Rally Around Immunity: The Produce Powerhouse - Produce Business

Rally Around Immunity: The Produce Powerhouse - Produce Business

Fruits and vegetables have always had a health halo.

“Ask ten shoppers how they would improve their diet and at least eight of them will answer by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Anne-Marie Roerink, principal and founder of 210 Analytics, LLC, in San Antonio, TX. “But the pandemic showed that the produce industry has an opportunity to rise above its health halo by highlighting specific nutrition attributes. And better yet, by connecting the attributes to specific health benefits.”

Numerous scientific publications, as well as renowned institutions, such as the Harvard Medical School, have pointed towards eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables as one of the steps consumers can do to keep their immune systems strong.

Immunity is a particularly hot topic right now as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. In fact, the Netherlands-headquartered Innova Market Insights called ‘In Tune with Immune’ one of its Top Ten Trends for 2021. This follows the company’s Innova Consumer Survey 2020 that showed six out of 10 consumers globally are increasingly looking for foods and beverages that will support their immune system, and that one in three of these respondents said that concerns about their immune health increased in 2020 compared to 2019.

Amid the pandemic, consumers’ were focused on building their immune system, according to Roerink. “Datassential asked consumers which foods they associate with immunity, and citrus topped the list, followed by broccoli, superfruits, dark leafy greens and nuts. This is because consumers most relate Vitamin C and D with immunity, and they equate Vitamin C with citrus. This resulted in an incredible performance for oranges for many months on end.

“Oranges ended up being fifth in the top 10 produce items in absolute dollar growth over 2020. Other products known for their nutritional value have seen similarly strong performances, such as berries, limes, lemons and mushrooms. More recently, we see mandarins and tangerines overtake orange sales, but the focus on citrus (and thus immunity) remains big.”

Last March, coinciding with the annual flu season as well as the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., Limoneira reminded customers that its lemons were loaded with immune-boosting Vitamin C.

“Immunity is also part of our long-term promotional campaign called ‘Take a Healthy Stand’, in which we highlight our nutrition app called Nature’s Pharmacy. The app not only focuses on citrus but the many different fresh produce items that can help a variety of ailments,” says Alex Teague, senior vice president of this Santa Paula, CA-headquartered global citrus producer and marketer. “The stand is, literally, a stand. In concept, it’s well-liked. Yet planning for not just the lemon side of the stand, but other produce to partner with us takes time. However, we believe that working on a long-term program with ‘Take a Healthy Stand’ — with correct packaging, appropriate pricing and the Nature’s Pharmacy app — will deliver increased profits for both retailer and producer.”

Also last spring, Sunkist Growers, introduced the #MySunkistTable campaign on social media. Registered dietitians joined the conversation to educate consumers on the benefits and many ways to bring citrus to the table via recipes.

“Nearly 20 percent of orange and grapefruit shoppers heard about citrus from a health expert (i.e., doctor, registered dietitian),” says Christina Ward, director of global brand marketing, speaking of the Sherman Oaks, CA-based company’s consumer research.

Similarly, Wonderful Citrus promotes its Halos mandarins as the perfect vitamin C-packed snack via public relations communications with health-focused media publications as well as registered dietitians nationwide. In July, Bee Sweet Citrus, in Fowler, CA, kicked off its summer citrus season with a month-long digital campaign called ‘You, Me and Vitamin C’. The aim was to spotlight the vitamin C content of citrus. The company’s winter campaign, Peel Your Way into Happiness, spotlights the brand’s seasonal citrus line and its benefits too.

“Citrus’ immunity-boosting properties have always played a huge role in our marketing efforts,” says Monique Bienvenue, director of communications. “Most recently, our marketing team wanted to kick off a fun, digital campaign to showcase our diverse citrus line to our consumers, while simultaneously highlighting each of their unique immunity-boosting components. From recipes to informational videos, we’ve tapped into the digital scene to promote information that’s relevant to the everyday consumer.”

In October, the Los Alamitos, CA-based Frieda’s Inc., capitalized on November 2020-conducted research by Chicago, IL-headquartered C+R Research, to call out its specialty citrus available during the winter. “Consumers typically think of oranges and grapefruit when it comes to vitamin C, but this research shows 68 percent of those surveyed want to add new fruit and vegetable varieties into their diets to build immunity,” says Cindy Sherman, director of marketing, innovation and insights. “That’s what makes our assortment of variety citrus, such as calamondins, limequats, mandarinquats and kumquats, a must-have for any grocery store. Our new calamondin and limequat grab-n-go pouches give shoppers an easy, delicious way to dose-up on vitamin C.”

While there is widespread awareness of the immune-promoting benefits of some produce like citrus, there are many other fruits and vegetables with plentiful vitamin C like pineapple, kiwi, tropicals and potatoes.

