When the Pundit Poppa, Michael Prevor, was in college, he majored in accounting, a practical skill, but he minored in International Trade, an area he was intrigued with and one he thought had applicability to an American produce industry still mostly insular in its thought process. He joined the family business as a young man and, from the beginning, he was to focus on global opportunities. In time he made the Pundit's family business the largest independent exporter of fresh fruits and vegetables from the United States and a substantial importer as well.
When we launched PRODUCE BUSINESS at the PMA Convention in San Francisco in 1985, right from the start we integrated international content into the magazine. Robert Zwartkruis, a Dutchman living in Sweden, was a founding columnist, and as a substantial importer of American produce he offered a distinctive and informed voice that kept our readers abreast of the dynamics of the global produce market.
We, of course, always had readers around the world, but the nature of print distribution meant there were delays, and it was expensive so only those most directly connected to trade with the USA would get copies.
Then came the Internet and we invented the Perishable Pundit, and all of the sudden the world became smaller. We were on CNN, not only in America, but in Tokyo and London, on the BBC, in hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV shows in every corner of the globe, and we started to give information and gain insight from produce industry leaders across the planet.
As we sought additional ways to help elevate the industry, we moved into events and it made sense to spread our wings outside the US. We could build on established relationships while also building new ones and, soon The New York Produce Show and Conference gave birth to the Global Trade Symposium and the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum and then to events such as The London Produce Show and Conference and The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference.
Still there is only so far that one can go communicating solely in English. Even though most industry and corporate leaders outside of the US speak English, they may understand more completely in their native tongue. And there are many who, of course, do not speak English at all.
Yet it is more than just language. Americans grow up thinking of opportunity as being primarily domestic. It makes sense. The US is a vast country with opportunity aplenty. But it is different for a little boy, or girl, growing up in, say, Holland. Virtually from birth they are taught that opportunity depends on being willing to transcend the borders of the Netherlands. That is why so many Dutch are fluent in multiple languages.
In the produce industry, it is those who grow up in Chile and South Africa and other producing countries without large domestic markets that are raised from birth to look for global opportunities.
So, for our company, the goal was clear: Move into communicating in other languages and continue to develop a team that is open to global ideas.
In the whole world, there is exactly one person and one organization that, like a missing piece of the puzzle, could interlock perfectly with what we have built so carefully over the past three decades.
The publisher of the most important and influential transnational produce portals is Yentzen Consulting. And the entrepreneurial spirit behind these portals is company founder, Gustavo Yentzen Wilson. Publishing in English, Spanish and Chinese, these publications serve an industry that reaches over two billion consumers.
It is with extraordinary pride that we announce that we have joined hands with Yentzen Consulting, confident that the combination will allow us to learn more while communicating more and thus give us an opportunity to help people advance their careers, help companies achieve greater success and help the industry become stronger and better.
Gusatvo Yentzen and his wife, Marie, signing papers in Santiago, Chile to make the company part of Phoenix Media Network.
The Santiago-based company provides many services, but is best known for publishing three well known portals:
The relationship with Gustavo goes back a long time, to before he had his own company. In fact, shortly after he set up his own company, we named Gustavo to the 2007 class of our 40 under Forty program with this write-up:
Gustavo Yentzen Wilson, 36
Las Condes, Santiago, Chile
Gustavo Yentzen Wilson has a degree in business administration engineering from Adolfo Ibañez University, where he specialized in marketing and consumer behavior.He has worked for companies like 3M, CSAV (Chilean shipping company) and San Pedro winery. In 2001, the Chilean Exporters Association (ASOEX), which is responsible for the Chilean fruit global image project, appointed him senior marketing manager.
In 2006, he started his own business, Yentzen Consulting (YC), in Santiago, where he focuses on representing and aiding foreign entities that want to do business in the Chilean and Latin American produce markets. He also assists in positioning Chilean companies in North American markets. YC is dedicated to providing value through marketing ideas and plans, searching for synergies and economies of scale. In its first year of operations,YC assisted and represented international trade associations, including PMA, CAC and several trade publications.
Between 2001 and 2006, Yentzen developed and implemented the Chilean fresh fruit industry marketing campaign in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. It included a television campaign, press relations strategy and highly successful “Chilean Fruit, Wine and Salmon” cross-promotion and point-of-sale activities. For five years, he was responsible for coordinating activities related to the “Experience the Flavors of Chile” event at the Chilean booth at PMA’s Fresh Summit.
