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Marketing Roundtable: Experts zero in on promotional strategies

By
Tim Linden

Inflationary pressures, ongoing COVID-19 worries, labor shortages and supply chain issues continue to dominate business discussions. How should produce companies react to these concerns when designing marketing plans or launching new products?

The Produce News empaneled a group of veteran ag marketing experts who were individually asked to provide written responses to a handful of questions concerning their expertise. This year’s participants were Melinda Goodman, president, FullTilt Marketing; Mary Coppola Heslep, senior vice president, Food, Ten Acre Marketing; Cindy Jewell, Jewell Marketing; Steven Muro, founder/president, Fusion; Tristan Simpson, founder/CEO, tristan michele marketing; and Megan Zweig, president, DMA Solutions.

Melinda Goodman
Melinda Goodman

Their lightly edited responses follow.

We are two years into COVID-19, and it appears we have moved on to a new normal. Are produce companies launching campaigns at the pre-COVID-19 rate?
Melinda Goodman: It’s safe to assume that the majority of consumers have resumed a new normal. They are gathering with friends and family and heading back into restaurants. The demand for travel is a good example of that right now. At this time, I don’t think COVID-19 is the No. 1 concern, and I don’t see lingering marketing challenges, but the uncertainty of higher pricing associated with inflation is taking center stage. We are seeing our clients exploring new campaigns — both online and in store — and ramping up their marketing again. If you look around the entire food industry there is a lot of excitement in new experiential marketing campaigns. Marketers want to get back in front of and engage with consumers in more exciting ways with less pandemic- related messaging.

Mary Coppola Heslep: COVID-19 certainly changed the way the produce industry markets. Marketing found its voice within companies across the supply chain in the early days of the pandemic when communications to internal stakeholders and externally to consumers became a critical business function. Marketers had a window of opportunity to elevate the ever-stressful budget conversation and to make major adjustments to their marketing stack. Trade shows transitioned to virtual, and marketers needed to sharpen their digital skills at a quick pace. This is where I anticipated more innovation once we got back to in-person shows, bringing along the best of the virtual experiences, but it seems we’ve gone right back to where we were pre-pandemic with trade shows, and trade show investments. I’d like to see sponsorships, education and other event activations adopt more digital alternatives to match — and spotlight — the new skills of our industry marketing professionals.

Mary Coppola Heslep
Mary Coppola Heslep

Cindy Jewel: COVID-19 contributed to new habits, but I’m not sure I want to call it a new normal. At Bobalu, we see continued strong demand for fresh strawberries and we are providing incentives for shoppers to buy more of our berries every day like industry IBOTTA offers (cash back) and more usage ideas. A lot of the Bobalu communication focuses on family farming values and what we are doing with sustainability to continue to build loyalty. Our recipe development is done by an influencer partner that we have worked with for a couple of years. We love her perspective because she is a busy mom working on a budget and provides easy solutions, draws from pantry items and comes up with recipe hacks. She also helps other moms with shopping tricks helping to stretch the weekly food dollar.

Steven Muro: Consumers have accepted that COVID-19 is not going to disappear anytime soon. So, while COVID-19 did prevent product launches and campaigns, it is now inflation, spearheaded by soaring energy costs, combined with various supply chain and labor issues, that stand in the way of a full recovery. This combination of impediments is slowing down recovery to pre-COVID-19 normalcy.

Cindy Jewell
Cindy Jewell

Tristan Simpson: What is normal anymore, and is COVID-19 really over? When I look back before COVID-19 many produce companies were a bit on autopilot with their marketing campaigns. Now they are taking a vested interest in really learning what consumers are wanting and how they are behaving because there is a “new normal” all around us. The realities of inflation, supply chain issues and labor impacts have consumers shifting their spending and purchase behaviors. So, it isn’t about whether or not to launch or promote, but about how to be effective in the midst of changing shopping patterns. The challenges are much the same but now amplified — like how to break through to consumers and capture their attention, hit the right value proposition and delight them in a way that has them coming back for more. COVID-19 can’t take these principles away.

Megan Zweig: From our perspective and the brands that we work with daily, we continue to encourage promotions that ignite engagement with customers and shoppers alike. Now is the time for more engagement to educate and inspire people to continue to care about eating nutritious food both at home and in restaurants.

