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Marketing during a pandemic proved to be a challenge

By
Tim Linden

With retailers focusing intently on filling their produce shelves and navigating a stretched supply chain during the pandemic, promotion was often put on the back burner and new product introductions were postponed.

Dan’l Mackey Almy
Dan’l Mackey Almy

The Produce News convened a panel of produce-minded, independent marketing experts to riff on the past year and help suppliers chart a marketing course moving forward. Our marketing panel consisted of Dan’l Mackey Almy of DMA Solutions, Cindy Jewell of SCJewell Inc., Steven Muro of Fusion, Nicholas M. Pasculli of TMD Creative and Tristan Simpson of tristan michele marketing. Following are their answers to a handful of questions. The answers have been edited for brevity, clarity and space considerations.

What were the biggest challenges in launching marketing campaigns during the year of COVID-19?
Dan’l Mackey Almy:
The fear, panic and unknown halted a lot of marketing initiatives. However, as we began to experience an all-time high number of engagements from shoppers with digital marketing, we realized that stopping was not an option and focused our energy on helping people during their time of need for information, connection and meal inspiration. While this was a difficult season for our industry in many ways, the silver lining was that people continued to buy fresh food, engaged with our brands and deepened their relationships with them. 

Cindy Jewell: Marketing in the dark. This was a year that required constant analysis on the trend of the day since there was no other trend to fall back on. We had to be very aware and respectful of challenges for each audience we were addressing on a daily basis.  Thankfully, we had a lot of research and measurement occurring that we could use to help navigate the every-changing landscape. Social media connection with our consumer was a great tool to help communicate and provide families with solutions as parents across the country were suddenly short order cooks three times a day.

Cindy Jewell
Cindy Jewell

Steven Muro: Consumers interest in “shopping” waned significantly as they were looking to strictly purchase. They wanted to shop quickly and run. Shoppers preferred produce in bags/packages that were untouched by other shoppers. This left many bulk items being overlooked. A move to online purchasing grew significantly during the pandemic. This made new products often harder to find and converting shoppers to new brands more difficult. The one bright spot was the introduction of new easy-to-grab packaging introduced in the store. Retailers were pleasantly overwhelmed with increased business, which led to a focus on core merchandising attributes and less of an eye toward new campaigns and product opportunities.

Nicholas M. Pasculli: Marketing strategies are being reshaped to suit the new e-commerce reality, media budgets have been slashed, brand-building activity in many cases are on hold or being timed to make a big splash at upcoming industry events. There continues to be a shift toward investment in performance marketing, and the trend toward digital channels, with online social platforms, in particular Tik-Tok, among the social platforms that marketers are scrambling how to monetize. At the same time, fresh produce brands must find new creative solutions to achieve distinctiveness in the post-pandemic marketplace. The bottom line is that even the fresh produce industry must compete for the attention of consumers in the crowd of a never-ending stream of messages that continue to take consumers on a roller coaster ride of emotions.

Steven Muro
Steven Muro

Tristan Simpson: One of the toughest challenges was generating and maintaining consumer attention during the chaotic early months. Attention was redirected to grabbing whatever produce and products people could find — and at that point, they were not necessarily tuned in to specific brand marketing or positioning. We also know that many category managers and buyers paused on adding new brands, products or even entertaining meetings for several months. This was a setback for brands just starting out or hoping to make inroads with new retail partners. Rapidly adapting behind-the-scenes marketing communication initiatives significantly increased. Many of us are used to strategic planning on an annual, or longer, basis. As the pandemic hit, there was a temporary trend toward planning by the month or quarter while the situation unfolded.

Are we back to normal yet? 
Simpson:
The phrase Roaring Twenties feels appropriate. We never truly experienced a slowdown, which I attribute to most brands’ roles as essential businesses during a time when access to food became a focal point of the pandemic. We helped launch several new products across multiple fresh product categories. The public still needs and wants reassurance that their choices are safe and beneficial. This is playing out in many ways. We are highlighting the traceability, the safety protocol that went into packaging each item, the extended freshness and shelf life and overall sustainability of brands. These messages are resonating. Digital and social media programming has always been important, but it is now even bigger. With targeted paid social media campaigns, we are helping encourage foot traffic into retailers or add to cart behavior online by showcasing recipes, freshness and safety, or other seasonal usage tips. We are collaborating with relevant influencers to illustrate how families are preparing and enjoying meals at home that appeal to the whole family.

