Industry looks at packaging innovations
Connecting with consumers means marketing potatoes in a way that will stimulate new purchases. Industry leaders agree that adopting this simple strategy is vital to increasing demand and, in turn, profits for potato producers.
Introducing new products is not without risk,” said Tim O’Connor, president and CEO of the U.S. Potato Board (USPB). “However, it has the greatest upside potential for profit and to recapture market share. We have invested five years building a library of information to arm the industry with cutting-edge research and analysis that demystifies the consumer and the changing marketplace. This information greatly reduces the risk involved in innovation.”
Farm Fresh Direct, located in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, is one company using USPB information to market new products.
It pioneered the individually wrapped microwavable potato with its Express Bake PotatOH!, a double-washed russet sealed in SavorSeal film. The 2000 USPB consumer research proved just how convenience-driven consumers really are, confirming the direction Farm Fresh Direct was taking in developing the new product.
“Research should be the foundation of every new product,” said Jim Knutzon, executive director of Farm Fresh Direct. “When you do decide to take the risk with a new concept, you have to research what you are doing, know when to make the ‘no-go’ decision, and understand that even winners take time and money to develop. It’s taken three years of sticking with it to really get this concept off the ground, but we’re seeing success.”
It’s no surprise that several companies are now actively marketing the microwaveable potato, according to Mac Johnson, USPB vice president of marketing.
“Consumers view this potato as a value-added convenience product. They command 50 cents to 75 cents apiece at the grocery store. Compare that to the 10-pound bag of russets on sale this week for 99 cents.”
Another product innovation Farm Fresh Direct is store testing is Lawry’s Spice ‘n Simple Seasonings and Potatoes. The product’s message is to “Spice Up Your Dinner Tonight,” emphasizing the meal solution not leaving the consumer wondering what to do with the five pounds of russet potatoes inside the package.
Three flavors are available: Ranch, Roasted Garlic & Herb and Cheese & Bacon. On the back of each bag are three recipes on how to prepare the potatoes baked, boiled and mashed using the spice packet included in the package.
Knutzon explained the investment in time and money it took to research and develop this concept. Lawry’s did its own research to come up with the best balance of flavors through focus groups and home-use studies.
“We are in the middle of a test market,” Knutzon said. “We are aware that it’s going to take time and money to get people to buy there is a lot of information that we want to get across with this bag but I’m optimistic.”
Discovery Gardens’ story is that of a new product merchandised in innovative packaging. The newly established company was created by the owners of California Oregon Seed, Inc. to distribute and market its specialty potatoes. Four years ago, Discovery Gardens went to market with Sierra Gold, a new potato variety that has the rich, creamy flavor of a golden potato as well as the hearty skin of a russet.
“Once consumers try the Sierra Gold, they are sold,” said Amanda Leo, Discovery Gardens’ sales and marketing manager. “It’s getting the potato into the consumer’s hand for the first time that’s hard.”
Discovery Gardens used USPB’s consumer research and invested in further studies to develop packaging that would grab the consumer’s attention. The most distinguishing feature of the bag is the Ziploc slide closure system, which answers the consumer’s demand for an easy-to-open and re-sealable bag.
The product is positioned as “Golden Gourmet Potatoes,” a specialty product, and it appeals to smaller households with smaller bag sizes. Current package sizes include a 2.2-pound bag of creamers, 5-pound bag of A size U.S. No. 1, and bulk. A 3-pound poly-mesh bag and a 24-oz. pillow pack will be introduced this summer.
Sierra Gold is now available year-round, with growing regions in Bakersfield and Lancaster, Calif.; Klamath Falls, Ore.; Arena and Grand Marsh, Wis.; and Center, Colo.
“As a small company here in central California, we could have never done the comprehensive consumer research that the USPB did, and it would have been quite a long haul for our little company to get to this point alone,” Leo said.
A few years ago, the Florida grower co-op Sunfresh researched a new variety to begin growing. It was not about coming up with a low-carb spud, said Danny Johns, co-op director.
“We were looking for a specialty variety that had excellent taste and appearance. It wasn’t until a week after we decided on the variety that we discovered the low-carb angle that the media jumped on.”
Because of the publicity, consumers from across the country are asking for this product.
“It’s not just the low-carb niche we are filling,” Johns said. “It’s a specialty product that tastes delicious, in a bag that markets to the consumer.”
Johns said they used many of the USPB packaging recommendations to develop the bag to create the look that would lure consumers to “read on,” including bright colors and pictures of the prepared potato on the center of the bag and simple copy to differentiate this potato from others.
