The Value of Flavor

Here is the story: The head of produce for a major retailer gets called into the chief executive’s office. The chief executive has laid out a blind taste test. Three samples of strawberries are presented. Sample one, from this particular chain, comes in last in the taste test. A more upscale chain had the other two berries — one, part of a lower price range, comes in second place for taste; and a third strawberry, also from this upscale chain, but this time from a top-end range, is clearly most delicious.

The chief executive wants this situation fixed. The head of produce thinks attention is going to have to be paid to the fact that the most delicious of the berries cost more than double what the least tasty berries cost.

Adding complexity to the story, this real-life happening took place in England among two stores that both market virtually exclusively under private labels. None of the berries was marketed as any kind of proprietary variety.

The existence of such a wide variety in the flavor of products marketed as essentially the same poses large challenges for the industry. Generic promotion efforts seem likely to be less effective if they can’t vouch for the consistency of the product.

The immediate response of retailers presented with this scenario is an appeal to consumer sovereignty: We will sell a broad range of products and let consumers make the choice!

Yet this resolution is somewhat problematic too. One can sell many different types of cars, for example, at many different price points. But the price differential is supported either functionally — car A is a subcompact and car B is an extra-large SUV — or by appeals to status and exclusivity — car A is a Chevrolet and car B is a Ferrari.

Yet the flavor of the strawberries seems closer to the essential nature of the product. Surely everyone buys a strawberry in anticipation of a quintessential strawberry flavor or taste.

Consumer sovereignty may be a successful justification, but one wonders if consumers are actually making the choices inferred in this idea of offering consumers a wide range of product. Do consumers actually say to themselves: “I’m going to buy the cheaper strawberry. I know it is not delicious and flavorful like the more expensive one, but I will sacrifice flavor and taste to stay within my budget?”

Isn’t it just as likely, maybe even more likely, that consumers assume the higher price point may represent luxury branding — black packaging and so forth — or social and environmental positioning — organic, non-GMO, higher paid labor, etc. — but do not think the core flavor proposition is any different?

Certainly, the industry doesn’t do much to encourage the notion that products have flavor differentiation based on price. British supermarkets will simultaneously carry many types of strawberries. These would be labeled in words that vary from chain to chain, but retailers would use words, such as Organic Strawberries, Specialty Strawberries, Essential Strawberries, and King Strawberries or with a geographic or provenance reference, such as Essential British Strawberries, Dutchy Organic Strawberries, Tiptree English Strawberries, etc.

In the United States, there is often even less description! Certainly, none of these descriptors would lead a consumer to realize that he or she is buying sub-standard flavor strawberries.

Retailers seem willing to acquiesce in the marketing of distinct branded concepts — say, Pink Lady, Kanzi or Jazz apples or Sun World’s Sable Seedless or Scarlotta grapes — where the brand is heralding a distinct taste experience. Retailers seem hesitant to acquiesce in the consumer marketing of tranches of flavor, perhaps because such marketing inherently disparages the less flavorful lines.

Yet in a world of cell phone apps, one wonders if the trade shouldn’t question the whole idea of selling the sub-standard product without qualification. Almost all the online services make a point of ranking each produce item available with a bottom ranking acknowledging that the product is quite bad and a consumer should only buy it if absolutely necessary — say as a minor ingredient in a recipe the consumer really wants to prepare.

Abstractly the idea that retailers give consumers choices is appealing, but the deeper we dive into this subject, the more it seems that retailers — and retailers are the face of the industry to consumers — are not giving consumers the tools needed to allow consumers to make informed choices. So consumers are buying a product and finding the flavor disappointing.

We don’t really know whether strawberry consumers would pay more if they understood the options, or would switch to another produce item if they saw themselves as making flavor trade-offs. Would they switch to a frozen product or non-produce items? Once again, we don’t really know.

It does seem, though, that robust flavor is a reasonable expectation by consumers, and if we are going to disappoint, we probably should make that clear. After all, building a brand is about building trust. And we want an industry brand in which consumers feel safe buying fresh produce and knowing they will have an excellent eating experience.