Each year the North American (Domestic) team at the Northwest Cherry Growers uses coordinated research to align retailer promotions and consumer marketing in order to provide a surface upon which our industry can gain traction with their fruit. Each year presents a different scenario, and every grower deserves the same chance at success. For the most part, the big challenges facing many in the produce industry take constant effort to create opportunity-based success. We believe our year-round efforts to prepare, enact, analyze and adjust a constantly evolving portfolio of promotions and marketing activities help do just that while preparing the market for each coming crop.
It was as clear in our pre-season meetings as it is in hindsight that we needed more retail support during the June 16th ad week. California’s additional volume, discussed at length later in the report and in the Manager’s Report, compounded that need. As it was, retailers managed to get 1 qualifying June ad but not as many ran two. All other measures exceeded our 2020 numbers, with the exception of consumer demos which were still largely on-hold for another season due to the pandemic. The “other” category is our general tracking term to include all other retailer-based promotional programs, such as digital promotions or dietitian programs.
Meeting with retailer has always been a challenge, and Covid work protocols have made tracking down retail decision-makers more difficult than ever. Nonplussed, our team has shifted to largely digital meetings and has managed to regain and even surpass our previous record for retailer engagement. When measured against their pre-season intentions, we saw nearly 9 out of 10 retailers execute during the 2021 cherry season.
Last season saw a growth in the total number of retail promotion programs executed by our organization as well. Achieving a high compliance is one thing, but not at the cost of reducing program goals or cutting loose the challenging retail partners. Like our growers, we keep at it and always work to strengthen the roots for a better yield.
There were a number of positive factors and promotions that went into last season, but no season is without challenges, and last year was no exception. The effects of the heat on our crop and the market are discussed thoroughly in the Manager’s Report, but it’s worth noting the impact it had on consumer shopping. As an impulse item, cherries seek out that first position by the door to grab attention as shoppers enter. High temperatures, especially in that zone, had retailers relocating and sometimes covering cherries and other highly perishable produce items. Beyond that, consumer shopping trips and outside gatherings both decrease in extreme heat, which leads to a further reduction in typical sales activity.
Every year the transition from California to Washington can be tricky. Overall, the early California fruit is the tip of the spear that finds the chink in the armor of the produce department. Cherry sales data shows that Super Users, those true cherry lovers, seek out early season fruits and help build momentum for our category. The tapered exchange as our two industries navigate opposite ends of our seasons can lead to disruptions in Northwest momentum, particularly if there is a sizeable amount of unsold California fruit remaining when the Northwest harvest begins. However, that overlap is typically seen at the wholesale level, and certainly hasn’t been witnessed on the shelf to the degree that it was in 2021.
Using available data, the NWCG has calculated that there was an additional 240% more fruit in June last year but only a 200% increase in advertisements. While retailers certainly ran more promotions, in many of the cases there was not an organized drive to finish California and move into the Northwest. This led to some confusing displays of sometimes up to 5 or 6 different shippers from different states. Add the effects of the heat onto it, and it’s safe to say that guaranteeing the eating experience of a cherry consumer before the 4th of July in the U.S. last year was a bit of a gamble, regardless of what high quality we shipped from the Northwest.
Thankfully, similar crops year-over-year didn’t result in similar 4th of July promotions. After widespread encouragement not to advertise in 2020, retailers returned to their promotions for the 2021 season and cherries regained their number one position by a healthy margin. Unfortunately, some of those advertisements were pushing out the last of the California harvest.
We were anticipating higher retail costs going into the 2021 season. During the first summer of the pandemic, retailer margins were squeezed from both sides and category returns suffered. It followed suit that the 2021 pricing would reflect an increase to return to more traditional margins on top of the relative price increases in general. Even with the largest crop on record, the average price per pound of California cherries didn’t fall below $4 until Memorial Weekend promotions. And then that price was regained while both industries were pumping copious volumes into the market. Front line pricing is one area where our organization and industry have the least control, but it certainly has a direct correlation with our success. Therefore, it’s imperative that we work to develop every aspect of value and benefit possible for our fruits to help influence that increasingly costly consumer decision at the shelf.
