CHICAGO – Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, kicked off his group’s annual convention June 10-12 with a sigh of relief.

“I was worried we were going to be sitting here talking about tariffs with Mexico,” Stenzel said at the event’s opening luncheon roundtable.

Instead, with the Trump Administration backing off of its tariff threats in the days leading up to United Fresh ’19, opening-day sessions were able to focus on branding, innovation, food safety and other front-burner issues facing the produce industry.

Stenzel challenged speakers at the luncheon roundtable to say what they were optimistic about in the industry going forward.

“I’m excited because young people are not interested in center-store food brands,” said Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms. “There’s a lack of trust there.”

Instead, he said, millennials and Gen Z are much more focused than earlier generations are on health and the wellbeing of the planet, which is great news for purveyors of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Mary Thompson, CEO of Bonduelle Fresh Americas/Ready Pac Foods, said that technology will only improve the ways in which companies can tell their fresh-food stories – stories today’s consumers are desperate to hear.

Stenzel echoed the word choice of another panelist, James Rogers, CEO of Apeel Sciences, used to describe the current state and the prospects for the fresh fruit and vegetable industry.

“As James said, this is a renaissance for our industry,” Stenzel said. “The focus on healthfulness, the new technologies, the branding efforts – it’s exciting time for fresh produce.”

The ever more important role of branding in the produce industry was a theme running throughout the first day of United ’19.

In “Next Level Brand Strategies to Drive Consumer Loyalty,” three marketing executives discussed recent rebranding efforts at their fresh produce companies and how branding isn’t just for CPG companies.

Nadine Williams, marketing director for Shenandoah Growers, described her team’s efforts to breathe new life into their company’s line of basil and other herbs. “We wanted our brand to be more than just a commodity,” she said. “Consumers today, especially younger ones, are looking for brand authenticity. If we’re selling a commodity as just a commodity, we’re missing that. We’re selling fresh herbs, bold flavors. You can’t be boring on the shelf.”

What Williams and her team came up with – the brand name “That’s Tasty” and the tag line “Pure Organic Flavor” – taps into what she calls a “flavor-forward” message that conveys the experience of transforming dishes with herbs.

The result has been a big spike in sales, she said. But with a fresh, perishable commodity, branding isn’t easy, Williams said. With some of the previous brands she worked with, including Bicycle Playing Cards and Gorilla Glue, the products were so shelf-stable, some of the “marketing advice” administered by Williams to retailers was to remember to dust the items on the shelf.

“It’s hard with fresh,” she said. “The brand has to be able to stomach that, to have consumers who love it so much that they can take the good, the bad and ugly (inherent to perishable products). But if you can build that strong brand, it gives you a platform for innovation.”

Another workshop held on the first day of United Fresh ’19, “From CPG to Fresh,” featured four executives who made the switch from center-store product companies to the fresh produce industry.

Abby Prior, vice president of marketing for BrightFarms Inc., said the fresh produce industry is more open to innovation than any of the CPG industries she’s worked in.

One recent BrightFarms innovation is Sunny Crunch, a locally-grown packaged salad that comes with the tag line, “A Better Iceberg!”

The seed used to produce Sunny Crunch is a hybrid of iceberg and romaine. The company could have marketed it as iceberg, or as romaine, she said. But thinking outside the box and giving it its own name has made all the difference.

“With our largest customer, it’s their No. 1 item,” she said. “It’s perceived as being light, bright and exciting.”

It’s an example, Prior said, of being “not a marketer of commodities, but a marketer of experiences.”