In 2003, he expanded his marketing activities into Latin America by launching campaigns in Mexico and Colombia. In 2004, he participated in the launching of the 5-A-Day campaign in Chile. In 2005, Gustavo became the first Latin American representative in the UFFVA Leadership Program. In December 2006, YC started representing PMA in Chile and Peru.
Yentzen came from the wine industry.“It was an industry I loved in part because of the glamour involved,” he states. “As I started working in the produce industry, I realized it had the same glamour, but I also found other dimensions. I discovered an industry revolving around and depending on its people.There is a sense of community involving all its participants around the world, no matter the position in the company or role played in the distribution chain. I found an industry sincerely caring about the final consumer and campaigns encouraging children and people to eat more healthfully, not only for the economic aspect of it but also with the conviction of generating good for society as a whole. I saw dedication in growers, shippers, wholesalers and retailers.Moreover, I encountered an industry welcoming new people, especially young people, to share its new ideas. And I found an industry passionate about produce, but more importantly passionate about life itself.”
He appreciates having met a great number of people who have taught him many things. “I always try to learn from the people I meet and who surround me. I take as a souvenir the very best of each one, not only professionally but also on a human level. These fellow produce people have helped me to be a better professional and a better person. For this, I consider myself a very blessed person.”
We’ve kept in touch ever since and have watched as Gustavo carefully managed the growth of his operation in important fields such as China and managed this growth with an approach to ethics and industry service that makes us proud to have Gustavo join the leadership ranks of Phoenix Media Network as well as to call Gustavo a friend.
Just around this time 32 years ago, Ken Whitacre and I drove to the Main Post Office in Manhattan each night at 2:00 AM to drop off solicitations for our fledgling magazine.
We cannot say that we foresaw the path that we would take, but each envelope we mailed carried with it a dream that we would find ways to serve this industry in such a manner that we would be rewarded with the chance to grow. And that with each ring of growth, we would find new and better ways to serve.
We never dreamt that we would be publishing in Chinese and running events in London and Amsterdam, and we never dreamt that when we shook Gustavo’s hand to present him his 40-under-Forty plaque that we would later be shaking hands over a contract uniting our operations.
Of course, when great-grandfather Jacob Prevor took sail from Russia to set up his produce operation in the old Wallabout Produce Market in Brooklyn did he ever dream his great-grandson would be helping to Initiate Industry Improvement — in line with the motto of the enterprise his great-grandson created — in Spanish, in Chinese and across the English-speaking world.
We are sure not, and in that is a lesson: If we are to build our careers, our companies and our industry, we can never wait for certainty as to the outcome. We have to believe in ourselves and what we can create and, in the fullness of time, trust that if we create value, that value will return back to us multiplied many times over.
We know that Gustavo joins us now in committing to use these formidable resources at our disposal to help people, companies and the industry at large find a path to a better tomorrow.
John Pandol is a good friend of the Pundit and sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS, contributing many pieces including these:
Pundit’s Mailbag — Univeg, Ready Pac, Sunkist And The Lord Mayor Of Dublin
PMA's EAT BRIGHTER Campaign Trumpets Success But The Data Tells Us Nothing About Any Consumption Boost
Pundit’s Mailbag — Tesco Gets Reviews From Industry Members
Truce Confessions Of A Conference Junkie
Communications Technology – The Flintstone’s Task With The Jetson’s Tools
Farmers Are The New Rock Stars: You Have Permission To Trash Your Hotel Room
On The Future Of Trade Shows
An Insider’s Search For Cool
Trade Shows: Public, Private or Both?
Recently he wrote a piece for FreshFruitPortal.com that was headlined, Limited supply of club grape varieties ‘angering retailers’, says Pandol Bros:
A leading California table grape grower believes the industry focus on proprietary varieties is beginning to fade, as retailers become increasingly frustrated by the limited supply availability.
Pandol Bros special projects director John Pandol also said the current season had seen good demand, yields and prices, and expected volumes to dwindle earlier than in the last two years.