Pineapple was the focus of one of the Dole Food Company’s most successful retail efforts in 2020. The Charlotte, NC-headquartered company partnered with Armstrong Produce, in Honolulu, HI, to develop immunity-themed campaigns at four U.S. Armed Forces commissaries. Retailers were provided with templates for in-store signage and balloons, and this point-of-sale (POS) material both attracted shoppers and identified the vitamin C-rich produce.

“Another example of our immunity promotion included a set of downloadable Pineapple Gift Tags to encourage our followers to give DOLE Pineapples as holiday gifts,” says Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications. “This was part of our ‘Now We’re (All) Cooking’ initiative inspired by Disney and Pixar’s Ratatouille and the positioning of our latest recipe release, the Right Note Smoothie, themed to Disney and Pixar’s Soul.”

Few consumers know gold kiwifruit has three times the vitamin C of oranges on a serving-to-serving basis, according to Sarah Deaton, shopping marketing manager for Zespri North America, in Newport Beach, CA. At the season’s start in May, “we called out ‘3x’s Vitamin C of Oranges’ on our packaging and linked the benefit of consuming vitamin C with immunity. We also drove the focus on this communication through all of our marketing activities — in-store POS, social media posts, digital advertising, etc.”

Zespri also partnered with some retailers to drive ‘Vitamin C Destinations’ in produce departments and drove awareness in-store by providing POS and shipper display units. As a result, total dollar sales of Zespri SunGold have increased by 70 percent and volume growth by 58 percent, based on 52-week Total U.S. Foods data ending November 29, 2020, from Chicago, IL-based IRI, Inc., as provided by Zespri.

Likely even fewer consumers know rambutan is an ample source of vitamin C.

“While we did not do any specific ‘immunity’ promotions, rambutan is an excellent source of vitamin C and a fun way for people to incorporate more fruit in their diet,” says Marc Holbik, president of Ecoripe Tropicals, in Miami, FL. “We also saw increased demand from our customers for ginger and turmeric, two roots that have traditional immune-system-boosting characteristics.”

Potatoes are also an excellent source of Vitamin C. San Francisco, CA-based Fresh Solutions Network, LLC, marketer of Side Delights-brand fresh potato products, reminded customers of this fact in its communications last July. “One of the big changes we’re seeing in consumers’ grocery-buying habits is greater online ordering,” says Kathleen Triou, president and chief executive officer. “Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve invested in the creation of several digital assets, including nutrition facts, usage tips, recipes and more that retailers can use to curate an online experience for customers. For example, if a customer searches for immune-boosting foods, you want foods with vitamin C, like citrus and potatoes to pop up.”

In general, says 210 Analytics’ Roerink. “In-store signage and packaging provide limited real estate. But retailers have so much more flexibility to be creative on their social media, websites and apps. It’s easy to link items to recipes or to nutritional benefits. Shoppers don’t have to click it, but at least it is there for the ones who are interested.”

One food doesn’t provide all nutrient needs, and one nutrient won’t prevent or cure all ills. For example, beyond vitamin C, an adequate intake of vitamin D has been linked with lowering the risk of respiratory infections. Mushrooms are one of the only, if not only, foods in the produce department that can contain Vitamin D. Last year, the Redwood City, CA-headquartered Mushroom Council’s Fresh Mushroom Attitudes & Behaviors During COVID-19 survey revealed that 39 percent of consumers said they buy more mushrooms because they ‘provide better nutrition and health,’ and 38 percent said they ‘help with Vitamin D intake’.

Thus in January, the Council and its members launched the ‘Feed Your Immune System’ initiative to further spread awareness of how mushrooms, in addition to other fruits and vegetables, can support a healthy immune system. Key to this is an online information hub that takes a broad view of nutrition and immunity.

“Our industry is taking a variety of approaches to amplify this helpful information, such as paid search ads; collaborations with registered dietitians, including supermarket dietitians; a robust social media campaign rolling out over the next three months; partnerships with online nutrition influencers to reach communities outside of Mushroom Council’s channels; and outreach to media with nutrition information, tips and new recipes,” says Eric Davis, spokesperson.

Vitamin K can reduce blood clotting during COVID-19, according to research highlighted in January by the Fresno, CA-based California Table Grape Commission.

“Grapes offer Vitamin K in abundance,” says Nathan Bagust, marketing manager for Jupiter Marketing Ltd., a UK-based global grape grower and marketer. “We showcase the nutritional and immune-supporting benefits of eating fresh grapes through our external and internal communication channels. Each quarter we have a full wellness section in our corporate magazine, Global Roots. We truly believe that the promotion of healthy eating starts with the growers such as ourselves, and each integral cog in the fresh produce supply chain has an important role to play.”

