It’s tempting to assume that private-label marketing and branded marketing are playing a zero-sum game. The more a given retailer tilts toward private-label, the less importance they place on branded product, and vice-versa.

But 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, points that the two approaches can also have a more symbiotic relationship.

“The relative importance of branding is elevated given the growth of private label,” he says. “A brand won’t be able to compete on price, so the messaging needs to reinforce why they should stick with the brand and have a clear point of difference.”

When retailers invest in their own private-label brands, Strachan says, traditional branding becomes more important because while retailers want to keep their supplier partners in their franchises, they need to have a reason to stay. 

“That’s where having consistency helps keep consumers from transitioning to private label,” he says.

Private label definitely serves a purpose, Whitney says, but it often lacks the power of branded product.

“What I think is missing from private label products and why we are seeing such tremendous growth in produce brands is that they do not build relationships at the product level,” he says. “They are built at the store or department level and retailers usually reserve private label marketing support for large destination-driving product categories.”

What’s left, Whitney says, are key smaller baskets of growing categories like refrigerated salsa, where brands have the opportunity to build shopper relationships and bring them to the produce set.

Stronger brand, higher price points

Consumers are hesitant to take chances on quality, Strachan says. They would rather pay a little more for branded to be sure they’re getting what they want.

“Customers know the quality they’re getting with the Green Giant Fresh brand. We also continue to deliver on innovative new products like Cauliflower Crumbles and the evolution of that product into a meal bowl to create even more value-added products.”

Growers Express’s grower partners know that the company has its finger on the pulse of trends and business opportunities, Strachan says. That creates trust that Growers Express is continuing to grow the categories and their partner’s business.

Getting the word out about the virtues of branding in the fresh produce realm have changed as technology has changed, Strachan says. Some of the more recent opportunities to “persuade” consumers, he says, involve leveraging the digital and social media landscape, particularly as it relates to the credibility of third-party endorsements and user-generated content.

“Word-of-mouth marketing through social media channels is very important,” he says. “Consumers are consuming media in many ways and rely on their network to provide recommendations and feedback.”

The Halos effect

Years ago, when produce was mostly commodity-driven, produce companies didn’t think much about branding, consultant Melinda Goodman says. The industry had a wakeup call when Wonderful announced a $100 million marketing plan in 2013 to introduce its Halos brand of clementines.

“Many wondered how that kind of spend was feasible in a low margin business like fresh produce,” she says. “A mandarin or clementine was just another commodity and Cuties already owned the brand space. But what Wonderful understood was that they had ground to make up on the popular Cuties, and it would take great branding and a marketing investment to make it happen.”

Fast forward to today: not only has Halos built a household brand that has national brand recognition, Goodman says, but they’ve surpassed Cuties in sales to be the category leader.

Cost-effective character marketing

The Produce Marketing Association got into the branding business itself in 2014 through a partnership with Sesame Workshop and the Partnership for a Healthy America. In the program, called Eat Brighter!, PMA member companies can use Sesame Street characters in their marketing efforts, free of charge (PMA charges uses a $950 administration fee).

“We know character marketing works,” says Kathy Means, PMA’s vice president of demand creation and consumer affairs. If it didn’t, she says, produce companies with deep pockets wouldn’t spend big to put a Disney princess or a superhero on their packaging.

But most produce companies can’t afford to do that, she says. For them, using Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Elmo and other Sesame Street icons is a cost-effective solution. Produce companies also  have the freedom of co-branding packaging with a combination of their brands and the Sesame Street characters, Means says.

Eat Brighter! is aimed at kids aged 2 to 5, Means says. If you can establish good eating habits at that age, you have a consumer for life, she says. “Research has shown that that’s when their palates are forming,” Means says. “It’s a lot harder to turn that ship around when they’re 13, much less 30 or 40.”

Since the partnership’s forming, PMA has heard countless success stories, Means says. Like the boy who corrected his mom’s choice of cherry tomato clamshells: “No, Mom, I want the ones Elmo likes.”

Bert and Ernie proved a perfect match for the Northwest Pear Bureau, with a campaign built around a “pair/pear” pun. And the different colors of the Sesame Street characters provide a ready-made match for different colored fruits and vegetables, Means adds.

“The alignment is there — it’s a brand parents trust, and characters kids like,” Means says. “It’s been great, and we’d love to see it get even bigger.”

 Initially scheduled to end in 2018, the partnership has been renewed through 2021, Means says.