According to the representative, many retailers are still ‘trying to figure out what to do’ with the plethora of new varieties and are struggling to adapt to the industry changes experienced over recent years.
“Up until 10 years ago, two varieties [Thompson Seedless and Red Globe] were half of our volumes, and now our biggest variety is probably 15%,” he told www.freshfruitportal.com.
He criticized the ‘club approach’ in the table grape industry, saying a variety name was ‘no magic’ and at the end of the day it was the characteristics like color, texture and flavor that mattered.
“They’re focusing on the characteristics, and often they find out that a traditional variety is better than a new variety and the public varieties are better than the proprietary varieties,” he said.
“I think that the limited varieties are really starting to anger a lot of retailers. I’ve been out on shows and if a variety is good, there’s never enough of it.”
“If it has good characteristics then it doesn’t matter if it’s new or old, public or proprietary.”
Pandol also explained how it was likely that many exclusive cultivars produced by a limited number of growers would fail in the end.
“We have a variety called Sugar Crunch and really it had been overlooked and abandoned in a variety block, and my brother asked for three cuttings of it and actually made it quite successful,” he said.
“It’s been identified as a defect in the club system that a variety, especially a proprietary one, goes out to one or a very small group of growers, and so what sometimes happens is they don’t figure out how to make that variety successful.
“It’s not like the days of the Flame Seedless that went out to hundreds of growers, and so best practices kind of emerged. If a variety is not in the hands of many growers, they don’t reach their full potential.”…
John’s key points are as follows:
1) That retailers are frustrated by limited supply availability of many proprietary or club variety grapes
2) That a variety name has “no magic” and that what is most important is variety characteristics, such as color, texture and flavor that most matter.
3) That traditional and public varieties are often better than proprietary varieties.
4) That if a variety is not in the hands of many growers, it will not reach its full potential.
John is always insightful and we think he is, in fact, identifying how many retailers and growers of non-proprietary varieties feel, but he is not painting the picture of how the industry will evolve.
Let us look at John’s cri de guerre point by point:
1) That retailers are frustrated by limited supply availability of many proprietary or club variety grapes.
It is a little unclear what John is trying to say here. One perspective would be that retailers love exciting new varieties and want to feature them and so are frustrated when in the early years these grapes are not grown in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of major chains.
It is quite common for proprietary varieties to give exclusives to smaller chains, such as Waitrose or Marks & Spencer in the UK, for a few years until volume levels rise. Of course, it is also possible that John was saying something entirely different. He could have been claiming that retailers are frustrated because A) They want to buy from their favored vendors, but those vendors may not be able to supply them with the varieties they want, or B) That they want to buy certain varieties and are frustrated at the price they have to pay to secure supplies from one of the limited numbers of shippers able to sell the variety they want.
Of course, getting retailers frustrated is precisely and exactly what proprietary varieties are supposed to do.
If Driscoll’s has varieties of berries that can only be secured by buying Driscoll’s, then retailers will be frustrated. They will be frustrated at the price they need to pay, at their inability to switch vendors if they don’t like the service, etc., etc.
Same would be true of apple varieties. Retailers who want Jazz apples find their supplies constrained as only licensed growers can plant this apple.
If you think about the optimal situation for a retailer, you realize that this is not optimal for producers.
So a retailer would ideally like to be able to buy the variety it wants from a large array of suppliers — this way it could play one against another to secure the lowest price.
The various organizations, such as Sun World, The Grapery and many apple marketers that promote proprietary genetics, do so with different degrees of restriction.
Driscoll’s, however, has the tightest control and it is much to the benefit of its growers. If a retailer wants, say, a variety of blackberry that Driscoll’s uniquely has, it has to buy from Driscoll’s and cannot play multiple suppliers against each other in the way retailers have traditionally done in fresh produce.
What John is hearing is frustration from retailers about a power shift in produce — a power shift in which producers are calling the shots.
2) That a variety name has “no magic” and that what is most important is variety characteristics such as color, texture and flavor that most matter.
The name on the product is starting to have real power in the produce department. Look at something like Pink Lady apples. This is not a genetically proprietary variety; it is a trademarked name with a quality assurance scheme. Cripps Pink apples are the same variety and are available for sale less expensively. Yet you look at a market such as the UK and you see the phenomenal success the Pink Lady branding effort has had.
