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Berries

Convenience, indulgence and “natural functionality” drive a super-premium success story

What is it that drives consumers, even in a zero-growth economy, to pay a super-premium price for berries – in fact a 90% premium over the next-highest-priced category? It comes down to six factors, but these factors aren’t exclusive to berries – they’re also key in packaged food categories, making the story of berries’ success a must-read for anyone wanting to market “naturally functional” benefits, writes Julian Mellentin of New Nutrition Business.

First published in New Nutrition Business Newsletter, August 2011

Imagine you launched a product with health plus convenience benefits that grew from nothing to become the most valuable in its category. And imagine that you achieved this despite being in a category which has historically been price- and volume-driven, despite being the most expensive item in your category and despite not using any advertising – or even any health claim, relying instead on the power of “natural functionality” to create sales. You would probably be pleased with that result (and more importantly, so would your boss).

This is, of course, the story of berries. And it’s a story from which every packaged food category can learn something valuable.

BERRIES THE MOST VALUABLE SEGMENT

In the US and the UK berries – naturally healthy, ultra-convenient snack foods – have achieved the impossible and overtaken the traditional mass-market fruits to become the single most valuable segment of the fruit market, even though volumes are still low (see Chart below). In the UK in 2011 berries account for a mere 5.4% of fruit market volume (measured in tonnes) – but an impressive 18.4% of market value. However, it’s important to note that this does not mean that berries are mass-market – far from it. The low volumes show that they are still in the “health conscious” niche, even though it is a “big niche”.

And while it’s blueberries that have caught the headlines, they are not the main reason for this phenomenal success. Blueberries account for around 20% of the US and UK berry markets, as the box shows.

To illustrate how fashions change, blackberries were once the most-consumed berry in the UK after strawberries. Until as recently as the 1970s schools in rural areas took a holiday in the berry season to allow children to harvest them from the wild.

And while these two markets may be in the lead, the berry phenomenon is not confined to them.

In mainland Europe berries have always been highly seasonal, available for only a few months of the year, but now Germany, the Netherlands and other northern European countries are steadily moving in the same direction, according to Professor David Hughes, Emeritus Professor of Food Marketing at Imperial College London and a director of Berry Garden, the UK’s biggest berry company with £200 million in sales ($326 million/€227 million), and a globally recognised expert in marketing commodity foods (the professor’s advice is in such demand internationally that NNB found that the easiest place to meet him was at an airport).

The factors that have been important in the transformation of the fortunes of berries are also key factors in packaged food categories:

1. Value matters more than volume

Charts 1 and 2 tell the story – like all the most successful healthy foods, berries are a high value, low-volume business. The data shown is for the UK, but, says Professor Hughes, the picture is the same in the US.

We are told from all sides that consumers are highly price-sensitive, but the success of berries shows that is not true for all categories. Even in a zero-growth economy such as the UK people are willing to pay a super-premium price – in fact the highest price for any fruit and a healthy 90% premium over the next highest- priced category of fruits.

The reason of course is that what people are willing to pay for any product is not merely a simplistic question of price but a question of perceived value – and a product that delivers value in many ways.

2. The communication power of “naturally functional”

“One of the strongest parts of berries’ value proposition is health,” asserts Professor Hughes. “Consumers have a very strong positive image of berries in their minds in both the US and UK. Berries have been riding on the coat-tails of the health and wellbeing trend.

“Female consumers in particular,” he adds, “have got the link between wellbeing and berries in general, but they identify the antioxidant message in relation to blueberries.

“We’ve found in consumer research that a skin care benefit has a surprisingly strong association with blueberries, very specifically. It’s remarkable because there have been no advertisements claiming that and no claims on packages. It’s a message that women have picked up from the media and it has grown through word of mouth – a bit like the cranberry story.”

The rise of awareness of the skincare benefit underscores that it is possible to be very successful without having any health claim on your product – or using any kind of specific claim in marketing – as long as your product has a “naturally healthy” image that has appeal for the media.

“The berry companies in the UK together have funded a PR campaign which has had genuine success over the years, not because we are smart but because the media like to write about berries.”