Steven Muro
Steven Muro

For the most part, fresh produce has done well in the past two years with consumers focusing on health. How can marketing campaigns capitalize on this trend?
Jewel:
Health and wellness continue to be a focus with consumers as they get back out into the public. We keep reminding shoppers about the positive health benefits berries and fresh produce provide as part of a daily diet while reminding them that they are a sweet treat. It’s important we all work together to maintain that halo effect we gained during the height of COVID-19 as a simple and delicious solution to good health.

Simpson: Health and wellness products, including fresh produce, are tried and true staples for consumers. Now, more than ever, immunity-boosting, stress relief and food as medicine are at the forefront of what produce can offer to consumers beyond just being fresh. Health isn’t a trend, it is a lifestyle, and produce companies have an opportunity to move beyond claims and labels and show the impact the products can make on consumer’s lives.

Zweig: There are several ways a brand might capitalize and become part of the healthy food conversation. First, brands are encouraged to optimize their websites with content that educates about the health and nutrition benefits of the food products being promoted. Second, brands should extend this momentum to consumers both on packaging and on social media. Since shoppers consume information in various ways, we must learn to capitalize on grabbing their attention when and where they are looking. These two locations are critical. Third, we talk to marketers in the fresh produce industry daily and we hear many businesses suggest that consumers “already know” some of the information that we know to be true about nutrition and food. Not true. People tend to need to hear facts repeated before they finally remember. Our advice is to share facts about health and nutrition often via your marketing channels to ensure your message is absorbing in the minds of shoppers.

Tristan Simpson
Tristan Simpson

Goodman: COVID-19 was a wakeup call for many consumers who worried about getting sick and chose to eat better. It has also been a gradual shift to healthier eating over the last few years with rising awareness about preventable disease, but consumption stats haven’t backed this behavior. Consumers have short attention, and they quickly revert to old behaviors and a path that is easy. Fresh produce companies must stay hyper-focused on helping consumers feel inspired to eat more fruits and vegetables and make it easy. Produce cannot be hard to prepare and must be timely in sharing relevant content and meeting consumers where they are. Many consumers are getting their ideas online in short social soundbites. Data mining of consumer behavior and use of digital technology is critical in building today’s marketing campaigns.  

Heslep: It’s true that the pandemic elevated consumers’ interest in the health benefits of fresh produce, but it also is true that consumers do not want to be told what’s good for them. It has been documented that “healthy” is not an attractive attribute for them when choosing what to eat. There are so many stories to tell about the food our industry produces that do not need to be told through a health lens, but rather a health halo. We cannot lose site of the attractive attributes like flavor, texture and variety that make up the produce department. There still is great opportunity to bring more excitement and experience to produce marketing.

Megan Zweig
Megan Zweig

How are inflationary pressures weighing in on new product launches?
Muro:
Inflation has soared since the start of the year, with produce prices increasing 8 percent on average. The retail prices of many produce categories have increased far more. To help counter this, many retailers have held-off passing direct price-increases on to their shoppers. This has reduced the retailer’s margin. This resulted in many retailers’ aversion to offering new promotional discounts. Of course, supplier-sponsored promotions can still find a place at retail. Don’t forget that retailers are also being hard hit with increasing energy costs, which are up over 30 percent in the past year. Combine this with current labor issues and you can see the difficult business scenarios swirling around retail.

Goodman: The supply chain issues that began during COVID-19 are lingering and expected to grow during this increased inflationary time. That will impact inputs and transportation for fresh produce, even labor. But, because it is a whole product and not manufactured into a new product, there are fewer issues at the manufacturing level than with products that require additional ingredient inputs like processed foods. This is a time when fresh produce can continue winning. Consumers will likely continue to be moved into different brands and products and need to think about how to make their dollars go further. Many produce items can add a lot of value in a family meal budget. Additionally, high inflationary periods usually result in the concept of trading down to trade up. Consumers will slow spending on big ticket items, premium brands and unnecessary expenses (trading down), but they will spend more on food as a smaller amount of their total budget. Food is something that they control and provides small luxuries. This is a time when food companies should be doubling down on marketing and innovation.

Heslep: Inflation is omnipresent. However, innovation waits for no one. New products are still coming online. Leading with the goal of meeting consumers need for more flavor, convenience and fun twists on what’s familiar will allow produce brands to continue to introduce new items without further impact. New produce items will meet the same headwinds that existing items are faced with — no need to pause innovation, but be prepared for inflation-related concerns and challenges.

