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Pundit’s Mailbag – Tim York Speaks Out:
PMA Hires Chief Marketing Officer Lauren Scott But Is The Industry Willing To Test And Reject Sub-Par Fruit?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 14, 2016

Tim York, President of Markon Cooperative and a leader of many industry organizations and initiatives, has often contributed to the Pundit both by writing in and by giving interviews. His contribution has been substantial and includes pieces such as these:

A Call For An Industrywide Sustainability And Social Responsibility Initiative

Single Step Award Winner — Tim York of Markon

Tim York Takes Leadership Role In Food Safety Crisis

Tim York Points Out Buyer Commitment To Food Safety

His hard work serving on the Thought Leaders Panel at The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference and his preparation for the upcoming “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum at The New York Produce Show and Conference hasn’t stopped him from paying close attention to recent Pundit pieces, such as Industry Challenge To Lauren Scott, PMA’s New Marketing Officer: Can The Industry Produce Consistent Quality To Enable Effective Marketing? Tim weighed in on the debate with this piece:

Your column on Lauren M. Scott, PMA’s new chief marketing officer, and the unique challenges she faces in moving the needle on produce consumption reminds me of a piece you wrote some years ago on delivering a consistent brand promise for produce, especially fruit — Can The Produce Industry Rely On Fast Casual To Boost Consumption? Your example was Krispy Kreme’s “hot now” button.

Krispy Kreme’s “hot now” button lights up in stores when fresh donuts emerge from the oven. It’s a sacred brand promise known only to donut lovers. Like lab rats, we are easily trained: the light goes on, and we turn into the store expecting another batch of original glazed donuts still warm from the oven. It’s a powerful lure until the promise is broken and the melt-in-your-mouth experience turns inconsistent at the hands of store managers cheating the system to get bodies in the door.

A broken brand promise turns consumers off for the foreseeable future, if not forever. It happened to Krispy Kreme and there’s a lesson here that shouldn’t go deaf on “produce” ears, even if you’ve heard it before.

Delivering on the promise of a delicious piece of fruit can be a challenge, more so than vegetables, which are often cooked and/or part of a larger culinary experience. It’s easy to tell if a donut is “hot now.” It’s either warm or it’s not. Poor tasting melons, mealy apples or sour grapes look similar to a flavor-packed counterpart. 

Until buyers — retailers, wholesalers, distributors, foodservice operators, or consumer — are willing to test and reject sub-par fruit, the market will find a place for it. Until all of us demonstrate that the market has no place for poorly flavored fruit, it will continue to be a produce marketing vulnerability and a turnoff to consumers. Lauren M. Scott can’t fix that on her own, but the industry can if it’s up to it. The question is — are we?

To your second point regarding adding the likes of bacon to a produce dish as a culinary strategy, this is a proven winner. The produce industry has long said flavor is important, but we don’t use it to drive purchasing decisions and practices. A couple of years ago, Markon and Paramount Citrus (now Wonderful Citrus) funded a collaborative PMA, National Restaurant Association and International Foodservice Distributors Association initiative to double usage of produce in foodservice. A number of solid recommendations surfaced from a think tank of foodservice thought-leaders, not the least of which was to reimagine the restaurant experience with a stronger produce presence. Lauren M. Scott would do well to revisit the findings of that think tank, even resurrecting it and giving it new life. It was that good. And because of that, some of its recommendations found their way to the marketplace on their own.

At last year’s Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum at The New York Produce Show and Conference, for example, Chef Gerry Ludwig from Gordon Food Service spoke about what he calls the veg-centric trend. Chef Gerry identified six elements to this trend: small protein portions; crave-ability; flavor layering; aggressive cooking methods; the use of protein elements such as broth; and “beyond vegetarian”— not meatless. He noted that classic cooking methods, including grilling, smoking, braising, and spicing, coax a larger and more complex flavor profile out of the vegetables. Roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta are not vegetarian, but they are delicious and very trendy.

PRODUCE BUSINESS Magazine (July 2016) calls the trend veggie-forward, in an article titled Veggie-Forward dishes Become Trendy. Whatever the term, the movement toward reducing protein portions and increasing the vegetables at restaurants is pervasive and an industry opportunity.

Greg Drescher, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Culinary Institute of America, has long advocated that grower-shippers realize their role must evolve from simply putting product on a truck and waving goodbye. They must teach consumers and operators how to use a product. Frieda Caplan taught us this 40 years ago, with stickers on products telling us how to prepare them. No one would have known how to use and cook spaghetti squash had she not put a sticker on the squash telling us how to do so. Mann Packing and Church Brothers are two companies that understand they need to tell us how to use products, make them more flavorful, and appreciate their role extends beyond the back door of a truck to the dinner plate.

Hiring a marketing veteran like Lauren M. Scott is a timely strategic move on the part of PMA President Cathy Burns. Guidance from PMA’s marketing task force and a marketing committee notwithstanding, success will come from Burns and Scott putting their imprint on and executing against a game plan that includes managing the challenges raised by Pundit and others.

