by Kevin Coupe
"Fresh Talk" is sponsored by Invatron: Proven Technology. Innovative Thinking. Intelligent Solutions for Fresh.
Content Guy's Note: "Fresh Talk" is a new MNB column, scheduled to alternate on Wednesdays with "Kate's Take." It will examine all aspects of "fresh," in both the broadest and most focused meaning of that term (depending on the whims of the columnist). "Fresh Talk" is sponsored by Invatron...which you can learn more about here…but which has no input into the subjects covered or responsibility for the attitudes taken.
One of my favorite people in the food industry is Cathy Burns (pictured), the former president of Food Lion, who now serves as president of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). In that role, she is responsible for developing and rolling out PMA's new strategic plan … and I think she has the unique perspective of someone who spent many years on the retail side, and now serves a swath of the fresh foods industry that is broader in some ways and more specific in others.
Plus, Cathy is a fun person to hang with.
So I thought it might make sense to catch up with her via e-interview, find out what she's learned about herself and the industry in her time at PMA, and get an update on the organization's fascinating Sesame Street-themed "Eat Brighter" marketing initiative.
MNB: Okay, you've been at PMA for a little over six months. What has been the biggest surprise about moving over from the retail side, in terms of organization and/or your own professional experience?
Cathy Burns: Hmmm… the biggest surprise? It’s not as much a surprise, but more of a confirmation of what I experienced last July at PMA’s Foodservice Conference. Having the opportunity to witness each day the commitment and passion of PMA’s member leaders and staff driving the industry and organization forward has been a great experience. It’s one thing to see an organization’s core values on a piece of paper; it’s another to interact with people who live it every day. The produce industry has an incredible soul.
Also, while I knew a bit about what PMA did from my time as chair of the industry’s Produce Traceability Initiative, it wasn’t until I joined the staff that I more completely understood and appreciated the year-round value we provide to our members in a global, balanced, and differentiated way.
Personally, I’ve had to make a slight shift in my mind from creating shareholder value to creating member value. In both cases, the focus remains on having a solid strategic plan that delivers against consumer needs.
MNB: What is the one thing that you've discovered about the produce supplier community that, from your experience, retailers do not know or do not understand? Conversely, what is the one thing about retailing that you think suppliers either don't know or don't understand?
Cathy Burns: One thing I’ve noticed that’s underway is the transition from a very transactional, sales-based philosophy to one that focuses on true collaboration and partnership. Suppliers are starting to realize that the old paradigm of “real marketing is too expensive for a thin-margin business” is shifting in the new world of reaching consumers online, one in which they have a truly unique story to tell and the tools to do it. And retailers are becoming more aware of ongoing constraints impacting producers, among them water, labor, regulatory pressures and of course the ever-present threats of weather and pests.
MNB: It is my sense that at this moment, we're experiencing a kind of sea change in terms of produce marketing - some of it on the retail side, some of it on the supplier side - as companies offer greater variety, more information, and tap into an expanded consumer consciousness. Do you agree, and can you talk about how these things are manifesting themselves?
Cathy Burns: You are absolutely right. The industry as a whole is becoming more complex and tech savvy all along the supply chain. Just look at the interactions happening between the industry and consumers on various social media platforms. The everyday conversations that occur between produce marketers or retailers and their fans only underscore shoppers’ desires for more information about fresh produce.
We need to continue to change the conversation around marketing fresh fruits and vegetables. Today, a child in the U.S. is bombarded by thousands of food ads over the course of a year, with less than 100 of them featuring fruits and vegetables. Our intent with the ‘eat brighter!’ initiative is to provide the produce industry with a unified movement that also provides customization — helping to rise above the advertising noise with a strong voice, and one clear message, and at the same time boost sales and instill good values to build customer loyalty through individualized applications. For our industry, it’s about coming together to increase consumption of fresh produce for the health and well-being of children all across the country. It can be done, it must be done, it will be done.
MNB: Speaking of ‘eat brighter!,’ you’re just a few months into it ... can you talk about how the rollout is going, and what we're likely to see when back-to-school rolls around? Are there companies that you think are leading the way both on the supplier and retail sides?
Cathy Burns: Sure. As of today we have 15 companies already approved for the licensing in the ‘eat brighter!’ movement – all of whom I consider as leading the way. More are lining up to get licensed – and remember that they’re getting this fabulous intellectual property from Sesame with no royalty fee whatsoever! That’s an amazing opportunity the likes of which our industry has never had. Nonetheless, it takes courage to decide to change packaging, branding, and retail-focused strategies (all of which are not inexpensive undertakings) but also courage in stepping forward as a participant in an industry movement. I do feel as though we’re about to see the tipping point in the next couple of months.
We already have Sesame Street-branded products in grocery stores up and down the East Coast. Nearly 50 product lines are now available for retail outlets across North America. Many of those suppliers are targeting the back-to-school promotional window for launch, while others are looking at the fall season.
We’ve also had a number of conversations with retail leaders (independents, regionals, and national chains) since the program launched – and these conversations are all in different stages, some are closer to in-store promotions while others are working on how the Sesame assets can be integrated into their go-to-market strategies.
In short, would I love to see ‘eat brighter!’ in every store I shop or visit? Absolutely.
When you look at produce and the broader fresh foods business, has your vision of the future changed or evolved since you joined PMA? If so, how ... and what are the things the industry needs to do not just to embrace the future, but create it?
Cathy Burns: There are a multitude of factors affecting the industry (such as increasingly limited natural resources, the aging farming population, developing efficient ways to feed the growing global population, etc.) that will challenge how we market and do business. The produce department remains the point of differentiation for most retailers as well as a driver of profitability, and I know our members will continue to create innovative solutions to meet consumer demands.
There is also the ability to be willing and nimble enough from both an organizational and personal standpoint to accept and act on change – innovation is key - be it in the form of new ideas, new business processes, or new opportunities.
As a retailer, I believed in the power of marketing. It works. We have not scratched the surface in the produce industry to leverage this incredible tool to change consumer behavior and drive consumption. It is not about telling consumers fruits and vegetables are healthy – they know that. It is about creating marketing that is emotive. This will be a key part of our future.
Over the past six months, I’ve had amazing visits with industry members to not only learn about their businesses but also how they feel about PMA. Our association was built by members, to serve members, so it’s key for us to understand what their needs and expectations are and for us to create and lead change based on that feedback. Given the strong staff of subject matter experts, we want to be the industry’s first call.
Content Guy's Note: For more information about PMA's "Eat Brighter" initiative, click here.
- KC's View: