KANSAS CITY - Fresh produce is not typically one of the first food categories that come to mind when the topic of branding is brought up.

But more and more retailers and their supplier partners are seeing the value of branded product —particularly with the rise of online sales of fresh foods, where consumers can’t see, touch and smell what they’re buying and need to rely instead on other criteria of quality and dependability that successful brands can deliver.  

In January, Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Robinson Fresh, a division of logistics giant C.H. Robinson, announced that it was beginning to ship fresh produce under its own brand name.

Michael Castagnetto, Robinson Fresh’s president, said the company felt that it was important to enhance the consistency and focus of its brand and to gain recognition for the scale in which it engages customers in the food industry. 

“This brand is to help Robinson Fresh tell our story, and we certainly do that through our customers and through the packaging,” Castagnetto said. “Our customers have reacted positively to the change and have even said this is a very natural evolution.” 

It’s much easier, he added, for Robinson’s retail and other industry partners to tell a story focused on freshness and quality, and to provide the consumer with that healthy product mix, if those efforts center on one brand across all products. 

“We believe our brand will help our customers tell a strong story to their consumers, and we think it will connect with people’s desire to have healthy lifestyles and to consume fresh produce more and more, especially in light of the pandemic,” he said.

And speaking of the pandemic, with more and more people buying their food — even produce and other fresh perimeter items — online, having a consistent brand is going to be much more important for suppliers’ retail partners, Castagnetto said. Robinson has done extensive research on online shopping and omnichannel in general, and the results clearly validate that opinion.

“Consumers crave brands they can trust, especially when they can’t touch and feel the product in their hands when purchasing online,” Castagnetto said. “Having brand consistency and the ability to tell your story correctly is more important than ever as consumer buying habits shift, not only in store but also to an online platform, where you need to be able to tell your story quickly and effectively.”

The initial product rollout in the Robinson-branded lineup is focused on greens and dry vegetables like peppers, cucumbers and chiles.

As the year progresses, the plan, Castagnetto said, is to add tropicals, melons, corn and other commodities as they come into season.

“Once we’re in market, we’ll work with our customers as we always have to make sure they have the point of purchase and online materials to encourage sales, such as cross promotions, recipes, ripening guides and other product-specific materials to help consumers better understand how to enjoy our fresh produce.”

Digital-driven category growth

Branding in the marketing of fresh produce has become more prevalent in recent years since companies now have the ability to reach consumers through digital avenues like social media, bloggers and Pinterest, said Jim Grabowski, vice president of marketing for Watsonville, California-based berry grower-shipper Well-Pict Inc.

That’s helped produce companies like Well-Pict tap into what brands do best: connecting the company with the consumer and building loyalty based on experiences with the product. 

“Consumers look to recommendations from friends, family and influencers. When you have a branded product, it can stand apart from the rest,” Grabowski said.

Well-Pict strengthens those brand ties by continually building customer loyalty and connecting with consumers through the use of its social media channels, offering healthy and inspiring recipes to existing loyal fans while also building relationships with newer consumers who might have experienced the Well-Pict brand for the first time during the pandemic, when grocery shopping and home cooking shot up.

The number of branded produce items being sold today is increasing so much, he said, that it may not be long before branded product accounts for nearly half of all fresh fruit and vegetable sales.

A huge reason for that growth is the support of millennials and Gen Zers, who are more likely to eat healthy foods and also more likely to be brand-conscious.

“Younger consumers and consumers with young families are more apt to follow a healthier lifestyle, which includes adopting a diet that’s heavy in fruits and vegetables as well as a plant-based food regimen,” Grabowski said. “And they’re also brand-loyal shoppers.”

If the foods they buy deliver on health, quality and other attributes, they’ll remember the brand and seek it out again next time they go shopping, he added.

“Consumers want to feel a connection to the food they purchase, and these connections can be nurtured through the use of creative packaging to share the brand story as well as diet, recipe and educational information with consumers.”