—Tim York
President
Markon Cooperative
Salinas, California

******

We actually would say that the challenge of delivering on a consistent flavor promise is becoming harder, not easier. Anecdotally, the Jr. Pundits recently tried some Midnight Beauty black seedless grapes, a proprietary variety owned by Sun World. They had never much liked black grapes, but these they loved. Remembering their experience, but not realizing that the flavor profile of Midnight Beauty grapes was unique, they tried some other black grapes at a brunch buffet and they were tasteless so the boys moved on to cake!

As we develop more superior varieties, it ramps up consumer expectations and leads to more disappointment.

This is also a big challenge for brands. Most of the time, brands deliver an objective or constant standard of quality. A Toyota or glass of Pepsi are always the same.

As brands grow, there is a tremendous pressure, though, to make quality relative. So if weather is such that there really is no great product around — companies that have built brands don’t want to give up the shelf space their brands grant them, and they have massive production, distribution sales and marketing investments — it is very hard to just say “there is no fruit available that actually meets our standards, so we are going to withdraw from the market until that changes.”

Yet, as hard as this all is for private companies, it is even more difficult for an association. Typically, the membership of the association will want all its products to be promoted.

There are industries in which association membership depends on companies being willing to subscribe to an ethics code — is it possible to construct a an overall produce industry standard whereby companies agree not to market product that doesn’t meet some standard?

Or is it possible that PMA or another organization could create an industry version of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval but focused on flavor — and then only promote produce that is marketed with that seal?

The point is that it is all too easy to assume that the great variable that separates produce from Pepsi is marketing dollars. It may be that the reason the produce industry has so few marketing dollars is because, as an industry, the product is too variable to make the marketing pay off.

If sometimes you go into a Four Seasons hotel and feel like a king and other times there are mice scampering across the floor of your room, it is doubtful that lots of marketing spend will produce long term business growth.

We are thrilled PMA hired Lauren M. Scott, but we think the best use of her time would be in educating the industry as to the changes needed for the industry investment in marketing to pay off.

Tim brings up the PMA, NRA and IFDA initiative to double produce consumption in foodservice over ten years. This is an initiative we wrote several columns about in Pundit Sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS:

Opportunity For Restaurants, But Numbers Are Hard To Measure

Despite Positive Produce Affiliation With CIAChef, Collaboratiion Is Still Need

As Retail Morphs Into Foodservice, Procurement Agents Will Have New Hurdles

Increase Consumption One Item At A Time

Fundamental Challenges To Kids’ Consumption Of Fruits And Vegetables

There is no question that, without exception, everyone involved in that think tank thought it valuable, and we heartily endorse Tim’s suggestion that Ms. Scott take a look at the findings. Yet we are also have our expectations for this new marketing initiative dampened somewhat but what actually happened to that earlier foodservice initiative.

In those early meetings, it became obvious that nobody had any real knowledge of how much produce was actually used in foodservice, so the goal of doubling use was rather ephemeral.

The National Restaurant Association, representing an industry beleaguered by claims that it was contributing to obesity and with the threat of tobacco-like regulation hanging over it, was anxious to align with the produce industry on the side of the angels and announce to media, legislatures and regulatory bodies that it was in this new alliance to double produce consumption in foodservice — but it was not actually motivated to do anything at all to increase produce consumption.

In time, the initiative just disappeared and PMA just buried the failure.

This is a shame because it meant the produce industry missed out on a teaching moment in which the limits of restaurant’s desires to be the agent of change by which diets would shift was not fully discussed.

The big danger is that the industry will think a new marketing expert has the problem handled, just as it thought PMA was going to double produce consumption in foodservice.

These are industry problems that will require enormous amounts of hard work and a willingness to change by parts of the industry. As Tim said so eloquently:

A broken brand promise turns consumers off for the foreseeable future, if not forever. It happened to Krispy Kreme, and there’s a lesson here that shouldn’t go deaf on “produce” ears, even if you’ve heard it before.

Delivering on the promise of a delicious piece of fruit can be a challenge, more so than vegetables, which are often cooked and/or part of a larger culinary experience. It’s easy to tell if a donut is “hot now.” It’s either warm or it’s not. Poor tasting melons, mealy apples or sour grapes look similar to a flavor-packed counterpart. 

Until buyers — retailers, wholesalers, distributors, foodservice operators, or consumer — are willing to test and reject sub-par fruit, the market will find a place for it. Until all of us demonstrate that the market has no place for poorly flavored fruit, it will continue to be a produce marketing vulnerability and a turnoff to consumers. Lauren M. Scott can’t fix that on her own, but the industry can if it’s up to it. The question is — are we?

We hope this is a question Ms. Scott will repeat many times, in many places, and that her hiring will serve as a catalyst to begin addressing the many problems and opportunities in marketing produce.

Many thanks to Tim York and Markon for being willing to advance the industry discussion on this important issue.

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