Increasingly, brands have value because they represent a call on shelf space in supermarkets and other food stores. It turns out consumers can prefer Halos or Cuties over just some Clementines.
It has been said that if you invent a better mouse trap, the world will beat a path to your door. But, today, it is fair to say that “it ain’t necessarily so” — you need to market.
The Jr. Pundits see Sun World’s Midnight Beauty or Sable Seedless and demand their purchase — otherwise they don’t want black grapes at all.
In the local diner across from Pundit headquarters, waitresses report gladly paying $9,99 and $12.99 a pound for The Grapery’s Cotton Candy grapes, explaining how they love to freeze them and then eat them.
Although, theoretically, it is true that it is a quality-and-characteristics matter more than a name, if the characteristics cannot be identified by consumers, they won’t pay $12.99 a lb! In other words, if the name represents particular quality and characteristics, then it allows for consumer preference.
3) That traditional and public varieties are often better than proprietary varieties.
There is no reason to think that public varieties can’t often be of great quality and offer fantastic characteristics.
Still there are three problems and one broader issue:
First, without branding, consumers may not recognize these great characteristics.
Second, without good controls, the great variety can be grown in non-optimal locations, by bad growers, etc., and this will result in inconsistent taste and flavor.
Third, without volume controls, the great grapes will be overproduced and thus won’t ever deliver premium margins to the growers.
The broader point is that it is not clear whether the issue is “better” or “worse.” It may just be a question of different. This is a revolution in produce.
People who buy chocolate chip cookies don’t necessarily think they are “better” than Vanilla Wafers or Oreos. They are different, and people are capable of enjoying all different cookies at different times and for different reasons.
So if a consumer looks at The Grapery’s products such as Witch Finger, Teardrop and Cotton Candy grapes – it is not obvious that the consumer is saying these are “better” than black seedless grapes. They are just different and, for some eating occasions, more fun.
Who is to say that the grape section in a hundred years won’t be like the cookie aisle of today, with dozens of specialized varieties both competing for consumer purchase and inspiring consumers to spend more?
4) That if a variety is not in the hands of many growers, it will not reach its full potential.
This is certainly possible, in much the way beta testing of software with limited users always leaves bugs undetected, but mass consumer usage discovers them — so, the more acres planted by the more growers in more places, the more likely we are to discover different growing techniques.
The problem is that indiscriminate planting by anybody also will produce lots of sub-standard fruit, which will tend to ruin the reputation of the variety in the marketplace.
The inconsistent nature of the available fruit will depress returns for everyone.
So there is a powerful argument for the idea that someone with a vested interest in the reputation of the fruit, who will restrict its planting to growers known to be quality growers, restrict its planting to soil conditions and climates believed to be optimal for that variety and restrict its volume to less than demand so prices will produce premiums for growers may be on a path to a more successful and prosperous produce industry.
Whenever there is a shift in power in a relationship, there is bound to be discomfort. So a party getting “angry” or being “frustrated” is to be expected. The question is not whether everyone will like change. It is whether the change proposed will be a positive or a negative impact.
Retailers have plenty of power. Even major brands such as Coca-Cola have to vie for the best display, the largest space etc. Yet, if in some small way, proprietary varieties give producers a bit of the upper hand, that is for good. A prosperous farming sector encourages reinvestment in the land and agricultural eco-system and rewards the people who, after all, do yeoman’s work in keeping society fed.
Almost every large-scale event for the produce industry that had been done in Holland was done in Rotterdam, the big port where much of the produce industry is located. Yet when we looked at the location for an event in the Netherlands we didn’t hesitate. We knew that Amsterdam was the place with the global appeal, an outward-facing show, attracting people from all corners of the globe, had to be in Amsterdam.
When it came to identifying allies for this point of view, we didn’t have to look far. Robinson Fresh has its headquarters in Amsterdam and the reason tells us a lot about Robinson Fresh and C.H. Robinson. The business model for these companies is about integration and supply chain management. It is about consumer analytics and value-creation. It is an old organization, but this is not your grandparent’s produce company.
As a result, the key driver of the business is talent, which means that Robinson Fresh wanted to locate in the place that bright young people prefer to live in, and management saw Amsterdam as a magnet for the creative minds of the up-and-coming. We asked if Robinson Fresh would share this innovative impulse with the industry and they quickly agreed.
