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Got Produce? Survey Results Show ‘Disappointing Response Rate’

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 5, 2009

As we headed off to Monterey to attend the PMA Foodservice Conference, we made a point about the way the generic promotion program was going to be dealt with in that venue:

…the efforts being conducted are not designed to build consensus. At PMA’s Foodservice Conference, for example, PMA was kind enough to set up a National Fruit & Vegetable Research & Promotion Board “Town Hall” session to discuss the generic promotion program. These “town hall” events are really panel discussions and, as we’ve written before, not really the most effective way to hold anyone’s feet to the fire and get answers.

The odd thing about this program, however, is that the moderator of the session is none other than Mark Munger.

Now Mark, Vice President of Marketing at Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce, was also the chairman of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, while the generic plan was being developed. Mark has been one of the plan’s primary advocates traveling to association meetings to advocate on behalf of the plan.

Now we know Mark and, as we wrote here, we like Mark and we are sure he will try to be fair. Inherently, however, his advocacy role is in direct conflict with a moderating role.

It is like saying we are going to have a panel discussion on whether we should have health care reform and Barack Obama will be our neutral moderator. It makes people feel that the fix is in.

This is really a shame because people either ignore what they perceive to be a biased process or they throw up their defenses. It means that the opportunity to persuade is lost.

This “town hall” was considered a separate event and PMA basically outsourced to the Produce for Better Health Foundation the time and space to let the foundation present its case as it chose.

To Mark’s credit, he saw the absurdity of moderating the session and with the support of Elizabeth Pivonka, President of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, some quick changes were made.

We would instead have a quasi debate. Mark would speak in the affirmative as to the merits of generic advertising in general and of this proposal in particular and explain how and why decisions were reached and alternatives rejected. Lorri Koster, Co-chairperson at Mann Packing Co. and the current Chairman of the Grower Shipper Association would present concerns over the economic viability of additional assessments from the perspective of production agriculture and specifically from the perspective of a segment of production agriculture that has low barriers to entry and tends to solicit rapid supply responses.

They were kind enough to ask the Pundit to facilitate the discussion, a role we were honored to fulfill.

Although we wish we had a few months’ notice to let the industry know what we were going to do so we could have had a larger attendance, we had about 80 people, most of whom stuck out a two-hour session after a long day of PMA Foodservice sessions.

We have little trouble saying that it was the most illuminating of the many sessions that have been done on the generic promotion program. Mark came off very well, articulately representing the hopes and dreams of those who yearn to see a healthier world and hope that the fresh produce industry can experience prosperity as it leads us to this healthier state. Lorri Koster came across as a poignant figure, representing production agriculture as Atlas upholding the world and questioning both the fairness and the practicality of increasing his burdens.

Your friendly Pundit was there to question assumptions, point out contradictions and to clarify the issue at hand.

The feedback on the session was very good and, to a large extent, this was because Mark left his PowerPoint, brimming with lots of details about the proposal, in his briefcase. This left us free to examine first principles and led to a discussion that might have actually persuaded someone — one way or the other.

Just the fact that the stage wasn’t monopolized by advocates of the plan served to open the minds of those who were opposed. It is amazing sometimes how far people will go to help you if they feel they are being given a fair shake.

This is why we are pleased that PBH has released headline results from its industry survey regarding the generic promotion program. We urge PBH to release the complete and unabridged report, including all cross hatches it received from the research company.

The results are not surprising. We have a good intelligence network here at the Pundit and it has been clear for some time that most people in the industry are not engaged on this subject, so the response rate would be very low. It wound up being only 8%.

This is not surprising. First it is a long term and abstract issue. Second, most people can’t do anything about the subject. Unless they are the owner or CEO of their company, they get no vote. So it will be very difficult to ever engage the great mass of salespeople and buyers and operating executives throughout the industry. Most view the proposal for generic promotion as more a condition in the marketplace that they may or may not work under than a choice or decision they have to make. Third, the survey was not carefully directed to the decision-makers after vetting their e-mail addresses. No effort was made to make sure the e-mail was received. We are confident half the e-mails wound up in spam folders or were never forwarded to the proper authority.

Of those who did respond, many didn’t have strong opinions either way. Partly this was people holding their cards to their vest. In other cases, it is that nobody is authorized to really have an opinion. If you are dealing with a publicly held company or one with multiple partners or, perhaps, one with a large private equity holder, positions on this may require an actual vote. Until that happens, nobody has authorization to declare a commitment or even an inclination either way.

Of the 248 people who responded, 45% said they never heard of the idea and 47% were undecided.

Although these types of surveys have a response bias to the sponsoring organization — surely most of the PBH Executive Committee members quickly voted — the proposal predictably lost. The default position is the status quo; those who advocate a change are the ones who have to persuade. We are a long way from that: 31% of those responding (77 people) were opposed and 22% (55 people) were in favor.

Win, lose or draw, PBH should release all the info it has. Such transparency will build confidence and make people feel we are an industry working together to figure this out as opposed to one group trying to force it on the rest of the trade. Besides other people might look at the data and see things that have been missed; it is all upside and no downside.

A friend reminded us that it took 10 years to get the National Mango Board set up. This project will do better if viewed in the context of a long term effort to learn and discuss rather than a speeding train with a schedule that must be adhered to.

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