Nicholas M. Pasculli
Nicholas M. Pasculli

Jewell: What is normal? I think we are emerging from our homes and 2020 practices all at different levels across the country. Some of the new shopping behaviors developed will most likely continue to some degree, but at what level is still to be seen. As a strawberry marketer, we didn’t see a slowdown in buying behavior, but we did see a shift in how often consumers shopped and we saw more purchases of larger containers. We are continuing with promotion and doing much more consumer engagement, again focused on getting back out there and providing solutions as folks start planning those summer graduations and family gatherings for the first time in over a year.

Muro: With all the new business generated from the pandemic, there was a slowdown in promotion and new product launches. As restaurants begin to reopen and expand their seating capacity, retail produce sales have slowed from the 2020 levels but in general are still well above 2019 sales. Retailers, wanting to keep the new business they picked up in 2020, are again beginning to look to new promotions and product opportunities.

Almy: There was a cautionary period in 2020. However, what we saw was that demand did not falter. Whether it was new pack sizes or new varieties, there was no shortage of innovation from fresh food growers and producers.  As our country begins to open back up, we’re finding that companies are eager to continue nurturing the communities they were able to bolster in 2020 with more engaging ways to connect and reach new shoppers.

Tristan Simpson
Tristan Simpson

Pasculli: From a business and economic standpoint, I do not believe we are back to normal. We are pushing the cart up the hill, but we have a long way to go. I certainly hope that we discover as a human family, a normal that incorporates all the things that were good about being at home and I hope the fresh produce and floral industries can somehow adjust marketing strategies that encourage how wonderful being at home with friends and family can be. I have always said the kitchen table is the most important piece of furniture in a home. Our industry needs to figure out how to own that space for years to come.

There most certainly was a slowdown. On average, we saw a 20-30 percent reduction in budgets for several months after the lock-down. Our foodservice clients were impacted the most. Our horticulture/floral clients business took off to new heights and in the horticulture space, supply is still not keeping up with demand. The industry needs to capitalize on this and market the heck out of it just. Most definitely, major processors are introducing new and exciting blends and kits, and we are seeing a surge in easy to prep products that makes cooking at home easy and fun. Convenience will continue to be the trend for years to come. The pandemic did not solve our collective time management challenges.

Has anything permanently changed?
Pasculli:
I don’t believe permanent changes can be clearly defined in fresh produce. Change is happening daily. Change is a constant in our industry and without change or innovation, companies wither. From a marketing perspective, I have seen companies finally taking social media more seriously as a way of communicating with consumers. I definitely see the move to more social engagement in our industry as a permanent shift.

Almy: Consumer habits and purchasing behaviors have changed. As an industry, I think we finally understand the importance of being present and showing up for the consumer. Any company that wants to be relevant and present now understands the importance of being comfortable with a digital presence and being available to consumers. We’ve proven our ability to be nimble in the face of adversity. 

Jewell: Who knows? This is new to all of us. I think consumers will maintain a mix of online and in-person grocery shopping. Foodservice is coming back but we may continue to see take-out and dine-in with streamlined menus for a while. I do think that consumers are tired of cooking three meals a day and this summer we may see those dog days in July and August as people get out and take vacations away from their kitchens and grocery shopping. However, I also think we may see a strong back to school season this fall and a lot of family time this holiday season that we can capitalize on with promoting our fresh berries. 

Simpson: Attention to food safety was already at the forefront yet the pandemic added another layer of concern. There will remain a level of consumer interest in products that come in a convenient, sustainable package. Marketing a product’s on-the-go and versatile convenience will remain key. As work styles will continue to adapt, people will need more seasonal and on-the-go choices. Developing and marketing products that are healthy, convenient and economical — with all aspects of a meal experience included, like a fork — will be appealing.

Muro: Nothing in marketing is permanent, but the landscape has shifted, and marketing will need to understand the swiftly changing consumer attitudes and purchase behaviors and how they will impact receptivity toward new product concepts, innovation and ultimately demand. One significant change is consumers’ shift to significantly more online purchases of groceries, including produce items. For produce marketers this can be both an opportunity and a challenge when trying to grab the attention of consumers. 

