An apple is an apple, a potato a potato. Right?

Wrong. Every grocery perimeter shopper knows there’s an enormous variety of apples, potatoes and almost every other kind of fruit or vegetable you can think of.

But it’s wrong for another reason. Fresh produce — traditionally known as a “commodity” category, one in which Company A’s Red Delicious apple is basically indistinguishable from Company B’s — is evolving.

In many cases, commodities are being replaced with brands. In an age where consumers demand transparency and differentiation and want to hear stories about where their food came from, brands are playing an ever more important role. 

The role of branding in produce has changed a lot since Kathy Means, vice president of demand creation and consumer affairs for the Newark, Delaware-based Produce Marketing Association, first joined the industry.

B2B brands weren’t difficult to find, but B2C was a different story.

“When I came in 30-plus years ago, there were three or four consumer-facing brands that everyone knew, and that was it,” Means says. “The last several years, there’s been a lot more interest in B2C.”

Wonderful Halos, Avocados from Mexico, Idaho Potatoes and NatureSweet Tomatoes are among the many examples of the brand power that can be harnessed by “commodities,” says Melinda Goodman, president of consultancy Full Tilt Marketing.

“These organizations made branding a priority early in their organizational development and stayed the course and the dividends paid off,” Goodman says. “They have gained clear consumer brand recognition, premium shelf placement, growing market share and in many cases premium value over competitors.”

And branding, Goodman says, is definitely on the rise in the produce industry. Retailers, she says, know that branding matters. It’s a visual cue for quality and trust – as well as triggering consumer interest.

“Today, most major grower-shippers and even smaller regional players have made investments in branding and marketing to not only be more competitive, but to be more appealing,” Goodman says. 

Standing out from the crowd

In an industry that has seen the number of SKUs in the average retail grocery fresh produce department skyrocket in recent years, the advantages of having a strong brand to help move product are many, Means says.

“It helps cut through the clutter and helps consumers see products as less of a commodity and more of a value-add,” she says. “It’s a complex marketplace, and the sophistication of marketing is increasing.”

That’s true, Means says, of both “simple” products like an individual piece of proprietary fruit and of more complex ones like meal kits, salad kits and bowls. In both categories, brands can make product stand out, she says, by offering a “promise of what the consumer is going to get.”

Social media has “exponentially” expanded the ability  of produce brands to get their stories across to consumers, Means says. Many brands have hired food bloggers, for instance, to share those stories across multiple platforms.

Branding is critical in differentiating yourself from other companies in the produce department, agrees Jamie Strachan, CEO of Salinas, California-based grower Growers Express, the licensee of all Green Giant Fresh branded lettuces and mixed vegetables packed under the label.

Fortunately, Strachan says, the Green Giant Fresh brand has very high consumer recognition and trust that benefits Growers Express immensely. With those benefits, though, come big responsibilities. 

“As one of the strongest brands in all of CPG, we have a responsibility to deliver consistent quality and innovative products to consumers that have come to trust our brand,” he says. “Some of the ways we have been successful in differentiating our brand is not only to innovate, but to provide consistent quality and eating experience for consumers.”

Generating excitement, forging connections

Brands create excitement and form a connection with consumers, and they help pull consumers into the produce department, says Jay Whitney, president of FoodStory Brands, whose Fresh Cravings salsas are marketed in Walmart and other fresh produce departments.

“Brands also offer a unique opportunity to inspire shoppers to buy other supporting items,” Whitney says. “We know that Fresh Cravings increases shopper baskets by 66 percent.”

Whitney characterizes Fresh Cravings as a “21st Century brand.” One aspect of that is digital: Fresh Cravings’ social media community includes more than 110,000 followers, making it three times the size of its nearest competitor.

“That tells us that our consumers are truly interacting with our content and sharing our posts,” he says. That feedback, he says, is essential to Fresh Cravings delivering the strongest brand message possible. “To understand what’s on their minds and what we can do better — this, to me, is the most rewarding.”

In a less high-tech way, Fresh Cravings’ packaging reflects its brand message of being a salsa that’s “as close to homemade as possible.” Handwritten chalkboard fonts give the packaging a farmers market feel, and the packs’ design allows easy visibility of the salsas’ fresh tomatoes and other vegetables.

For brands that adhere to a “traditional branding theory,” branding in the fresh produce space is on the rise, Strachan says. By traditional branding theory, Strachan means the idea that a brand must continuously deliver on quality and consistency.