The appeal of a foodstuff as having natural health benefits is one that is very strong in consumers’ minds and is getting stronger. It is what underlies the success of coconut water, marketed as nature’s sports drink, propelling 100% sales growth for the leading coconut water brands in the US and Germany in 2010.

It’s a reality which points manufacturers in the direction of choosing signature ingredients for their products which can credibly be seen as naturally connected with a product’s claimed benefit – even if it’s another ingredient that’s actually delivering the benefit.

“If you are pushing in the direction people want to go in, it’s much easier,” observes Professor Hughes.

3. The power of “snackability” and healthy indulgence

Berries are of course the ultimate all-natural snack food, easy to eat from the hand or scatter onto breakfast or other dishes. Women in particular have turned to them as a healthy snack.

“Berries are well loved,” observes Professor Hughes. “Adults see them as affordable treats. Children like them: if you put a bowl of strawberries out at a children’s birthday party, they disappear. Women shoppers tell us in consumer research that children eat the berries in the car on the way home from the supermarket and they are all gone before the family gets home.

“Parents don’t have to persuade children to eat berries in the way that they have to be persuaded to eat other fruits and of course vegetables.”

4. Smart merchandising

Like all successful brands, getting the right shelf-space – and the right amount of space – is key to success.

“The UK and US are far ahead of other markets in having well-structured product tiering at retail – a “good, better, best” offer that is characteristic of more sophisticated grocery.

In the US specifically Driscolls, who are number one worldwide in berries, have very sophisticated category management. They characterise it as “the berry patch” and work with selected retailers who will give them the latitude in store to put all the berries in one place, en masse, to create a blaze of colour which generates consumer interest.”

In northern Europe berries have traditionally been strongly seasonal, but Europe is developing the same way now, accelerated by the entry of Driscolls into the European market, offering berries grown in Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

5. “Locally grown” has a role

In the UK strawberries – above all other berries – benefit from being domestically grown. “Strawberries are riding the trend of being locally or regionally produced. Retailers know that customers like strawberries from the UK and so they are willing to support domestic producers,” observes Hughes.

Blueberries, on the other hand, have not suffered from being primarily imported, particularly from Poland and Chile, since historically there was no UK production.

6. Science also key to success

A significant investment by the main berry companies in R&D has given birth to new premium and proprietary varieties of berries, with better shape, flavour and shelf life, and extended the season in which berries are available.

Funding of university research into berries’ health benefits is translating into a steady stream of “new news” about why berries are healthy which is not used in marketing but can go direct from academics to the media. This both reinforces berries’ healthy image and makes sure that they stay in the media’s spotlight.

BERRIES OFFER LESSONS FOR ALL

For any company looking to be successful in health, addressing the factors above is a key element of creating a successful business. Even “locally sourced” – the weakest and least significant of the six – has value if you can source some or all of your ingredients within your market and use it to create a point of difference. Unlike smart merchandising or a “naturally functional” health benefit it won’t do much for your sales price or your volume, but it will be an insurance policy, showing the most loyal consumers that you share their growing concerns about local sourcing.

Given the increasing difficulties around using specific health claims, all food and beverage marketing is becoming more and more like that for berries.

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NNB CoverAbout New Nutrition Business

Julian MellentinNew Nutrition Business is a London-based research, publishing and consulting company which specialises in researching, analysing and forecasting developments in the business of food, nutrition and health around the world.

The strategies and success factors it  has identified in the 1990s have become the benchmarks for strategy development and brand positioning in the worldwide nutrition business. It works with companies all around the world, from the United States to Australia and from Sweden to South Africa.

New Nutrition Business is headed by executive director Julian Mellentin (right), one of the world’s very few global specialists in the business of food, nutrition and health.

He is the editor-in-chief of New Nutrition Business and Kids Nutrition Report, the only industry journal in the world on the rapidly developing kids’ nutritional marketplace. See www.new-nutrition.com

Julian Mellentin can be reached at julian.mellentin@new-nutrition.com

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