Does advertising work?

If it does work, will growers make more money?

New promotion plan would strengthen industry
Tom Karst

National Editor

Those were two of the central questions of the hour during a town hall meeting about the proposed national generic promotion board for fruits and vegetables at the United Fresh Produce Association’s show on April 22 in Las Vegas.

Produce for Better Health Foundation board chairman Paul Klutes, director of brand sales at C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn., said he views the possible generic promotion campaign as a way to move more boxes, not as a public health initiative.

“How do we make this grow the category and grow consumption?” he asked.

“I represent growers, and moving additional boxes doesn’t necessarily translate to more money in growers’ pockets,” said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland. “I urge this process to continue the health of the grower.”

He said vegetables and other seed crops can quickly respond to increased demand, therefore, the profitability of the grower is always at risk, even if demand increases.

“Increasing consumption does not necessarily increase profitability back to the grower because there is always the ability to go plant 20% more acreage,” Stuart said.

Klutes acknowledged advertising is not a panacea for all things.

Elizabeth Pivonka, PBH president and chief executive officer, said growers make those planting decisions even without a generic advertising program.

Mark Murai, president of the California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, asked several thoughtful questions about the plan and was perhaps the most vocal — and skeptical — voice at the meeting.

“We know this will come back to the growers,” he said.

He asked if all task members supported the plan.

While members and their companies have not all endorsed the plan, task force members Mark Munger, vice president of marketing for San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce; and Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., spoke about possible benefits of the plan at the meeting in the face of considerable skepticism from some commodity group and association leaders nervous about grower reaction to another assessment.

 “I think that social behavior is hard for us to change and we have to make our mark there,” Pepperl said. “There isn’t a program like this in the produce industry.”

Pepperl said behavior change programs can work, as evidenced by anti-drug campaigns.

“To bring it in to produce — could it be the silver bullet? I think so,” Pepperl said.

Munger, former chairman of PBH, made several strong points about the plan.

“We can’t rely on the government to try and advance the needle,” he said. “It is clear from 250 years of history that the government is much more interested in treatment than prevention.”

Munger’s concluding point was a strong one. If the industry doesn’t rise up and put together a generic promotion plan, there is nobody else — including the government — that will.

As Munger said, the PBH is the best thing the industry has ever had in promoting that message, but the organization struggles to change behavior on a national basis because of a budget that only tips the scale at $5 million.

“We know advertising works,” Munger said. “As a marketer, if we are committed to moving the needle and increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, it is up to us as an industry to do it, because nobody else is going to do it for us.”

In my opinion, the industry may continue on its steady path without this plan, but clearly embracing a national generic promotion plan would be a show of strength and unity that would make fruit and vegetable growers and marketers stronger still.

A draft text of a proposed national leafy greens marketing agreement was circulated at the United Fresh show, so watch for more news on that front as the USDA prepares to publish a proposed rule. From the draft text, about the purposes of the plan:

“The purposes of this marketing agreement are: To provide a mechanism to enable leafy green handlers to organize; to enhance the quality of fresh leafy green vegetable products available in the marketplace through the application of good agricultural production and handling practices; to implement a uniform, auditable, science-based food quality enhancement program; to provide for USDA validation and verification of program compliance; to foster greater collaboration with local state and federal regulators; and to improve consumer confidence in leafy greens.”