view current print edition




Industry challenged to tell its own story

by Tim Linden | October 20, 2010
ORLANDO, FL — That the industry has only itself to blame for stagnant per- capita consumption growth was the overarching message delivered by Produce Marketing Association President Bryan Silbermann in his annual state-of-the-industry address at the association's 2010 Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition, held here Oct. 15-18.

Speaking during the breakfast general session Oct. 16, Mr. Silbermann took shots at unfair reports in the media, but said that the media are not to blame. "The responsibility for our lost brand rests with us," he said.

PMA’s chief executive officer said that the produce industry has let others define it to the point that the misinformation that continues to be told as gospel truth is in large part the fault of the industry itself. He said that it is a family industry, largely defined by companies with multi-generational roots, yet “we have lost the minds and hearts of the consumer.”

Mr. Silbermann’s far-ranging address, which did include many accolades for the industry and its members, appeared to draw its admonishments from national consumption figures that show no growth. He basically said that industry efforts to increase consumption are not working, so it is time to take a new tact.

“It is time to get brilliant,” he said.

He argued that every company in the industry has to take up the challenge and begin both to tell its story and to sell its products. He said that because the industry has not been proactive, others have just made things up — and the industry has allowed them to do so.

He took particular aim at misconceptions, pointing to a “Dirty Dozen” list of fresh products that are allegedly loaded with pesticides. The well-known Dr. Oz was the latest to regurgitate this falsehood, but Mr. Silbermann said that the fault does not lie with Dr. Oz but with the industry for not combating this misconception more forcefully.

“We have let advocacy groups define who we are,” he said.

But again, he did not blame the advocacy groups but rather the industry. “This has happened because we have been silent about who we are and what we do,” he said repeating his basic premise.

He also took umbrage with the oft-repeated comment that fresh produce is expensive.

Mr. Silbermann conveyed research that PMA recently completed that shows the average cost of nine servings of produce across the nation is only $2.18. And the frugal shopper can purchase nine servings for as little as 88 cents per day.

“It is a myth that produce is expensive,” he said, adding that by any measure, produce is a “good deal.”

But again this message is rarely delivered to the consumer by the industry itself. In fact, he said that the industry helps perpetuate the idea by failing to counteract that supposition.

Evoking a scene from a famous movie of a generation ago, “Network,” the PMA president urged the audience to chant, “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it any more.”

Perhaps foretelling how difficult it is to rally the industry to action, he needed two prompts to get significant participation.

As he typically does, Mr. Silbermann used his opportunity on stage to discuss many different concerns and issues in the industry.

He offered much advice, urging the marketers in the industry to move into the digital arena and embrace new technology. He said that social networking and this era of instant communication are not fads driving the next generation but rather life-changing inputs that define that group. And he argued that if marketers are not promoting in that space with tweets, Facebook interaction and whatever will be the newest thing to come, then they aren’t reaching that group.

Mr. Silbermann also took a considerable amount of time exploring the current “traditional” shopper in the supermarket. But rather than being traditional, he said that moms shopping today are defined in new terms such as “value mom,” “convenience mom” and “socially conscious mom.”

Unlike their counterparts of a generation or two ago, these shoppers have different drivers, and he believes that if the industry is going to be successful, it must address their needs.

“Value mom” is looking for a good deal, and she must be convinced that buying fresh produce can be a sound economical choice.

“Convenience mom” is more affluent and is time challenged. She is looking for healthy choices, but her time is squeezed and she needs solutions for her problems. For this consumer, Mr. Silbermann said that the industry has to focus on new options and not so much on price.

Finally there is “socially conscious mom,” who cares about the environment and the workers who harvest her crop.

“Trust is her currency,” Mr. Silbermann said.

He argued that the industry is not doing enough to tell its story to convince this consumer that it cares as much as she does.

While much of his speech did center on areas where the industry needs to improve, Mr. Silbermann both began and ended his address with an upbeat assessment. He strolled on stage wearing sunglasses to the sounds of the well-known song “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”

He said that the industry is perfectly positioned to capitalize on many trends and said that despite multiple challenges, it continues to feed the world every day.

He touted record attendance at this year’s PMA convention as proof that the collective industry is poised for growth and interested in learning.

In fact, the following day, it was revealed that PMA attendance topped 18,000, making it the best-attended East Coast Fresh Summit ever.