What is your advice for companies trying to conduct business, launch new products and grow during this time?
Muro:
Understand your consumers. Understand your competition. Understand your market. Working only with a gut instinct to launch new products is a dead form of marketing. Having solid, fact-based information and research, combined with analytical skills and strong business acumen is the key to succeed. Once all of these are in place then test, test, test. Test the concept, the messaging, the packaging, the brand value the price point. Then test against the competition. Many companies think of success as getting placement on the retail shelf. There have been countless numbers of new products that made it to the shelf and quickly died there. Once your product is on the shelf is when the real marketing work should kick in.

Simpson: I am so fortunate to be in the fresh food space where demand is higher than ever. Brands that have been able to adapt and evolve their offering and meet retailer needs for innovation, marketing and direct-to-consumer outreach have fared well. There is a healthy appetite for sustainable, convenient products that help consumers meet needs for a healthy, on-the-go lifestyle. If you are looking to launch a new brand altogether, know that customers, category managers and buyers are slowly coming back around.

Almy: The one thing we know for sure is that people are going to eat and that will not change. We have to increase our commitment to showing up consistently as brands. We have to meet consumers where they are versus expecting them to miraculously come find us. During the pandemic, shoppers got back to basics, cooking at home, stretching a dollar and looking for tips to help them navigate the pandemic smarter. The brands that are engaged and present will continue to reap the reward of having a stronger connection with the shopper. 

Pasculli: Have a conversation with your customers. Ask them what’s working for them, what challenges they have that remain unsolved, and their priorities going forward. Your highest probability of success comes from leveraging your experience with product launches. If your new product doesn’t align with your current product line, ask yourself if you’re well-positioned to deliver it. Additionally, your brand and value proposition are established, so an adjacent new product allows you to leverage your past investments in marketing. Create something independent so it can stand on its own. Even though a new product can fit into your current product offering, it should still be a separate, unique offering. Most importantly, the new product should have a clear value proposition.

Finally, fail fast. When it comes to launching a new product, you can never be certain if you’re going to succeed. It is a risk that you must be willing to take.

Jewell: Stay in touch with consumer shopping behavior. Keep those influencer relationships to help navigate messaging. Work closely with retail and foodservice partners to be relevant to their business and what their shoppers or patrons are doing. Now is not the time to simply go back to old ways of doing business. Over the last year, consumers have learned a lot about brands they love, and they have learned a lot about where their food comes from. We need to work together to make sure consumers remember that and stay loyal to us as an industry. We know consumers have short memories, but we need to make sure they remember how much they loved fresh produce, farmers, and farmworkers during the pandemic.

What do you see over the next year in terms of promotional and marketing campaigns?
Jewell:
This year we are still dealing with issues as an industry getting our fresh produce on the shelf. Transportation costs are extremely high. We are dealing with a pallet shortage. Labor costs are going up and we still have uncertainty on when the entire country will be completely open and there is no further threat of the pandemic. In the meantime, we are beginning to look at 2022 and wonder when and if we will be able to go visit our customers in person this fall to put programs in place for next year.

Pasculli: For decades, nutritionists and healthcare professionals have tried to get all of us to consume more fresh produce. However, fruit and vegetable marketing can be challenging. Fortunately, consumers have become more interested in nutrition, the concept of functional foods and home cooking — especially in the last 15 months. Our industry must find new ways to take advantage of these trends to educate consumers and encourage the consumption of even more fresh fruits and vegetables. Creating promotional opportunities are one such way of doing that. Cause marketing, I believe is the key to achieving this goal. Consumers want to dine out an experience new flavors. Getting branded items on the menu in restaurants is the next step in getting more and more fresh produce items at the center of the plate.

Almy: I don’t see a slow-down in demand whatsoever. Demand will continue to carry us through the summer, the back-to-school season and the holidays. There is no sign of our industry slowing down their marketing investment toward promoting fresh produce. If anything, it is now accelerated.

Simpson: I anticipate demand to drive innovation in the produce category. Interest in seasonality, convenience, and packaged value-added solutions that make all of this mealtime at home easier and will inspire new ideas.

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July 23, 2021

BelleHarvest, one of Michigan’s oldest grower-owned distributor of fresh apples has acquired Michigan Fresh Marketing, one of the leading produce sales organizations in Michigan. The… Read More

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