KANSAS CITY - While they may not have been able to meet in person, the North American Blueberry Council and the United States Highbush Blueberry Council — the industry’s top two trade groups — made the most of their Virtual Conference & Expo, an online take on the traditional annual meeting.

Held Sept. 28-Oct. 1, the show included a full slate of speakers, workshops and insights aimed at strengthening the industry during the COVID era and beyond.

In an opening address welcoming attendees to the show, Michael Hyatt, author of “The Vision-Driven Leader” and chief executive officer of Michael Hyatt & Co., shared his perspective on the blueberry industry and stressed how having a clear vision will drive it forward.

“Sometimes distractions show up on your doorstep masquerading as opportunities,” Hyatt said. “Without a clear vision, you spend a lot of resources on non-essentials.”

Being visionary is a skill anybody can acquire, he said. It can and should be for every leadership role, whether for a department, division or entire company.

“Begin with the end in mind, and then reverse engineer it. Start with the what - don't start with the how. The how will become apparent only when you're clear with the what.”

The next “blue wave,” Hyatt added, is dependent on innovation. Industry members need to decide to be innovative and then act on it.  

“It’s critical that the vision be clear, inspiring and practical, and make people’s lives better,” he said. “It’s essential to find those overlapping interests and areas of alignment, and work together toward achieving them.”

Kasey Cronquist, USHBC’s president, agreed with that approach, saying that USHBC’s role is to bring the industry together and to continue to drive possibilities for the future of the industry through innovation and a clear vision. 

United branding front

At the conference, USHBC and NABC rolled out new, more integrated and more creative brand designs for use by both organizations and their sales and marketing platforms.

“The organizations are now more consistently branded in a fashion that will better enable the organization to stand out and communicate its role as a global leader in nutrition science and marketing that has helped double the size of the industry over the past ten years,” Cronquist said.

As part of that effort, the Grab a Boost of Blue brand mark was revealed at the show.

A new consumer call to action, Grab a Boost of Blue is consistent with the organizational branding and motivating to consumers. It will be used in advertising, at point of sale, in social media channels and even on packaging to remind the consumer of what they get from a handful of blueberries.

In consumer tests, 96% of those polled like the new slogan’s design and call to action and identified it as relevant to them.

And in pre- and post-purchase intent measures, exposure to the logo and message increased consumers’ purchase intent for both fresh and frozen blueberries.

“The organizations are now more consistently branded in a fashion that will better enable the organization to stand out and communicate its role as a global leader in nutrition science and marketing that has helped double the size of the industry over the past ten years,” Cronquist said.

In 2020, organics gained a huge chunk of total blueberry category sales for club store giant Costco, said Todd Eagan, the retailer’s berries buyer, who spoke at the show.

Organics now make up more than 40% of Costco’s blueberry dollar sales, Eagan said. The retailer has been able to deliver year-round organic blueberry coverage since 2018.

“Geographic diversity has helped us expand the category and give the customer year-round supplies,” he said.

Eagan stressed the importance of working closely with suppliers and others in the industry to ensure that a steady supply of high-quality fruit keeps coming.

“The need for partnerships is more crucial than ever before. Without those partnerships it can become transactional way too quick.”

Getting the tech edge

Four other speakers at the show addressed the rise of data-driven decision-making in the blueberry industry.

Catherine Cowan and Jessica Mahan of consultancy 84.51° discussed artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics that are being used to understand and create predictive solutions for Kroger and other retailers. 

Those technologies allow users to understand household count, household penetration and even the per trip visit basis across geographies and much more.

Suppliers are also having data-driven conversations and trying to better understand consumer sentiment and if there’s a need to make it better, they told attendees.

“Loyal shoppers overall spend five times as much as non-loyal shoppers,” Cowan said. “Loyal shoppers spend three times as much on blueberries as non-loyal shoppers, so there is room for growth there.”

The shopper loyalty data is at the core of decision-making by Kroger and is so successful due to customizable rewards tailored to consumer purchases and habits.

Now more than ever before, bringing data to the table is key in decision making, and industry/trade organizations have been able to make progress in bringing an objective, data-driven view to retailers and member partners.

“Every time you shop with your card, we’re learning more about who you are and your behavior. We can then tailor the messages and incentives we send to each consumer,” Mahan said.

Repetition and context are also key to creating habits for blueberry purchasing, said members of the panel, which also included CarrieAnn Arias of Naturipe Farms and Jason Riis of Behavioralize.

Panelists touched on the need to continue to inspire consumers to grab blueberries each time they shop. This can include cross-marketing promotions, recipe innovation ideas, and promoting healthy products as ‘food as medicine.’  

“Habit is a really important construct,” Riis said. “Habitual means that some elements of eating or shopping are virtually automatic for that person, and marketers can help change this through repeated behavior, repetition and in a similar time and place. The first action happens at the basket. Habit is what needs to be nurtured here and we need to make it easy.”

Packaging and sustainability

At another show roundtable, three industry expertsJohn Keeley of Highland Packaging; Rick Tomlinson of the California Strawberry Commission; and Janis McIntosh of Naturipe Farms — discussed recycling and, in particular, the history and future of the use of plastic packaging in the berry industry.

The produce clamshell is getting a second life through improved recyclability via PET thermoform packaging. Panelists agreed that blueberries will be a leader in this shift to recycle-ready packaging across the berry industry.

“We’ve really lightweighted the plastic clamshell over the years and competition for the recycled plastic packaging inputs — recycled PET, for example — is increasing.”

COVID-19 has impacted the landscape of plastic packaging due to consumer food safety concerns, panelists said. Bioplastics, which were an option prior to COVID-19, will not replace PET due to limitations on raw materials, so we need to optimize the current materials we use for packaging. 

They agreed that it’s important for brands to use labels to inform consumers that the clamshell is recyclable, such as through Naturipe Farm’s How2Recycle label.

This story was featured in the November issue of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here for the full issue.