Well-Pict’s network of independent growers throughout the California coast and Florida allows the company to offer fresh proprietary strawberries and raspberries year-round, another key to maximizing the power of branding.

Separating from the pack

As one of North America’s leading marketers and distributors of fresh and fresh-cut fruit and vegetables, Coral Gables, Fla.-based Fresh Del Monte prioritizes its branded fresh fruits and their powers of differentiation, said Pablo Rivero, the company’s vice president of marketing for North America.

“Fresh produce sections are one of the first things a consumer will see upon entering a store, ultimately setting the tone for the shopping experience,” Rivero said. “Therefore, Fresh Del Monte recognizes the importance of branding and promotion, utilizing both tactics to distinguish our fresh fruits from the rest.”

In today’s supermarket and retail store landscape, he said, fresh produce can easily be seen as just a commodity. But utilizing strategies to heighten brand awareness can change how consumers perceive fresh produce, giving a face to an otherwise anonymous commodity and, ultimately, helping to increase sales. 

We feel branded products allow Fresh Del Monte to live up to its name,” Rivero said. “Any fresh produce with the Del Monte logo ensures product innovation, quality and freshness that has been instilled over the past 125 years.”

Branding also helps consumers develop word associations with products, he added. For instance, Del Monte uses the word “reliability” to build consumer trust and help the company tell its unique brand story. Of course, it helps to have the advertising, marketing and public relations muscle behind those efforts that many top brands like Del Monte enjoy. 

Old standbys, new players

It’s an exciting time for branded product in the fresh produce department, and there are lots of opportunities for suppliers and retailers looking to expand their footprints, said Karin Gardner, executive director of marketing for Vancouver, B.C.-based Oppy.

Of course there are the old standbys like branded packaged salads, which have dominated their categories for a long time.

But Gardner said newer players, like the Ocean Spray line of easy-peel citrus marketed by Oppy, are also making their marks and prompting more and more consumers to routinely seek out brands while produce shopping.

Oppy also markets Ocean Spray-branded berries and grapes sold at retail.

Good produce brands, Gardner said, create links with the eating experience, drive loyalty, anchor conversations and provide touch points in and out of the store by cultivating a community of fans.

And they can be a huge boon for retailers.

“Many retailers see the benefits of branded collaborations, promoting in their stores with the confidence that ‘We’re catching target shoppers on their path to purchase via digital marketing and social media outreach,’” Gardner said.

Typically, fresh produce is not the first category consumers think of when it comes to online food shopping. But Gardner said that as online as surged during COVID, the opportunity for digital sales of branded fruits and vegetables has grown with it.

“A familiar brand engenders trust within the ecommerce transaction,” she said. “It may also generate an impulse purchase more frequently than unbranded product because the shopper understands the value the branded item will deliver. We have seen this play out in recent months with our Ocean Spray branded clamshell offering in particular.”

Oppy has other branded produce news on the horizon.

“We’re excited about some fun brand extensions in the berry, greenhouse and avocado categories, and possibly others,” Gardner said.

Think pink

One of Coral Gables, Fla.-based Fresh Del Monte’s latest addition to its fresh branded portfolio is the Pinkglow pineapple, a pineapple with a pink interior that’s unique to Del Monte, said Pablo Rivero, the company’s vice president of marketing for North America.

Grown in the Costa Rican jungle, the “Jewel of the Jungle” (Del Monte has also trademarked its nickname) is juicier and sweeter than a traditional pineapple, with notes of candy aromatics, Rivero said. The variety is currently available at select retailers in limited markets throughout the United States, with plans to steadily increase distribution.

“Our goal is to continue making it widely available to meet consumer demand,” Rivero said. “We have holiday pushes surrounding Easter and Mother’s Day that we’re looking forward to.”

For Mother’s Day specifically, Fresh Del Monte encourages consumers to “think pink” with the gift of a Pinkglow.