So we were able to integrate a tour of the Robinson Fresh headquarters as part of the program. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more about this American giant that has made its European capital in Amsterdam:
director European business
C.H. Robinson European headquarters,
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Q: We’re excited Robinson Fresh will be participating in the Amsterdam Produce Show…
A: Logically we’ve been supporting The London Produce Show since its founding. We did the global unveil for our Robinson Fresh branding at the London event. The Amsterdam Produce Show is a sound extension of that concept and we are happy to support the service to the industry that events such as this represent. The fact that our European headquarters are located in Amsterdam made it an easy decision to lend our support.
Most fruit and vegetable companies in the Netherlands are based in Rotterdam. Yet Amsterdam is the great iconic city of the Netherlands, a magnet that attracts people from around the world. Robinson Fresh is the only produce company on a global scale that resides in Amsterdam. So being involved in the show is a way to welcome the produce industry to our European home town!
We want to play a role in bringing this resource to the community and helping pivot the attention of the global produce community to the Netherlands and Amsterdam. It is an amazing city and an amazing country, a fulcrum for ideas and innovation. At Robinson Fresh we are proud to be part of the community and want to support it in every way possible.
The Robinson Fresh division shares corporate offices with CH Robinson’s transportation and logistics service headquarters. It is a new facility for us specifically designed to promote innovation by appealing to a rich talent pool drawn from nearby schools and start-up ventures. Not only are we in Amsterdam, which itself is a magnet for global talent, we are in an up-and-coming neighborhood where bright, creative people love to be.
Friday, the day after the tradeshow, The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference runs a series of regional tours. We are pleased to contribute by opening our doors to the industry. The tour starts off with a visit to Amsterdam's Food Centre Wholesale Market, the local wholesale market in Amsterdam. Many sturdy, long-established companies that are focused on the local trade, then we take the participants to see the total opposite side of the industry when they visit our facilities. If you’re interested in seeing this 13.5 billion US dollar company’s European headquarters, this is your chance. Those were last year’s figures. It’s a big company, 43 offices in Europe alone.
Q: And what is your role?
A: I’m responsible for the Robinson Fresh business in Europe as the director.
Q: From your perspective, what are the key industry trends? And within your company, where do you see the biggest growth opportunities and challenges?
A: We are seeing global industry trends shifting with the changing retail buyer and consumer behaviors. The current environment of retail consolidation, centralized procurement, new consumer generational or demographic preferences, and the growing relevance of e-commerce are all opportunities and challenges the industry faces.
Q: Could you share your different strategies to address these multifaceted changes?
A: At Robinson Fresh, we utilize our integrated product and supply chain knowledge, consumer insights expertise, and industry analysis to help our customers identify important category trends and emerging patterns that will impact their business and help inform for better decisions.
Q: How do these relationships with your customers work exactly? Are retailers placing higher demands or increased responsibilities on produce suppliers? Are your customers consolidating their customer bases? Do retailers welcome your expertise and involvement in managing the supply chain?
A: Global cold chain expertise has become more important than ever, as retailers are focusing on shorter transit times to improve quality and freshness through integrated logistics solutions. Also, as purchasing decisions are becoming more consolidated and global in nature, retailers are seeing solutions to lower costs, improve communication and visibility, and create assurance of supply. At Robinson Fresh, supply chain visibility through our global technology platform allows our clients to have visibility of their products all the way back to the source.
Q: How important is The Netherlands to Robinson Fresh and the European produce industry?
A: The Netherlands plays a very significant role in the European Fresh Industry. Having the largest port facilities in Europe, Rotterdam is the most significant gateway for fresh imports to the European continent. Antwerp just over the border in Belgium is also an important import hub. For products that are air-freighted Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is another import point of entry into Europe.
Although produce vendors always focus on retail, that is not always the whole story. In the Netherlands there are around 52 or 53 large scale produce companies that represent probably 75 percent plus of all produce imports into continental Europe with the exception of bananas. The Netherlands really is the heart of the continental produce industry.
Since the EU 28 are net importers of fruits and vegetables, Rotterdam’s terminals, facilities, and logistics infrastructure are ideally positioned as the preeminent import hub for the vast majority of fresh produce imports into the rest of Europe.
