Developing Demand

There is something peculiar about branded produce and consumer advertising. It seems that all the advertising has not developed brand loyalty among customers.

Think of the soup department of your neighborhood supermarket. It probably has Campbell’s soup; it also features a variety of other brands. It is not uncommon for a store to feature four or five different brands of chicken soup alone!

Supermarkets don’t feature so many brands of soup (or other grocery items) because they like to use shelf space. Rather, they feature multiple brands of the same item because consumers demand that they are given the choice between multiple brands.

To some people, their mayonnaise must be Hellmann’s; others prefer Kraft. So intense is this brand loyalty that people will literally refuse to shop at stores that do not carry their favorite brands.

Yet this type of loyalty seems rare in produce. How many stores do you know that always carry three different brands of bananas? Do you ever see Dole and Sunkist oranges merchandised next to each other?

The conclusion we can draw from this is that consumers are not giving their grocers any indication that they really have brand preferences in fresh produce. And as a result, retailers really feel no compunction to purchase any particular brand.

So what is the purpose of all this consumer advertising of branded product? Well, first of all, there is less money spent on advertising than people think. Dole, Del Monte, and Campbell are all big companies with well-known consumer brands, but the big promotional bucks go toward packaged goods.

In fact, the main focus of consumer advertising is not on the consumer at all; it’s on the retailer. Since no one has been able to develop strong brand preferences among consumers, retailers are the people in control. If they decide to sell Chiquita, that’s what kind of bananas the consumer will buy.

The search in the produce industry is, of course, a search for how to make more money. But the produce industry is frustrating for a producer because prices on most items are determined more by general market conditions than by anything under the control of the producer.

So, advertising to the consumer holds appeal to the producers who hope to differentiate their products and get a premium for them. But those tempted to follow this route should be aware of some of the pitfalls: It is exceptionally easy to spend a lot of money and get very little impact. This is a big country and a bigger world, and it is easy to spend several million dollars with no effect.

In addition, one shouldn’t count on saving money on trade advertising and promotion to fund the consumer program. The biggest waste in the world is to run effective consumer ads and then lose the sales because your product is not available in the stores. Generally, the launching of a consumer advertising campaign demands an increase in trade promotion. Effective consumer advertising also requires having something to say. That requires knowing what you’re trying to sell and to whom you want to sell it. Lots of advertising dollars are wasted because they are spent on inappropriate media or have no coherent story to tell.

One reason few have been able to develop a real brand preference among consumers is that few have really desired it enough to try. Quite a number of the branded produce operators will not stand behind their product at retail. They will not provide refunds to consumers who are dissatisfied.

This lack of commitment is justifiable. After all, most damage to produce is done at the retail level. And there is great difficulty involved with suppliers of produce preventing retailers from causing damage. But still, one can understand why consumer brand preference has been slow to develop in fresh produce. The very nature of a brand is that it provides an assurance of quality. Otherwise, the brand means nothing to the consumer.

The consumer has to feel someone stands behind the produce. If branded produce marketers tell complaining consumers to take the problem to the store, they are eliminating an important reason for consumers to prefer a branded product. After all, the store will take responsibility for unbranded produce as much as they will for branded.

There is the potential for consumers to develop real brand preferences for produce. It may happen as advances in genetic engineering make it easier to develop new varieties of produce, so that one organization’s orange may actually be sweeter than another.

But I don’t think that having different produce is essential to developing consumer brand preference. What’s required is a marketing program which persuades consumers that there is a difference. Surely the reason that there are so many beers is not the nuances of taste; it is the nuance of an image. Intelligent marketing makes one feel like a different person when one sips a Lowenbrau as opposed to sipping a generic beer.

A person’s self-esteem is often intimately tied to what he or she buys. Thus, the poorest school children in the ghettos of our inner cities feel the need to buy expensive athletic shoes such as Reebok and Nike.

One day someone in produce will find a way to tap into people’s yearning for identity. They will persuade them that “Brand X” is the only one to fit their special style. They will position their product uniquely. They will advertise extensively to the consumer, and they will back their product to the hilt. They will arrange for universal distribution, and they will make a fortune. But it will take a lot more than just running a few ads.