The changing relationships between suppliers, retailers and consumers in the fresh produce industry will be the focus of keynote speaker Bradley Fitzhenry Midwest Produce Conference & Expo.

Fitzhenry, brand manager at the Fresno-based MJR Creative Group, brings bring an extensive background in marketing and experience in mixing social media activity with traditional brand marketing.

Fitzhenry’s Aug. 19 talk will describe the future of social media as a marketing tool, and he said the implications couldn’t be bigger for marketers. Avoiding social media be perilous for produce companies, he believes.

The expo, sponsored by The Packer and sister publication Produce Retailer, is Aug. 19-21 in Chicago.

“I see some really foundational changes and some tremendous opportunities but it really takes a big rethinking of the relationships of the supplier community (with consumers),” he said.

In fact, Fitzhenry said even small produce suppliers can have very close relationship with their consumers and have branding opportunities throughout the supply chain, he said.

Fitzhenry began his marketing career at specialty cracker manufacturer Valley Lahvosh Baking Co. in Fresno not long after graduating from Fresno State University.

“I really started to learn manufacturer-supplier-retailer relationships during that position,” he said. Fitzhenry helped to expand the firm’s sales from a regional focus to nationwide distribution.

After his experience with Valley Lahvosh Baking Company from 1990 to 2000, Fitzhenry went to work in the printing industry. That involved Fitzhenry with the marketing efforts of many companies, but primarily from a production and execution standpoint, he said. From there Fitzhenry went to work with a 3-D graphics company in a marketing capacity. In February 2012, he joined at MJR Creative Group as brand manager.

Ironically, Fitzhenry had hired MJR Creative Group more than 20 years previous when he worked as marketing director of Valley Lahvosh Baking Company. The company remains a client of MJR Creative to this day, Fitzhenry said.

 Future look of social media

In today’s market, Fitzhenry said there is a lot of uncertainty about the place of social media in the produce industry, particularly among the grower-shipper-packer community.

“There are a lot of companies who know they should be something, that feel there is a probably a benefit but there is a still a lot of mystery as to how it can work in this particular industry,” he said.

Fitzhenry, who was a summer produce manager at a retail market in Fresno in his teen years, has helped guide the strategies of various produce clients in regard to social media in the agriculture channel, and he said that discussion will be a big part of his presentation at the Midwest Produce Conference.

He said every business on the planet should be taking a close look at the benefits and opportunities in social media.

“It has become the default mode of communication not just for consumers but also for many businesses,” he said.

Google has become an important part of trade, with shoppers researching products before they buy. What creates Google search results are Google search algorithms, which are driving off of content from the internet, including social media posts.

“If you aren’t present and active and putting information about your products and services out there, you may never come up in the search results,” he said.

Fitzhenry also plans to discuss the rise on online purchases of fresh produce, and what strategies retailers may use to combat that.

On Aug. 20, a panel of industry experts will discuss the rise of non-traditional markets, and what retailers can do compete against the trend.

For information and to register for the Midwest Produce Conference & Expo, see the website.