We are one of the few global suppliers in the world that can fully control the entire cold chain from the farm to shelf and also analyze consumer buying preferences. This control of the complete cold chain means there are no excuses, no pointing fingers — we perform.
Q: How is Robinson Fresh leveraging industry infrastructure in The Netherlands?
A: As I mentioned, Robinson Fresh is based in Amsterdam, and we are integrated with our C.H. Robinson European logistics operations and headquarters. Leveraging our logistical capabilities and Rotterdam’s infrastructure allows us to develop the most efficient cold chain solutions for our EU customers.
Q: Where does Robinson Fresh see specific geographic areas of opportunity globally?
A: Robinson Fresh is currently in a global growth mode, with expansion and presence in multiple geographies around the world. Our multinational retail customers have been a priority in determining where and when Robinson Fresh brings its unique value to new geographies and markets.
Q: Could you elaborate on that unique value?
A: We are advantaged in what we do in our supply chain because we have solutions that really encompass supply chain management. We have been a produce company for 110 years, but we’re also a massive logistics company. So we marry those two capabilities together to bring value to our customers.
We’re in a market where things are constantly changing. This is a brand new office. We just moved in here last April. We outgrew our old space, and moved to double the size. We needed more space to grow.
The Amsterdam Produce Show will be held about a kilometer from our new office. Westerpark, where the event will take place, is an iconic site. It is known for Amsterdam Fashion Week, food truck festivals and concerts, and there are many nice restaurants in the center of a big park. It’s a great venue for the Show.
It’s very exciting. We’re now in 19 countries in Europe, and we’re looking to expand our footprint. Every country is different. In our office, I have people from 11 nationalities sitting around my desk, and collectively speaking 27 different languages. We’re a pretty international company, which is one of our value propositions to connect with customers across Europe.
Q: Do you think the Amsterdam Produce Show will be a valuable avenue to make more of these connections?
A: Yes. Remember you have a lot of unique elements coming together in this event. First, you have this incredible location at the heart of this enormous and affluent European market. Second, the show provides the Netherlands and the Dutch produce industry an opportunity to showcase its achievements and importance. The world looking at the Netherlands sees incredible growing operations, including world class controlled environment agriculture, top flight logistics, a sophisticated business intelligence and more. Third, many events focus just on producers and retailers; here you have this enormous re-export powerhouse that really exists nowhere else in the world. Fourth, Jim Prevor, aka the Perishable Pundit, specializes in gathering thought leadership with serious intellectual firepower, and this event is focused on high level concerns such as innovation, sustainability, education and health — the kind of big picture, forward thinking perspective that can really help people, companies and the industry progress.
It is going to be a diverse group of interesting people doing interesting things. One imagines there will be a lot of talk of BREXIT and the implications of that for the produce industry. But there are also people coming from around the world with their own concerns. It is going to make for some really excellent discussions, and we here at Robinson Fresh are just so pleased to be able to play a part in creating this new industry resource where one didn’t exist before.
Come visit Amsterdam's Food Centre Wholesale Market and visit the headquarters of Robinson Fresh and C.H.Robinson in Amsterdam. In fact, come join us for the entire event the inaugural edition of The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference.
Here is a piece recently written on the Pundit introducing the event:
Here is a small brochure:
Here is the show website:
You can register for the event right here.
And book a hotel in the official headquarters hotel right here.
We look forward to seeing you in Amsterdam!
We’ve written a number of pieces about PMA’s “eat brighter!” program:
As PMA Promotes Eat Brighter, Questions Arise About Brand Efficacy And Measurements Of Success Or Failure
White House Chef Tells Industry To Try Harder; But He Needs To Check His Facts
IMAGINE-NATION: Will The First Lady’s Sesame Street Campaign Reduce Produce Consumption?
When Elmo Is Crying – Will The Sesame Street Brand Be Used To Market Sub-standard Product? Is The Legal Minimum An Acceptable Food Safety Standard When Promoting To Children?
Now, right from the start we thought the PMA should undertake the program, as we wrote almost three years ago:
When the White House says it wants to promote your products, you say yes. So it is most wonderful and fortuitous for the produce industry that First Lady Michelle Obama wanted to promote this new initiative in which the Sesame Street characters will be made available, royalty-free to the produce industry.