Past vitamins and minerals, it’s the prebiotics and probiotics in artichokes that can positively impact the makeup of GI tract bacteria and lead to improved immunity. Ocean Mist Farms’ promotion of its Gold Standard artichokes last spring centered on this and other aspects of the vegetable’s effect on health and nutrition.

“One way we promoted the immunity benefits of our artichokes was email campaigns and social media messaging that drove traffic to the Artichoke Nutrition landing page on our website,” says Diana McClean, senior director of marketing for the Castroville, CA-headquartered company. “We earned 23 million brand impressions and 545,000 promotion-specific website visits, while over 28,000 shoppers participated in the sweepstakes opportunity. As a result, looking at year-over-year artichoke sales volume for the 4-week Gold Standard promotion period, we saw a 3.6 percent increase for the 2020 season.”

Fresh produce products that are particularly nutrient-dense are ripe for immunity-themed promotions. For example, D’Arrigo California, in Salinas, CA, launched its Boost Your Immunity campaign last spring. The campaign centered on the company’s Andy Boy-brand broccoli rabe and both educated and engaged customers about this super-green on its social media platforms.

Similarly, B&W Growers, in Fellsmere, FL, introduced a dedicated website last year, which calls out the green as an immune-booster, touts its top ranking on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables list and provides usage tips and recipes. The company also ran a watercress ad last fall in the World Journal, the largest Chinese-language newspaper in the US, that spoke to this demographic’s love of the green and belief that food is medicine.

On the beverage front, Bolthouse Farms found strong demand during the pandemic for its produce beverages, especially its 2019-launched Carrot Ginger Turmeric juice. Another favorite in the 6-item line is the Superfood Immunity Boost juice, made with cranberries and elderberries.

“Two big consumer concerns over the past year are health and budget,” says AJ Bernstein, vice president and head of marketing for the Bakersfield, CA-based Bolthouse. “Therefore, we specifically introduced these beverages in a value or 52-ounce size, rather than single-serve to make them more affordable. Several retailers have created destination sets or ‘immunity bunker’ displays with these products.

At this point, there is no evidence that preventing or recovering from COVID-19 in terms of what you are eating to stay healthy is any different, according to Meredith McGrath RD, LDN, corporate dietitian for nutrition communications and marketing for Redner’s Markets, Inc., a Reading, PA-headquartered chain with 44 warehouse markets and 20 quick shoppes in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. “However, there is an abundance of evidence that states eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to support your immune system and a healthy lifestyle. With help from the Produce for Better Health Foundation, we were able to create POS for each store’s lobby and throughout the produce department. Keeping this message clear, concise and basic is key. Once the message gets complicated with specifics, consumers lose interest and just feel overwhelmed.”

As cooking-at-home fatigue sets in, says Amelia Noel, RDN, LD, NASM-CPT, nutrition program development manager for The Kroger Co., a 2,700-plus store chain headquartered in Cincinnati, OH, “it is important to inspire customers to utilize fruits and vegetables they haven’t used previously, and to try new ways of enjoying foods they commonly use.”

Over the past year, Noel and fellow Kroger Supermarket Registered Dietitians have used the retailer’s social media accounts, blog content on Vitacost.com, Kroger.com and krogerhealth.com, and most importantly, its Telenutrition appointments, to highlight and emphasize the importance of consuming more fruits and vegetables daily to its customers.

“Consumers are relying on digital methods of connecting with the food they eat,” says Mary Coppola, vice president, marketing and communications for the Washington, DC-based United Fresh Produce Association. “As fresh produce companies, we will want to share new and more compelling stories that are informative and educational, touting the benefits of produce to help the consumer make more informed decisions about their health and nutrition decisions in the coming year.”

One of the innovative ways Beth Stark, RDN, LDN, manager of Nutrition and Lifestyle initiatives for Weis Markets, Inc., a 197-store chain headquartered in Sunbury, PA, is doing this and touting all healthful foods, including fruits and vegetables, is via a shift to greater virtual programming over the past year.

“We do 25 to 30 virtual cooking classes a month now featuring fast-fixing healthy recipes for children and families. Customers can just watch. Or, better yet, we suggest they order their ingredients ahead of time. The classes are designed so that customers can cook along with us and, in about 15 minutes, have dinner on the table. We don’t necessarily call out COVID and immunity, but it’s subliminal in the overall health and nutrition messaging,” says Stark.

The produce industry has a huge opportunity in front of it as we move into 2021 – which incidentally has been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables, says Lauren Scott, chief marketing officer for the Newark, DE-headquartered Produce Marketing Association. “Consumers want to optimize their health and are looking at many ways to do this — including through their diet. We need to double/triple down on efforts to make sure consumers understand the role fresh fruits and vegetables play in improving their quality of life. Health is wealth, but not necessarily compelling marketing, particularly when you overlay the fear of the pandemic. Fruits and vegetables are about discovery, fun, and flavor. The joy of fresh.”

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