how they spend because they decide democratically how to spend that $1 per case. And it’s all audited by Flocert. So we have that third party assurance, where it’s all very traceable, very transparent, which is very important to today’s consumer and tomorrow’s consumer when we’re thinking particularly about genocide.

PR: That’s right. That’s right. Well, I mean, at this point, if we were at Fresh Summit, I’d be like, Well, I gotta go talk to someone else as much as I would love to stand here and to chat as long as we can. So in the real world, it’s actually I got to go pick up my son from school.

It has been a pleasure and a delight to see the transformation of Equifruit over just the last years since COVID shut everyone down. It sounds like it’s open you guys up?

KC: Yeah, thank you very much. We are we’re very fortunate and we’re happy that that it caught your attention. And we’re just excited to eventually make our way into the US market and see sales grow and see that impact for growers.

Pamela Riemenschneider is the Retail Editor for Blue Book Services.