Brand Performance And Produce

What role do brands play in produce performance? Does a produce brand work as a key driver in consumer purchase decisions or is a produce brand merely an overlooked component that is largely irrelevant to the end buyer?

The common denominator among successful brands is product consistency. The buyer must be able to confidently associate the brand with a set of product attributes that are inherent in every purchase. Product variability equals brand death (or at least a brand known for being unreliable). I doubt many people would rank McDonald’s high on the food quality scale, but when it comes to consistency, McDonalds’ rules the roost. Customers know exactly what to expect and get it on a consistent basis. As a result, the customer can quickly align the food at McDonald’s with an individual price/value equation. In short, every consumer knows exactly what to expect and can develop brand tiers based on experience.

For obvious reasons, product consistency remains a significant challenge in the produce department. Despite the best intentions of very talented growers and shippers, seasonal weather patterns often result in fruits and vegetables with lower flavor, less shelf-life and/or inconsistent appearance. Transportation problems, distribution issues or poor shelf management at the retail level can sabotage.

To gain an understanding of how consumers view branding in produce, The Perishables Group recently included questions on produce branding in a national survey. One thousand national consumers were asked to rank the importance or unimportance of various produce purchase factors. Consumers were asked to rate these factors on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 being not important at all and 5 being extremely important.

In addition, we asked the consumers to tell us if these

factors have changed over the past year. We included this question because we wanted to understand if the recession was altering the consumer purchase hierarchy.

The 2009 national online survey asked 1,000 consumers who were the primary household food shopper. There are several observations that can be made:

1) Quality — or at least the perception of quality — remains the No. 1 purchase, driver. Not surprisingly, poor quality produce holds little value for consumers.

2) Price ranks a close second in importance as a purchase-driver only slightly behind quality in terms of importance to consumers. Moreover, when you look at how consumers report the importance of price, you can see a significant upward shift since last fall, indicating shoppers are placing more emphasis on price than in the past.

3) Brand ranked fairly low in importance to consumers. In fact, a brand was the only purchase factor listed that declined in importance. Every purchase factor except brand was scored as having slightly higher importance compared to last fall.

4) The top four purchase factors (quality, price, health/nutrition, food safety) show significantly stronger influence on consumer decisions than the tier of the next four factors. These lower four (locally grown, environmental issues, convenience, brand) all ranked around neutral or slightly below.

Here’s the challenge: Despite what you see in the graph, it is a mistake to conclude that brands are unimportant to consumers. Rather, the results reflect two realities of produce marketing. First, for most produce items, distribution is inconsistent. As a result, even if a consumer finds a produce “brand” they feel is superior, that product may or may not be in the store the next time they shop. It will almost certainly not be available at competing stores for comparison-shopping. Inconsistency in distribution reduces important opportunities for building brand impressions.

Second, for most produce items, consumers must generally make variety choices, rather than brand choices. Unlike center- store, the consumer has no purchase alternatives to select from generally similar products from competing brands. There is one banana, one Navel orange, one celery bunch and one 3-lb. bag of Gala apples. As a result, this basic merchandising reality works to undermine brand importance among consumers. Not surprisingly, these factors limit the ability of consumers to utilize branding as the default validation of product quality and value. So consumers instead rely on visual cues and price.

There are successful produce brands. Our internal data tracking shows there are select produce brands in specific markets with considerable purchase power over consumers resulting in very strong category performance. But the survey results reflect that brand success requires atypical retail execution that most produce organizations, and perhaps most retailers are unprepared or unwilling to implement.