It is also most decidedly a feather in the cap for the Produce Marketing Association, its CEO Bryan Silbermann, and Jan DeLyser, Vice President of Marketing for the California Avocado Commission and immediate past chairman of PMA’s Board of Directors, that the association was the selected partner for this initiative and that they, personally, got to go the White House and participate in this event with the First Lady.
Yet we live in an industry with dozens, maybe hundreds of initiatives around the globe designed to increase produce consumption. What almost all of these initiatives share is two things and they are related. First, the initiatives peter out over time, their financing dwindles or interest in them wanes or they simply end. Second, the programs are designed in such a way that it is almost impossible to prove they are successful.
We were once invited to a private PMA dinner, and we were seated next to a vendor who was well invested in the program. He mentioned that he “knew” we were opposed. It wasn’t the time or place for a debate but, in reality, we were even more in favor of the program than he was.
In fact, we were so hopeful the program would succeed that, to us, the key imperative was to do the program in such a way that we could prove its existence actually increased produce consumption. We felt that wasn’t happening, and that the manner in which it was rolled out almost guaranteed we would be unable to prove efficacy and would likely mean the program would never achieve its potential.
So it was with baited breath that we read a piece titled, The Promotional Campaign Brightening Up The Bottom Line, which Kathy Means, Vice President of Industry Relations at the Produce Marketing Association, wrote for Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSNESS UK. What would PMA have to show for the effort to date? Do we have some indication that, at last, we had found a program that is boosting produce consumption? Kathy’s first paragraph lays out the case:
The eat brighter! campaign is a collaborative effort among PMA, the educational foundation Sesame Workshop, and the Partnership for a Healthier America. It uses popular Sesame Street characters to promote fruit and vegetables to the preschool set and allows produce marketers selling in the US, Canada, and Mexico to use characters royalty-free to boost sales of fresh produce. PMA, which licenses participating companies for a nominal fee, surveys participants every few months. The research shows a consistent average year-on-year sales increase of 3% for suppliers, with some suppliers reporting even greater boosts.
We confess that though we appreciate Kathy laying out the strongest possible evidence for the success of the program, the fact that “a consistent average year-on-year sales increase of 3% for suppliers, with some suppliers reporting even greater boosts” was it was a bit deflating. The problems:
We don’t know that this number is true. Sales numbers are supplied by the same companies that signed up to use the characters. Some may have reason to make the numbers favorable to the program they endorsed! This is why the gold standard for medical research is a double-blind program. You don’t want the researchers, who typically believe in the new medication and want it to succeed, to know which patients have the new medication and which have the placebo. Intentionally or unintentionally, they may put a finger on the scale.
This sales number is meaningless without a control group. Even if this is true, a 3% increase in sales may be equal to or less than the increase in sales of comparable companies that do not utilize the “eat brighter!” program. In other words, it is only significant if companies using a given promotional program and seeing sales increase are compared with a control group of comparable companies that do not use the promotional program see their sales fall, stay flat or grow by less.
Of course, the point of the program is to increase consumption of produce. Sales numbers are calculated in dollars – not volume. So sales numbers are not an appropriate measurement because prices fluctuate up or down and obscure any meaning in the data.
Even if prices were steady and even if companies using the promotion grow faster than the rest of the industry, that still tells us nothing about consumption. One can imagine lots of reasons why this might be true that have nothing to do with consumption:
A) Maybe the companies that participate in “eat brighter!” are the best in the industry, the most active and promotional. So they would have grown faster with or without eat brighter!
B) Maybe the companies that participate in the “eat brighter!” program were in need of a powerful brand, either because they lacked one or because they have a great brand that is only offered exclusively to one retailer in a region, so picking up another “brand” gives them the opportunity to grow – but just at the expense of other industry members, not by increasing consumption.
C) Perhaps major retailers prefer the “eat brighter!” program because they don’t like to promote proprietary brands but find the “eat brighter!” program great because they can easily substitute one “eat brighter!”vendor for another without disappointing consumers. In any case, if a supermarket chain has a policy of always adopting an “eat brighter!” vendor when it becomes available, then “eat brighter!”vendors will progressively replace non-“eat brighter!”vendors – though there may be zero impact on consumption.
