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ORLANDO, FL — An "emerging new consumer" is reshaping the way the produce industry presents itself. Attendees of a 2010 Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit workshop on reaching and relating to that new consumer heard from a panel of international experts about how to best begin the process.

“Why is it important to start talking about your brand?” asked Lorna Christie, executive vice president and chief operating officer of PMA. “We're faced with an emerging new consumer. We don’t yet have a clear picture of just who that is, but it is starting to take shape.”

The new American consumer is distrustful of big business and perceives large agribusiness as part of that industrial complex, leaving the produce industry vulnerable to negative perceptions among shoppers, Ms. Christie said. “This is not who we are. We have to rebrand.”

Perceived costs play a role in shopping decisions, too, but “consumers want a connection with their food. There is more and more interest in local produce, and that’s not just based on locale. Buying 'local’ is about quality and freshness — the location of the growers doesn’t matter as much,” Ms. Christie said, noting that almost 40 percent of Americans shopped at a farmers market last year. As the Internet has made “our global community shrink,” local concerns become international ones, and “consumers around the world show similarities.”

The same tools that have made the world seem smaller can be used by the industry to change consumer perceptions. The Internet and social media mixed with traditional marketing and advertising efforts can change the way Americans look at produce — as has been the case with the California Avocado Commission’s efforts to rebrand its product.

“It’s very important to tell the story of where the food comes from,” said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the commission. “You have a story to tell. Figure out who your target is and what’s going to resonate with them.” When the commission wanted to engage its audience, it retained the services of marketing experts, who “helped us understand the value of the brand, the heart and soul,” Ms. DeLyser said. “They told us consumers wanted to know who, how and where their avocados were grown.”

The commission realized through market research that its best chance of connecting with consumers was to undertake “the journey of telling the story of the California avocado grower,” Ms. DeLyser said. Marketing materials, web site information, social media and advertising were created to promote individuals among the 6,000 California growers who farm 60,000 acres of land.

The research showed the commission not only the value of its brand and customer perceptions of it, but where those two things intersected — and other areas where they needed to. From there, the commission was able to define its target audience, as well as its own distinctions and competitive advantages. “That became the core and soul of everything we do,” Ms. DeLyser said.

The research showed that consumers would accept California avocados as a “local” product because it is likely none were grown in the areas where they lived. But when Ms. DeLyser went to corporate clients pitching the idea of California avocados as a local food, “they laughed me out of the office.”

The commission ditched the local label and went back to the drawing board. It emerged with “Hand Grown in California,” a phrase that resonated with consumers and corporate customers.

Once the commission had established which core values it shared with consumers, it was able to construct a brand promise and define a brand essence and a brand voice that “set the tone for communication,” Ms. DeLyser said. From there, “reasonable, realistic business objectives” were set that “are measurable and have some flexibility.”

Defining itself and its target were the most difficult parts of launching the new campaign, Ms. DeLyser said. Traditional advertising blended with a strong web presence and social media to create the new marketing campaign. The commission has had a web site for 12 years, and last year it was revamped from the ground up — and a social media campaign was begun. The commission’s Facebook page now has 58,000 fans, “but numbers mean nothing if they’re not carrying the torch for your brand and creating sales,” Ms. DeLyser said. “We encouraged fans to help tell our story. Having consumers carry the banner has really enriched our marketing efforts.”

The result of the commission’s efforts: New research shows consumers prefer California avocados to imports nine to one, Ms. DeLyser said.

Granted, the commission had a sizable marketing budget with which to work, making the task much easier. With plenty of cash for advertising, consumption of California avocados has doubled over the last decade. But Ms. DeLyser said that any company can take advantage of on-line networking opportunities and social media.

The commission’s findings — and success — came as no surprise to panelist Jelger de Vriend, managing partner of Innovative Fresh B.V., a consulting and market monitoring firm based in the Netherlands. Europe by its nature has much experience in focusing on local markets, he said, while the United States still looks at the big picture. “Europe is thinking small and dealing with local complexities,” Mr. de Vriend said. “We get our strength from that.”

But that also presents challenges. Produce space in European markets is committed and limited. The only way new products can gain shelf space is to “cannibalize” existing ones. Mr. de Vriend said that many changes in consumer buying habits are anomalous to economic struggles, and that “long-term research shows main consumer trends have not changed.” In Europe, consumers have stayed loyal to full-service grocers, proving they want more from the shopping experience than just low prices.

Convenience, health, taste, price and “good behavior, caring for local communities,” have become more important to consumers over the last decade, Mr. de Vriend said. Taste profiles provide the produce industry with its best chance to better connect with consumers, he said.

“The future of produce is about taste and the consumer,” he said. “Taste is where we as an industry can create the most consumer value.”

But, Ms. Christie added, whether it is better-tasting food, a more user- friendly approach or an increased marketing and media presence, “you have to deliver on what you promise. We have to balance high-tech with high- touch. Consumers will give you two chances to disappoint them. We’re not listening. What did you learn in Marketing 101? Perception is reality.”