Jewel: We don’t have any pending product launches, but I see consumers continuing to buy our berries in larger pack sizes more often than pre-COVID-19. This tells me that some habits created during the pandemic are being sustained. The real challenge we are facing as farmers specific to inflationary pressures is rising costs on all inputs while the retail community is trying to keep costs down for shoppers due to inflation. Continued increases in costs throughout the growing and distribution system is ultimately going to affect the cost of fresh berries and all fresh produce at retail. We, as marketers, must continue to demonstrate the value of fresh to keep us on the shopping list and in the grocery cart despite the rising cost.

What do you see over the next year in terms of promotional and marketing campaigns from the industry?
Zweig: As the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race. We encourage brands to generate a manageable and sustainable marketing and promotion plan or calendar to keep their brands present and relevant with each and every buying audience available.

Goodman: I think we are seeing a normalized period and will continue to see much of the same. The food and fresh produce industry continued to market over the last few years and will continue to do so, but accelerations in online shopping and changes in consumer behavior had suppliers rethinking how to do promotions and we’ll continue to see more innovation in marketing that meets consumers where they are. In many cases, marketing spending in food was constant or increased and we expect to see that continue.

Heslep: I do not know a single marketing professional in the fresh produce industry who’s seeking a “normalized period.” We strive to stay one trend ahead, which is the only way we’ll be able to increase consumption and compete with other food categories for the share of stomach. A period of normal in this environment won’t allow for progress. Our pent-up energy is associated with the taste of achievement. Marketers had to push themselves out of their day-to-day during the pandemic, reinvent their skills, and utilize new applications and channels. The energy now is the fuel to continue to redefine what makes marketing successful and what defines successful consumer engagement.

Jewel: I see brands really trying to distinguish themselves from the competition with new products and campaigns. The question is if inflation continues will consumers respond or stick with the basics?  Our company is focused on putting the best product in the box and ensuring consumers experience value and a positive experience with every purchase. That really requires that we stay vigilant with our best cultural practices, and quality controls so consumers continue to confidently buy our brand each week.

Muro: We will continue to see reduced promotional activities until inflation starts to cool off, which may not be until late 2022 or into 2023.

Discuss the importance  of social media.
Simpson:
I can’t imagine a marketing campaign without it. I wouldn’t suggest you have to worry about being an expert but just know that it must be a part of your marketing tool kit. Hire subject matter experts who live and breathe it and can maximize the return on using social media platforms. Also understanding what topics consumers want to hear from brands and what makes them feel more connected.

Muro: Social media should be standard fare for every launch, campaign and product. Sponsored posts should also be part of the plan. However, it is not the inexpensive medium it once was as prices for sponsorships and ads have steadily increased. A good combination would be in-store messaging that works directly with your social media. As a part of the plan, include brand influencers to help your plans take-off.

Goodman: Having a social media presence is a must, as is cultivating and engaging your consumer. Like all marketing however, you can’t have all your eggs in one basket. Digital online promotions with retailers, mobile ID marketing, in-store POS and couponing are all still important and effective ways to launch new marketing campaigns. It is fair to say that social media is affordable related to some other advertising and marketing efforts, but it is not free.

Heslep: Every company does not need a social media specialist, but they should all be listening to the trends and conversations taking place on social media. Proactive engagement with your corporate channels is one strategy, but there is also so much to be gleaned from the content that others are publishing. Bottom line, have a plan and expect to spend time, money and strategic thinking on social media.

Zweig: Social media is here to stay and consumers are making decisions based on things they see, learn and consume on social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and now TikTok. Only be present on these platforms if you want to be perceived as a brand ready to play ball.

Tim Linden

Tim Linden

About Tim Linden  |  email

Tim Linden grew up in a produce family as both his father and grandfather spent their business careers on the wholesale terminal markets in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Tim graduated from San Diego State University in 1974 with a degree in journalism. Shortly thereafter he began his career at The Packer where he stayed for eight years, leaving in 1983 to join Western Growers as editor of its monthly magazine. In 1986, Tim launched Champ Publishing as an agricultural publishing specialty company.

Today he is a contract publisher for several trade associations and writes extensively on all aspects of the produce business. He began writing for The Produce News in 1997, and currently wears the title of Editor at Large.

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