With the Produce Marketing Association “Fresh Summit” just around the corner, it’s time to take a look at the state of branding in the produce sector. What’s most remarkable on the surface is how few true consumer brands there really are!

Beyond fruits from Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita, Sun Maid, Driscolls and a few others, most consumers would be hard-pressed to name any brands in unprocessed fruits and vegetables. (You might point out that California raisins, Florida oranges and Idaho potatoes are brands. But beyond their respective states’ endorsements, what commonalities do individual growers, and therefore their crops, share?)

Produce Stickers

Little PLU stickers like these are ubiquitous on fresh fruits and veggies but - except for a few well-known brands - how useful are they at communicating brand information to consumers?

I used to think the paucity of brands in this sector was a result of the small scale of most produce farms. After all, how can a small grower afford the investment it takes to build a brand with any significant reach. And why would they want to? The crop would run out before the customer got to his local market anyway.

But there are far more major produce operations than consumer produce brands. And there’s nothing to stop growers from branding cooperatively, a la Welch’s or Ocean Spray in the beverage sector.

Is there a lack of ability to differentiate meaningfully? On what basis would a manufacturer do so? Freshness, taste, care in handling? All would be legitimate brand foundations if the practice could approximate the promise. I just think that these attributes are too costly to build into the product in the first place. You can’t sell consistently superior quality produce in mass distribution anymore. Most shoppers just won’t pay for it.

Sweetango Apples

Sweetango Apples, brought to you as a brand and differentiated on the basis of genetic variation (and great taste!).

Sweetango Logo

Professionally designed and promoted, the Sweetango brand logo actually looks good enough to eat!

One brand dimension in which we’re seeing some activity is variety. Consider Sweetango apples (www.sweetango.com). A cooperative of apple growers named Next Big Thing licensed this recently developed hybrid from the University of Minnesota, gave it a trademarked name, and is working to build recognition and distribution. Bravo! (My thanks to Dan Bolton, Editor of Natural Food magazine for pointing out this effort to me.)  (http://www.naturalfoodnet.com)

Another recent development is the rebranding of an entire category: baby carrots. Brought to you by forward thinking ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the baby carrot has recently relaunched as a sheep in wolf’s clothing, with the goal of competing with junk food. This effort is a noteworthy branding effort, but it’s not about differentiating one manufacturer’s baby carrots from another. It’s about repositioning baby carrots in general.

Baby Carrots as Junk Food

Baby carrots are being repositioned to compete with junk food. Do consumers care who grew or processed them, or are they just "baby carrots?"

So what’s up? The truth is that most produce branding is oriented toward the wholesale buyer. Brands at this level are built upon reliable delivery, standardization of quality and other best business practices. The consumer for the most part has learned to rely upon her retailer to select produce brands for her. The brand sticker on many fruits and vegetables is more of a nuisance to remove than a signal of differentiation to her.

John Lennon Portrait by Barry "Wildman" Snyder
Unless you’re Barry “Wildman” Snyder, “?Almost World Renowned Food Sticker Mosaic Artist,” PLU labels aren’t that useful as a brand-building tool. Barry creates his art entirely from produce labels! See more of his work at: http://stickermanproduceart.wordpress.com/

With this as background, I head to the PMA Fresh Summit looking for evidence. Is there brand life in the produce sector? If so, I hope to identify and report on it here.

Of course, you can save me some time by leaving a comment. Tell us about your produce brand and what you’ve done to communicate it to the wholesale or retail buyer. And if you see me at the show, feel free to offer me a sample! I’m coming hungry for fruits and vegetables, as well as knowledge.

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