Driscoll’s Aims to Hook the Berry-Buying Shopper
By STEPHANIE STROM SEPT. 6, 2016
WATSONVILLE, Calif. — On 40 acres at a farm near the central coast of California, 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 — is hoping 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 starts this week, 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.
“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.
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,” Mr. Calkins said.
Grocery executives with control over the increasingly valuable store perimeter have also 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. Spezzano said, might be Driscoll’s because the company grows strawberry varieties that are patented.
Driscoll’s strawberries trace their heritage to the late 1800s, when “Aunt Lou” came home from a trip to Sweetbriar, Calif., carrying some plants that she swore produced the best strawberries she had ever eaten — or at least that’s how J. Miles Reiter, chairman of Driscoll’s and the great-nephew of Louise Reiter, recalls it.
By 1944, family members and other parties formed a group to conduct private breeding of berry plants, which was an unusual move at the time, as most plant breeding was done in universities.
In 1957, Driscoll’s developed a strawberry plant it prosaically called Z5A, which produced attractive berries over a long season. It took the company more than a decade to develop a strawberry that had those qualities as well as great taste; the company called it Heidi.
“The success of that berry influenced all of the breeding that came afterward,” Mr. Reiter said.
Driscoll’s sold strawberries and a few raspberries until the late 1980s, when all three of the large tropical fruit companies — Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita, the original branded fruit companies — showed up to court the company. They were unsuccessful, but the Driscoll and Reiter families decided Driscoll’s would become a year-round supplier of berries, meaning it would need to develop growers in Southern California, Florida and Mexico. And it would fully commit to raspberries, which had always been a smaller part of its business, and add blueberries and blackberries.
A laborer in a Driscoll’s raspberry field in Watsonville, Calif. The company said consumers wanted raspberries that were pinker and shinier. CreditJason Henry for The New York Times
“Blueberries had always been something grown somewhere else, in Maine or Michigan, blackberries just tasted horrible and raspberries, well, they’re fussy, hard-to-grow things,” Mr. Reiter said.
Those other berries meant the company would have to change its packaging as well, and so it became one of the first produce companies to embrace the clamshell, which has now become ubiquitous in the produce section.
Driscoll’s latest innovation is the addition of a microbiologist and horticultural scientist to its team. They work in a lab the company built this year in a former barn at Cassin Ranch, the site of its research and development operation as well as its field testing and breeding, and stocked with equipment that interprets the reams of information embedded in berry genomes.
“The genetics are the reason that growers want to grow for us and not someone else,” said Dave Sterry, senior vice president for global research and development at Driscoll’s.
The new team is doing things like mapping microclimates and figuring out how to use the aromatics of a berry to increase its sweetness, rather than increasing the sugar content of the berry itself.
“It’s very expensive for a strawberry plant to make more sugar, and that means you’ll likely get fewer berries, which means less money for growers,” said Jessica Gilbert, a molecular blueberry breeder at Driscoll’s, examining traits like flavor, color and shape. “So we look for other ways to increase sweetness.”
The team also works to develop disease resistance, reduce the need for water and ensure that berries are easy to harvest, seeking to eliminate thorns that can tear the hands of harvesters.
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.”