Starting this fall, there will be year-round production of the proprietary variety potatoes in growing regions throughout the country.
“I’m not saying there weren’t growing pains,” Johns said. “But this is a cooperative effort to sell a great product to consumers, and I’m excited about how things have fallen into place.”
“I’m sure any of the shippers in this article will attest that new products are a risky venture,” USPB’s Johnson said. “Will all new products work? No, in fact the success rate is less than one out of 10. But every retailer and every consumer packaged-good company will tell you that they rely on new products to fuel growth. The consumer, market and industry information that we collect and make available can help reduce not eliminate the risk associated with new products.”
“Innovative packaging is the most effective way that we, as an industry, can communicate with consumers right at the point of sale,” said USPB’s O’Connor. “Does your bag say, ‘Buy me because I’m inexpensive’? Or does it say, ‘Try something new, healthy and delicious that fits well in your lifestyle’?”
Jack Gyben, vice president and partner of Progressive Produce, said that his company took its lead from the U.S. Potato Board.
“We want to make sure that when people buy our products they understand what to do with them,” he said. “Recipes are on the bag, but consumers can also go to our Web site (www.progressiverecipes.com) to get better information about the best uses and great recipes for our potatoes russets, reds, whites, golds and fingerlings.”
Progressive Produce has leveraged USPB research and best practices to develop packaging that speaks to consumers. It incorporated bright colors and much higher quality graphics than before, including recipes and pictures of prepared potato dishes. It highlighted the nutritional content by using USPB’s “Skinny Potato” graphic from consumer advertising. Current package sizes range from 1 pound to 20 pounds.
“Our goal is to be a great partner to our retail customers,” Gyben said, “and to figure out how to grow the business with ideas and consumer understanding, not just settle for business as usual.”
Anthony Farms in Scandinavia, Wis., recently launched a new bag targeting Hispanic consumers.
“For a long time, I listened to the USPB talk about the rapidly growing Hispanic population in the U.S. and the implications for the potato industry,” said Chris Anthony, vice president of Anthony Farms.
He was surprised to learn that Chicago one of its largest markets had a growing Hispanic population, too.
Anthony Farms dissected the Hispanic consumer research studies that the board had done over four years. The company hired a local packaging designer who used a vibrant palette of colors. The final package incorporates all the USPB research-based best practices in marketing to Hispanic consumers. It is a 10-pound bag packed with U.S. No. 1 Grade A potatoes, because Hispanic consumers are willing to pay for quality and will remain loyal to brands that maintain value and quality. The bag has many see-through parts where consumers can inspect the potatoes an important element as quality is a top concern for Hispanic customers. To address varying attitudes toward the Spanish language and traditions within the culture, there is an equal mix of English and Spanish highlighting nutritional content and benefits.
“I’m very excited about this,” Anthony said. “They are the same high-quality potatoes we’ve always sold, just packaged a different way.”
When USPB launched its Healthy Potato nutrition campaign in February 2004, Wada Farms jumped on the opportunity to incorporate the nutrition research and available graphics on its bags and bins. Kevin Stanger, vice president of marketing for Wada Farms, said good packaging is important, and equally important is using reliable information on consumer preferences and trends to improve marketing.
Wada Farms used the “Skinny Potato” graphic as its packaging centerpiece.
“The image is a great teaching tool,” Stanger said. “By using bright colors and eye-catching graphics on the bag, we are advertising how nutritious potatoes are at the point of sale, without relying on posters or banners that don’t always get displayed.”
“We’re getting a positive response from retailers,” Stanger said. “They’ve said that the bag is a definite step forward in marketing the healthy and nutritious attributes of potatoes to today’s sophisticated and health-conscious consumer.”
Mountain King, too, seized the opportunity to incorporate the “Healthy Potato” nutrition message into its packaging.
“We used the information that the board gave us indicating rapidly declining consumer attitudes towards potatoes and the messaging research,” said John Pope, vice president, sales and marketing, for Mountain King. “It was an opportunity get the potato nutrition story across to consumers with a simple, fundamental message Nature’s Natural Diet Food.”
Mountain King highlighted with a bright, lime-green band the potato’s benefit of having “Absolutely NO FAT” and being “Low in CALORIES.” Pope said it’s an important message for consumers, and “I’m surprised more retailers aren’t promoting the message more.”
“Certainly, these innovations in new products and packaging are not the only ones out there, but they do exemplify what is needed in order to begin innovation at the retail level,” said USPB’s Mac Johnson. “We continue to develop research about the industry and the consumer, and I’m always encouraged when I see progressive growers/shippers utilize this information to increase demand for not only their product but for the industry.”