Packaging Promotes Brand Loyalty

Experienced brand managers know there is real value to be had in getting and keeping customers’ brand loyalty. Loyal customers are repeat customers. They can also be brand evangelists, encouraging their friends and family to purchase.

However, it appears many consumers aren’t brand-loyal when it comes to produce, based on recent Produce Marketing Association (PMA) consumer research. According to our new research report, that loyalty lags in part because the produce industry hasn’t taken full advantage of the opportunity to harness packaging to promote a brand.

More than eight out of 10 consumers (84 percent) we recently surveyed told us they don’t feel strongly about any particular brand of fresh produce; only 16 percent reported they were strongly brand-loyal. Twenty-eight percent told us the brand of produce isn’t important to them at all. On the other hand, the 45 percent who reported brand of produce is important at least “somewhat” or “a lot” present the most immediate marketing opportunities to be had.

Why consumers buy a specific brand of produce offers insight into the types of branding messages used to communicate to consumers. Freshness and quality were cited most often and equally (24 percent of respondents each) as the primary reason for buying a

particular produce brand, while 22 percent cited taste.

Clearly, our industry could do better to harness the power of branding.

One area where the industry appears to be missing the branding mark is on produce packaging. By connecting with the customer at the point of sale, packaging offers the last and best chance to generate a purchase.

Last August, PMA followed up on our 2004 survey of consumer attitudes toward packaging and found there has been little change in the marketplace in the past two years. This tells us we haven’t done much to take advantage of the opportunities exposed.

Consumers haven’t increased their purchases of packaged produce; in fact, we may be losing ground. Consumers reporting packaged produce makes up 26 to 50 percent of their total fresh produce purchases fell sharply, from 32 to 12 percent between 2004 and 2006. Meanwhile, we saw a near tripling of reports that none of their purchased produce is packaged. One category in which this is not the case surely is berries, where the clamshell increases sales with its better product protection, increased availability and improved taste.

A key finding was that consumers perceive packaged produce, excluding salads, to be of lower quality and freshness than bulk produce; 78 percent think bulk produce delivers consistently better quality and taste. Conversely, consumers report they perceive packaged produce to be safer and cleaner than bulk. Companies need to communicate the quality, freshness, and safety of their products to encourage consumers to pay the packaging premium if they are to grow their sales.

At the same time, we have to build an even greater awareness in the minds of those who handle and merchandise all packaged produce (beyond just salads) that the presence of packaging is no substitute for the responsibility of temperature and time control they all must share.

The most-cited reason consumers buy packaged produce over bulk was convenience. They want packages that can be re-sealed, offer a variety of sizes and provide a function. Almost one half (49 percent) of the total sample prefers flexible packaging to “rigid” or “other” options. This offers us valuable insight into packaging options and product line extensions. Speaking personally, I prefer salad mixes and fresh cuts in clamshells or rigid packs rather than bags because they seem to protect their contents better, reseal easier and keep fresher once opened. That’s the value equation for me; others will differ.

Consumers also told us expiration dating and nutrition information would help address their quality and freshness concerns. They cited that information, along with environmentally friendly messaging and storage and handling tips, as most important to them. And speaking of nutrition information, listen to Michael Pollan: “Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.” Packaging used properly is prime marketing real estate.

So what are consumers willing to pay more for? More than three quarters said better freshness and taste. Resealable packaging ranked with 71 percent; 68 percent said environmentally friendly packaging and 57 percent said microwavable packaging.

We also interviewed a small group of supermarket, foodservice and produce industry thought-leaders to get their input. They agreed packaging had “some to a lot of influence” on consumer behavior with convenience being a primary driver. Most lauded the innovation of clamshell and modified-atmosphere packaging to extend product shelf life and reduce damage; others pointed to corn-based packaging. They projected demand for environmentally friendly, non-petroleum based and food-safety-enhancing packaging would increase and forecasted the “next big things” would be fresh-cut fruit and microwavable vegetables.

Given the industry’s recent food-safety issues related to packaged leafy greens, we need to do all we can as an industry to promote consumer confidence and loyalty — our future depends on it. That means working harder to establish a brand identity with our customers and to promote product safety. Packaging can help on both counts. But packaging in and of itself is no substitute for proper care and handling through the chain.