On 40 acres at a farm near this Santa Cruz County city, new varieties of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries are being tested, each of them proprietary. No other company in the world grows berries exactly like these.
Now the business behind it all – Driscoll’s, the family-owned berry juggernaut – hopes a new marketing campaign will make berry lovers care about that distinction.
With new labels on its packages, a retooled website and an aggressive social media outreach that started last month, the company is aiming to get Americans to understand what makes Driscoll’s berries unique. Its strawberries have been bred for a uniform shape, for example, while Driscoll’s raspberries are pinker and shinier, made to meet desires expressed by consumers.
“You have to find a way to say this strawberry is different from that strawberry, which isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do,” said Soren Bjorn, executive vice president of Driscoll’s. “But our strawberries actually are different – no one else grows the strawberries we grow.”
Consumers tend to think of fruit and vegetables as commodities, one cucumber interchangeable with another. They generally look for the best quality at the lowest price, not for particular brands.
But as competition heats up for space on the perimeter of supermarkets, where fruits and vegetables are sold, grocery chains have asserted greater leverage over produce suppliers. That has left those suppliers looking for ways to stand out. Driscoll’s is betting that once consumers know why its berries are distinctive they will demand them by name.
“If Driscoll’s can establish that, it will have real value in its brand,” said Timothy Calkins, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “But it’s going to take some real investment and time.”
It’s not the first produce company to go this route. Consider Chiquita and bananas, or the Hass avocado, a “brand” created by the trade association that represents growers of that variety of the fruit. And The Wonderful Company is behind Wonderful pistachios and Halos mandarin oranges.
Building a brand
Driscoll’s plans to build awareness methodically, by starting with digital outreach. The company’s website, which largely offered recipes, has been changed to explain more about Driscoll’s berries and what makes them different.
The public will get an introduction to the people Driscoll’s calls its Joy Makers – agronomists, breeders, sensory analysts, plant pathologists and entomologists who will explain how the company creates its berries. The company’s YouTube channel will feature stories told by consumers about why berries make them happy. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram will be used to send traffic to the website and YouTube.
Labels on the company’s berries have been changed, too, to “speak” more to consumers, using a scriptlike font for the Driscoll’s name with the dot over the “i” colored to match the berries inside the box.
The company would not disclose how much it is spending on the effort.
Professor Calkins said a traditional national advertising campaign, including TV advertising, would cost $10 million to $20 million. Since margins on produce are razor-thin, most companies elect to spend the few dollars they have for marketing to woo buyers for supermarket chains rather than consumers.
“Produce growing is very fragmented, and nobody really has the critical mass to do that kind of campaign,” Calkins said.
Grocery executives with control over the increasingly valuable store perimeter also have begun to develop branding programs of their own, slapping their store’s name on packaged fruits and vegetables. That means that a grocery brand of bagged lettuce is competing with Dole and Foxy, a brand owned by the Nunes Company, one of the country’s largest vegetable growers.
“Retailers want to put their own name on the produce going into their stores, so that consumers think they can only get that celery they like at that store,” said Matt Seeley, vice president of marketing at Nunes.
Nunes put the Foxy label on its leafy greens and vegetables back in the 1980s and hired Brooke Shields as its spokeswoman.
But the company has stepped back from promoting the Foxy brand to consumers, though it still does some billboard advertising and some digital and online marketing.
“Our industry has the greatest products in the world to sell, and yet it doesn’t do the best job of leveraging that equity and talking straight to consumers,” Seeley said. “We’re like the water people – bottled water has become a commodity and so has a lot of fresh produce.”
The one exception, he and Dick Spezzano, who led produce buying at Von’s, a large supermarket chain, before starting Spezzano Consulting Service, said might be Driscoll’s because the company grows strawberry varieties that are patented.
The ability to study plant genomes is helping reduce the time it takes to breed new berry varieties, shortening what can be a seven-year cycle.
Driscoll’s breeding team is also developing more golden varieties of fruits like raspberries and strawberries, which are particularly popular in Asia.
“Will there be room for three or four brands of berries? No, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Mr. Bjorn said. “But we only need room for one.”
The iteration of Driscoll’s berries
Driscoll’s started in the Pajaro Valley, up the coast from Monterey.
Late 1800s The Reiter and Driscoll families begin growing strawberries in California.
1904 The families plant a new variety of strawberries discovered in a visit to Sweetbriar, a town in Northern California. These new strawberries become known as Banner berries for the banner around their boxes.
1929 The success of the Banner berries leads to the creation of California’s first strawberry breeding program at the University of California.
1944 Members of the Driscoll and Reiter families establish the Strawberry Institute to privately breed berry plants. The university was planning to end its strawberry breeding program the next year.
1980s The company starts to sell blueberries and blackberries in response to acquisition offers from three major fruit companies. The company also commits to supplying berries year round, forcing them to grow outside of California.
“They do it mainly to try to position themselves as premium in comparison to other brands,” said Dick Spezzano, who led produce buying at Von’s, a large supermarket chain, before starting Spezzano Consulting Service.