Localizing Our National Products

The great marketing dilemma for the produce industry is how to be a large, national and international industry gaining economies of scale while also maintaining the public goodwill that comes from being authentically tied to the land.

Retailers have wrestled with this over the years, and it is why most of the better stores restrict the amount of non-produce items in the department. To these retailers, there is a cost to carrying these goods even if they are negotiated on guaranteed sale. The cost is that consumers will see the department as less fresh, less authentically tied to the farmer and the earth.

Although locally grown programs are nothing new, they are on a roll now, with polar opposites marketing them: Wal-Mart promotes “Heritage Agriculture” to encourage local production; Wegmans fills its Web site with photos and descriptions of local farms it works with.

These programs are problematic at best. Most survive only because retailers routinely waive food-safety requirements, and most locally grown efforts cover only short seasons. Much research has shown state-based promotion programs are effective, but typically within only the state whose product is being promoted.

The industry needs national shippers able to supply year-round and with the economy of scale necessary to keep food prices low while generating a profit for the producer. Yet if consumers want locally grown, how are national shippers to compete?

We don’t know to what degree consumers really care about locally grown. Although many retailers report excellent sales for locally grown product, in many cases it is an unfair comparison. If there is a life-size cutout of a local farmer on the floor, you have to compare sales to what happens when there is a life-size cutout of a national farmer on the floor. Otherwise, a retailer may be seeing in its sales statistics the appeal of promotion, not the appeal of locally grown.

Two basic things have to happen if we are to successfully market our national product in an age where consumers are looking for more than a good product:

1. Branding our locales

Some regions scream out with authenticity and beauty. Other than as a novelty, nobody in Alabama wants Alabama wine. People want wine from a place such as the Napa Valley, beautiful and romantic, home to vintners and oenophiles. The industry challenge is to brand our production regions in the way Napa Valley is branded.

In some cases that may take a promotional effort; in others, it may take a name change. Perhaps the Salinas Valley, with an image tied to a not particularly beautiful city and a public perception seared by food-safety issues, should change its name. Why can’t we grow our vegetables in the beautiful “Monterey Valley?”

After Valujet had a crash years ago, it merged with much smaller Airtran and abandoned the Valujet name. Perhaps the Monterey Valley, with images of sea mist hitting the rocky shore and whales cavorting off the coast, could expunge the memory of the spinach crisis. One can almost hear Mayor Dennis Donahue of Salinas screaming. However, a name change can be a crucial marketing tool.

2. Pulling our small farmers to the frontline

The industry has learned farmers have a high degree of credibility. So if media interviews are to be done, we often dress our industry leaders in jeans and emphasize their farming background.

The real key, though, is that very few of our marketers grow all their own product; most depend on independent farmers. These individual farmers were pushed into the background as marketers wanted to promote their own brands and names.

The current atmosphere suggests this may no longer be an optimum strategy. One can imagine an ad and in-store marketing campaign themed around the slogan: “I’m Farmer Jones and I grow for Dole…and for you.” It shows tours of the farm, historical photos of Great Grandpa settling the land, maybe Junior studying at UC Davis, and ends with the farmer eating his own crop and feeding it to his family.

Only an infinitesimal percentage of consumers in, say, Brooklyn, NY, will ever visit a farm outside, say, Buffalo, NY, so the only sense in which those consumers will “know where their food comes from” is what they can surmise from ads, Web sites and in-store marketing. Farmers from Salinas are every bit as authentic as local growers — the problem is we have obscured their identity. It is time to bring them into the sunlight.

Lately, Wal-Mart has been on a kick promoting Heritage Agriculture in hopes to revive the production of items such as the Arkansas peach and Arkansas pickling cucumber — both long-since abandoned on a commercial scale. It is hard to know what to make of these initiatives.

The problem is all these industries died for real reasons, such as short seasons and ill-suited climates. To revive them isn’t authentic. It would be like Jurassic Park, creating a theme park of agriculture. Efforts such as these are what happens when marketing takes over procurement and merchandising. It is not a serious effort to supply produce; it is a serious effort to try to connect with customers on a basis other than price.

Because such efforts will never account for the bulk of what is in the store, such efforts are always going to be a bit of slight-of-hand. The answer is to present what is really happening in a way consumers will connect to and appreciate.