So this point – interesting though it may be – simply has no known relationship to increasing consumption of fresh produce.
Now the piece also mentions an example that Kathy acknowledges is anecdotal:
On a more tactical, anecdotal plane, an “eat brighter!” retailer-supplier pair detailed their results from a March promotion aimed at families with younger children. Linda Cunningham of citrus supplier Classic Harvest and Bryan Roberts of Save-A-Lot stores teamed up for a promotion of value-priced bags of naval oranges featuring iconic Sesame Street character Elmo. Classic Harvest’s bags were promoted in 1,300–1,400 stores, and both of them reported great success.
“Classic Harvest is a young company, and we don’t have millions of dollars to spend on branding,” says Cunningham. “We wanted to brand our products with recognizable characters; “eat brighter!” is an affordable option, and PMA has done all the legwork. Millennial moms know the characters, because they grew up with Sesame Street, and the artwork really resonates with children.”
This is really a fascinating quote because it calls into question the very role of PMA in the industry. Clearly, offering free usage of the Sesame Street characters helps certain industry companies to compete more effectively. As Linda Cunnigham, a sharp marketer who sees value when it is offered, notes: “Classic Harvest is a young company, and we don’t have millions of dollars to spend on branding. We wanted to brand our products with recognizable characters; “eat brighter!” is an affordable option, and PMA has done all the legwork.”
So, clearly, this is a smart approach for many companies. But is it the purpose of PMA to facilitate efforts in which we have zero evidence boost consumption but just help those companies compete against Halos and Cuties?
Although a few well-known brands have the “eat brighter!” license, often this was to serve one retail customer who wanted it or to have another brand in areas where they offered exclusivity on their main brand. Sometimes signing on was a way of supporting PMA – Kevin Fiori was vice president of sales and marketing for Sunkist when he was Chairman of the Board at PMA and a big fuss was made over Sunkist being one of the first licensees, but Kevin left Sunkist and the depth of Sunkist’s commitment to the program is unclear.
If you look at Sunkist’s website there is no mention of the program on the home page, no mention on the “retail” page and a Google search shows no mention of Sunkist and eat brighter! for over a year!
In fact, we can’t find a word on Sunkist’s entire website that mentions “eat brighter!” This is not really surprising. Sunkist’s goal is to build the value of its own Sunkist brand, both to directly sell more citrus at higher prices and to extract value from Sunkist’s substantial Licensed Products revenue source.
Now most executives in the produce industry would support efforts to increase consumption, but since there is zero evidence, even three years after the program start, that this program has any impact on consumption. The question then becomes: Is PMA’s purpose to help weaker brands compete with stronger brands?
Besides these two points, the piece references two more general studies — neither of which even attempted to measure whether Sesame Street characters increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Measuring these things is complex because actions have counter-actions. So even if some effort — character marketing, free food distribution, etc. — actually does increase consumption at one meal part, there may be a reaction at some other meal part in which consumers reduce consumption.
In produce, where we typically only sell one brand of each item, the dynamic may be different than in, say, the cereal aisle. In the cereal aisle, a brand can appeal to little girls and then another brand can appeal to adults or little boys. In the produce aisles, if the apples have stickers that some may see as childish, feminine or masculine, it may actually turn off some buyers.
We have no way of knowing if the “eat brighter!” program has increased consumption. And neither does PMA. To us, that is the sadness here.
We have well-established ways of testing these things. You go out, find some civic-minded retailer, divide stores of similar demographics into a test group, an alternative test group, and a control group. Then for a few months, you sticker all the produce going into Group A with Sesame Street characters, you sticker Group B with some alternative sticker and you sell produce “as usual” in group three. This starts to give us some information as to what will boost sales.
Consumption requires further study. If we see an uptick in sales, we continue and expand the effort and add in-home consumption tests, garbage checks, etc. Or you could set up a few cities as test subjects and see if consumption rises as opposed to control cities.
There are many ways to test these programs. But the White House wasn’t really interested in funding and conducting ten years of research to actually determine what can boost consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.
So they pushed the industry into this national effort which, three years in, has established nothing. With nothing proven, interest and funding will dissipate and this effort will wind up just one more inconclusive effort in a history of ill-studied efforts.
All we can hope is that industry takes this as a lesson. Will we be smarter next time?