The Broccoli AmBush

When the news came out that the president was banning broccoli from Air Force One, the first thought I had was that to put it mildly, this is not a politically astute move by the president. After all, people make their living selling broccoli and a good political strategy is to support everything that people depend on to make their living.

The second thought I had was how are we, in America, ever going to attract good people into politics when we make even their food preferences a matter of such intense scrutiny? The third thought I had was that the produce industry may just want to send a thank you letter to President Bush. Why? Because the broccoli affair may serve as a needed reminder that we are selling food, not medicine, and that of all our emphasis on nutritional marketing may need to be reassessed.

Every day dozens of promotional pieces come across my desk. Some are sponsored by commodity promotion groups; others by individual companies. In general, these programs are much improved over only a few years ago – today many of these programs frequently show a degree of sophistication which is quite admirable. But in the rush to tap into the public’s concern about health and fitness, the industry’s marketers may be neglecting the issues of taste and pleasure and enjoyment.

The president and many others know full well that vegetables are good for them. But the produce industry should use this opportunity to recognize that healthfulness, though a positive attribute, is not enough. The industry must emphasize healthfulness along with qualities such as flavor and taste.

Look at how other major marketers do it. In the diet soda category, for example, the lead player, Diet Coke, uses the slogan “Just for the taste of it!” – In other words, even though the product was designed to appeal to people who desire to reduce their caloric intake, the marketing emphasis is on taste.

Or take Lite beer: what does Miller Lite say about its product? “Less filling tastes great!” – once again see that the taste of the product is prominently emphasized, and the low caloric pitch is made only obliquely, with a claim to be “less filling.”

Food has color and glamour and excitement. Eating is both an emotional and sensory experience. It would be a grave mistake for the industry to ignore this passion about food. The produce industry has to not only remind people that produce is good for them; it has to market produce so that people will really want to eat it.

Of course, no marketing campaign will achieve its goals if the fundamental product is flawed. One of the produce industry’s most basic problems today is that increasing portions of the population are unwilling to devote much time to cooking. In many cases, this can damage fresh sales because many produce items are really ingredients and not meals.

Many produce items are most often used after being cooked. Others have waste portions to be thrown away and still, others require cutting, etc. But many people just don’t want to be bothered. And as the numbers of these people grow, and as packaged goods manufacturers develop more sophisticated food products (they now have refrigerated mashed potatoes, never dehydrated, never frozen, which can be microwaved in four minutes in the pan they’re sold in and they are ready to eat), produce will be increasingly challenged to serve the consumer’s desire for convenience.

Though industry leaders are dealing with this issue – witness the explosion of pre-cut and ready-to-eat items in produce – the distribution system and the retail system are really not up to the task.

It is not uncommon today to go into beautiful stores with fantastic produce departments and find bags of “salad mix” of less than prime condition on the shelf. Items such as these are highly perishable and have to be delivered and retailed in a whole different system from conventional produce. Shelf lives are shorter; delivery has to be more frequent, temperature control more precise.

Many organizations have been doing tests on how to meet these needs. Others will surely try in the future. But the thing to understand is that pre-cuts and other convenience produce items are really not receiving a fair test in most stores. All that is being proved is that rotten produce in a bag is not going to sell very well.

Of course, visiting retail stores can often be a sobering experience for a produce person. I went to visit a branch of a large national chain at 8:00 pm and saw a produce department that makes you wonder how we sell anything to consumers. On a large Astroturf covered table, there were about 30 single bananas, mostly black. In some cases, the bananas were practically peeled from being ripped off the bunch. A full half hour later when I was ready to leave the store, the banana display was still not replenished. It was only when someone specifically asked the assistant manager that he got one box of bananas from the back and put them out.

The past few years have been a time of great growth for produce sales. But to a large extent, this growth has been fueled by a wide variety of counter-seasonal imports. The expansion of the marketing season for grapes, melons and other produce items to virtually twelve-month affairs has had more to do with increasing sales than any other single factor. In addition, the industry has benefited from the fact that the produce section is the prime place for supermarkets to strut and fight hard to win the allegiance of consumers. As a result, supermarkets have tremendously expanded allocation of space to produce and have been willing to carry hundreds of items, on many of which they actually lose money, to make their department’s number one in their community.

But these sales gains will not come as easily in the future. Most major items are already available virtually year round. Some retailers are starting to squirm about carrying too many loss producing items. Many packaged or frozen products are starting to get closer to the quality of fresh.

If fresh produce sales are to continue to grow as quickly as the industry would like, the challenge will be for the growers and shippers to remember that their ultimate customer is the consumer, not the retailer.

As part of producing PRODUCE BUSINESS each month, we speak to hundreds of people, retailers, shippers, growers, wholesalers, packers, brokers, etc. And in each issue, we do a feature on merchandising an individual commodity (this month is tomatoes). What is always shocking is that when we call shippers and ask them what type of advice they would give retailers regarding how to merchandise these items, the vast majority really say they have no idea. They just leave that up to the retailers.

But this attitude misses the point. Retailers have many items to sell. If a shipper’s items don’t sell well, they will be removed from sale or given minimal shelf space or never get promoted. If a retailer mishandles an item and the consumer gets an item that is tasteless or goes rotten quickly, valuable repeat business can be lost. If items in good condition are available on the shelves, few consumers will buy them. This means that shippers must get more involved with retailers who are really functioning as the distribution link between shippers and consumers. Once shippers develop this mindset, that their customers are really consumers, they will be able to make priorities of the proper things:

  1. Developing items that taste good and that consumers will enjoy.
  2. Meeting the consumer’s desire for convenience in food products.
  3. Marketing the taste and flavor and romance as well as the healthy attributes of produce.
  4. Working to ensure that retailers always have on display ample quantities of high-quality produce items and that retailers display and care for items properly, including refrigerating items when desirable.

George Bush may be president, but he is also a consumer. The industry is having a lot of fun with “broccoligate” and that’s good. Our industry leaders wisely used the situation as a chance to get publicity for our products.

But the real concern for the industry should not be that President Bush banned broccoli, but that for whatever reason, he doesn’t like it. How many consumers have banned broccoli or other produce items from their homes, and it doesn’t make the evening news? This should be the industry’s main concern.