Marketing To Children

The produce industry is losing an important battle. Some may argue we are not even in the war. It’s the battle for our children as our customers. Companies marketing high-calorie, low-nutrient “junk” foods have been in control of the terrain for years — with devastating impact.

According to the latest government studies, childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions. Only one in five children eats the minimum daily recommendations of fruits and vegetables. The majority of “vegetables” children consume are potatoes (french fries) and tomatoes (ketchup and pizza sauce). Children have especially low intakes of extra-nutrient leafy green vegetables, and they receive most of their fruit from fruit juice.

While we are seeing some progress, fresh fruits and vegetables are still not widely available where/when many of our children are most likely to eat — at school, as after-school snacks or in fast-food establishments. This is particularly true for low-income children who often live where supermarkets and fresh produce are hard to find, but inexpensive, high-fat, processed foods are on every corner. We’re making some progress introducing fresh produce into fast-food restaurants and at schools, but we have a long, uphill climb ahead of us.

So why focus on children? If the rampant obesity epidemic and our obligation to future generations aren’t reason enough, let’s look at the business reasons. Children are an enormously profitable market across a wide range of industries. They are also major influencers of household purchases, particularly food.

Converting children with unhealthful eating habits into healthy produce customers also makes sense for the future. Taste preferences and eating patterns are formed in childhood. If we reach this market now, while they are still young, we are building a base for enormous revenue potential for the future — as well as much healthier adults in the future.

We have been marketing health and nutrition for years, albeit with woefully small budgets. But the only thing increasing is our children’s waistlines, along with the incidences of diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

The solution isn’t in making people feel guilty about eating too much unhealthful food. Adults already know what’s bad for them. All our children know is that the junk-food experience is “cool,” has fun promotional gimmicks, is conveniently available and consistently tastes good. In order to compete, fresh fruits and vegetables have to fit the same expectation and experience.

It’s all about marketing a complete package of taste, convenience, and nutrition. The first rule of marketing is to know what your customers are thinking.

PMA recently commissioned a survey conducted by Opinion Dynamics Corporation to gain a better understanding of what influences households with children to purchase more produce. Targeted segments included dual-income families with children and single-head-of-household families with children.

An interesting profile emerged from the research, one that produce marketers can use to reach our youngest customers.

Taste topped the list, as an opportunity and a challenge. Majorities in all groups surveyed say the taste is the most important purchase influencer. Direct experience with a fruit or vegetable rather than with brands was the most important factor in creating the perception that produce will satisfy taste requirements.

The inconsistent taste was cited as the primary barrier to increasing children’s produce consumption. Children do not forgive and forget easily. The research shows the importance of delivering on consistent flavor experiences to delight these young customers. When we fail to deliver on the taste promise, we create a negative image, one that is hard to overcome.

Not surprisingly, dual-income households with children are also more likely to seek convenience when shopping for produce. And while the price is an important purchasing influencer, it is clearly subordinate to taste. Seasonal availability showed some surprising strength, particularly among dual-income families. Nutritional and health value was extremely important to both demographic groups. In both groups, at least a majority agrees that produce purchasing is planned rather than motivated by impulse.

Perhaps the most interesting finding was the discovery that — in both groups — snacks are when children eat most of their fresh fruits and vegetables. Only among dual-income households is there even a close parity to any other eating opportunity (dinner).

The survey also revealed clear opportunities for savvy marketers to create more opportunities to move fruits and vegetables to the center of the breakfast and dinner plates. When asked what specific things the industry could do to encourage them to buy more produce, respondents answered better advertising, snack sizes or variety packs, interesting packaging and lower prices. This is consistent with other informal studies that have shown children will eat more fruits and vegetables if they are in manageable, kid-size portions.

So what do we do with all of this great information? We follow another marketing rule — develop products and marketing messages based on the unique needs of this “grab-&-go” generation.

The health/nutrition message is important, but it is time to broaden our focus. Let’s stop bragging and start marketing produce to this powerful target audience! We need to do more to make produce “cool” and “fun” for our youngest customers. If sugary soft drinks are cool, why not carrots? If a fun cartoon character inspires children to choose broccoli over chocolate, then why aren’t we doing more?

In the bestselling book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Al Ries, and Jack Trout noted, “If you can, be first. If you can’t be first, create a new category in which you can be first.” We need to speed up the work already started by some produce category leaders in creating our own category — a category of fun, cool, healthful and convenient foods that taste good. The key is to remember there are lessons to be learned from all of our customers, regardless of age.