The Elephant In The Room and Branding Fresh Produce

I recently spoke at the PMA Australia-New Zealand Conference in Brisbane. If you have never been to a PMA event, you are missing out. Combine great networking with new ideas and you get enough ‘oomph’ to keep you going all year! But I digress…

I get a huge thrill speaking at events like the PMA. I know most people don’t like to speak publicly, but I love it. The chance to throw out new ideas and test cutting edge subjects for market feedback is beyond compare. However, I do hate making mistakes when I speak. I want to fess up to a mistake I made during my PMA speech.

I am a pretty straight forward person – what you might call a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). As a result, if there is conflict about an issue, I am usually the one to bring it up. What I missed in Brisbane was acknowledging the elephant in the room.

You see, I spoke about fresh produce packaging and the importance of optimising the on-pack message. The context was if we want to drive sales or consumption growth, the only way we are going to get that growth is by driving substitution. We need shoppers to substitute out of packaged foods and replace it with fruit and veg. No easy task and one that is not helped by the fact that fresh produce fails to get it right with our packaging and what I call the ‘on-pack message’.

So during my PMA session, I talked about all this, showed examples of us (fresh produce) vs them (packaged foods) and compared and contrasted what we could do better in fresh produce packaging to drive more sales. About half way through the presentation I asked for questions…and that’s when the elephant in the room was pointed out.

“How do you do more with your on-pack message Lisa, when the retailers in Australia and New Zealand dictate the content?” Bam – there it was, on the table…the elephant in the room. It’s a fantastic question and an issue I would love to get some debate/discussion going on.

From my point of view as a packaging expert, I really struggle with the whole retailer brand issue for a few reasons.

1.       I believe it is contrary to current food trends. Everything in food trend analysis is saying that local and provenance are key interests of consumers – they want to know where their food comes from. Retailer branded packaging tends to look the same and be homogenous – which seems to go against the trend.

2.       Trust is another issue. Several years back I found an article that said retailer brands were some of the least trusted brands. However, the improved quality of house brand product in grocery may have changed that perception now.

3.       It seems like retail brand strategy for grocery has been applied with little differentiation to fresh produce, but they both operate on quite a different premise. A retail brand offer in grocery adds breadth or depth to a category dominated by manufacturer brands, giving the consumer MORE choice. Retail branding in fresh produce has ELIMINATED most grower brands, resulting in LESS choice. Segmentation is the key to adding value and creating a differentiated offer – by moving exclusively to retail brands in produce, I think the offer has been reduced.

4.       Growing is not the same as manufacturing. A grower takes pride in the product produced, wants to innovate and be better and wants to see that effort acknowledged via their brand. A retailer brand takes away grower pride, stops innovation and in the long term, reduces the viability of the category.

I know this is a contentious issue and I am saddened to see many grower brands suddenly disappear amid the strategy for homogenous retail branding. However, these issues seem to come full circle and I look forward to the time when we once again embrace grower brands in the produce department.

To those who attended my session in Brisbane…I apologise I didn’t acknowledge the elephant in the room. He was there – big and bold and hiding in the corner – but I was hoping I could just wish him away.

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