April 7, 2007

Fresh Focus: Health Benefits Enhance Sales and Profits

We recently researched the American Heart Association’s requirements to use its heart-shaped logo on fresh produce for a client. It’s an easily recognizable logo that signifies a healthy choice to consumers. The association has measured the return on investment and says it is really working with produce commodities. I started wondering what else might catch the consumer’s eye if you want to get a healthy message across.

Pictures can do the trick, or maybe you could spend a lot of money creating a special new logo to get their attention, but I was thinking of something simple. We keep hearing about consumers looking for more healthful foods. I wondered what creates the impulse in a shopper to buy something healthy.

Produce as Health Food

Will word of mouth work? This reminds me of the tart cherry juice industry. I was visiting an apple grower in Washington state many years ago and he had some homemade fliers in his office for this wonder juice. I’d never heard of it, so he explained that he had quite a following for his tart cherry juice. People from around the area spread the word that it worked wonders relieving arthritis pain and other ailments.

He said they were trying to get research done so they could market the product for its health benefits, but they were having trouble getting the money together. Meanwhile, he said, people just kept coming to the office to buy the juice in refillable jugs.

Today, many research dollars later, the industry has built national awareness and a burgeoning growth curve thanks to real scientific data that shows there are compounds in tart cherries called anthocyanins that may ease arthritic pain by reducing inflammation. It started as a word-of-mouth treatment and is now marketed aggressively in retail stores.

Anthocyanins are an example of compounds called phytochemicals, nutraceuticals and other fancy names describing products delivering health benefits through foods. These compounds are being heavily studied in fresh produce commodities and are sometimes touted in the press as magic bullets. But will these names sell the consumer?

It’s All In a Word

According to research reported on by the Hartman Group in January 2006, consumers don’t use the words “functional foods” – it is simply an industry term. In addition, Hartman reports that the reasons consumers choose to buy foods for a health purpose are more complicated than we may think. To begin with, Hartman found that consumers do not equate food to medicine. Using medical terms is a simple mistake a marketer might make if highlighting disease-prevention or -treatment in the value messages on products.

Hartman thinks consumers more easily relate medical jargon to pills, not foods. They recommend marketers use much simpler terms if they want to entice a consumer to buy their “functionally enhanced” product. I can see what they mean when I think of my own motivations. If I want to self-treat some kind of physical ailment, I turn to vitamins or drugs, not food.

I do, however, think of eating food as more than just satisfying hunger. I catch myself thinking of results – what happens if I eat that cheese Danish instead of the whole wheat toast? Or, what does it mean that I’ve spent a lifetime slathering mayonnaise on sandwiches, in salads and in other recipes, like many southerners? I wonder if my arteries will stop working because they’ve been bathed in Hellman’s for decades. So, maybe consumers don’t look to food as medicine, but we are aware of cause and affect when it comes to eating food.

How to Promote Healthy

That’s what Hartman says is the marketing problem. If food is promoted as a magic bullet, that implies measurable results. If consumers eat food expecting immediate results, like the effects of aspirin, they will quickly be disappointed and may not buy it again.

So what’s the solution?

• Choose marketing terms that are natural words, not chemical terms.
• Create foods already considered healthy with enhanced benefits, such as a new carrot variety with increased vitamin A. Then you can talk about the general benefits of more vitamin A in the diet.
• Alert the consumer to vague health benefit claims. Remember, if you promise to lower cholesterol, they look for immediate results (oatmeal may be the exception here). But if you say your product promotes heart health, you are telling the absolute truth but you aren’t making specific claims.

Fresh-cut produce seems perfectly situated to become a leader in profiting from health promotion because of implied benefits already associated with fresh produce. But packaging really puts fresh-cut in the driver’s seat. Not only does packaging provide food protection, one of its primary benefits is to communicate through images and written words.

Food manufacturers are moving from being simply agri-food companies to being in the health and wellness business due to research and innovation. In fact, the food industry has become a leader in funding nutritional research. The increase in peer-reviewed scientific papers looking for phytochemicals and other healthy compounds in produce is a strong measure of that trend.

Adding a health message can give your product a boost in sales if it is phrased correctly. Take this opportunity as an industry still in a positive growth mode to use the label to your advantage. Look at the nutritional benefits of the commodities your company sells and create a new benefits message for your customers.



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