Establishing the circular ad is key to establishing not only bigger displays but broader awareness as well. The USDA has repeatedly shown in their studies that what shows up in the ads is what shows up on America’s plates. That broad readership base makes ads the perfect opportunity to insert educational messages, especially if they add value to the product. Thanks to the years of research and promotion, there are a number of benefits that both resonate with consumers and fit easily into their ad plans.
Driving these bonuses has been a part of every meeting with retailers for over a decade, but with the increasing attention paid to healthy eating…both by consumers and retailers…we have begun to see declining resistance. In fact, thanks to the efforts of our regional representatives in keeping those approved phrases and reminders in front of the ad planners, we saw a 16% growth in health mentions in 2021’s Northwest cherry ads compared to only a 6% growth in ads. Since the pandemic has upset both the norms of circular advertising as well as shopping behaviors, we compared the 2021 performance to that of the 2019 cherry crop. Compared to that last pre-pandemic season, 2021 saw 13% less fruit and 44% more health mentions in Northwest ads.
This platform is a great way to not only educate consumers, but also help explain the additional benefits of consuming cherries at the point of purchase. More and more, the utility (a measure of satisfaction) of a produce item is considered as a part of the economic value. Consumers are eating more plants for their own health and that of the planet. Linking these desires with our approved messages of health at the point of purchase is perhaps the crux of our organization’s many efforts and programs.
Demos have been a mainstay of our promotions for years. When growers take such care to produce amazing fruit, then the parade of promotions should be led by product experience itself. However, although a few retailers had begun conducting in-person demos by the time our 2021 season started, it still seemed unlikely that most of the larger retailers would begin executing them in time. Program funds previously earmarked for demos were shifted to digital or often a form of store-level contest. Where opportunities existed for some sort of Point of Purchase education, we took it…be it a display stand like the one pictured above or a staffed informational-demo at Costco with no samples but a list of our health bullet points and the knowledge of where to find the cherries in hand. With so many things on a shoppers mind during the summer of 2021, we still sought to find ways to engage with them at the shelf even without the ability to share the cherries themselves.
But as with our retail promotions inside a brick-and-mortar store, the message is most effective when delivered at the point of sale. Making that happen took many forms in 2021, including “shoppable ads,” where recipes on top sites link directly to the shopping cart, not just the list, of the consumer’s online grocery platform. From custom YouTube ads to promotions at grocery order pick-up locations, the NWCG worked to ease the situation and increase the success of both our growers and retail partners during this most challenging season.
For online shoppers, those chances to regain or make new cherry buyers centers around the delivery and curbside pickup. It’s important to remember that over half of our online cherry buyers reported having some form of delivery whether that was from an entirely digital retailer or an Instacart-type service. But by far, the preferred option for online shoppers was the curbside pickup.
Thanks to a monumental effort by 8 of our shippers once again, in 2021 we were able to partner with Walmart to execute their idea for a consumer sample pack of fresh cherries wrapped in health messaging for a second time. In total, the shopper demo event reached 750,000 consumers in late June-early July with a sealed pack of cherries. What made the 2021 demo unique was a QR-code on the bag, which led viewers through a few simple questions. The aim of the exercise was to not only determine if it was their first sample of the season (for 32% it was) or to learn whether they knew that cherries are an anti-inflammatory (53% didn’t know that before they scanned), but ultimately create a direct link with Walmart’s online shopping platform and the sample itself.
After a few successful seasons, the NWCG sponsored “shoppable ads” for one more year as another way to engage online cooks who align heavily with the demographics of likely cherry buyers. Even as a small fraction of our digital engagement. analytics show our program reached 1.6 million shoppers during the 2021 season.
Driving the program was a fast & flexible pickled cherry recipe and a cherry yogurt popsicle to beat the summer heat. Both story-recipes exceeded benchmarks across all engagement KPIs. Analytics also indicate that with an average of over 5 minutes spent on the recipe page and high CTRs on the companion (display and banner) ads, this program is also but one example that suggests online consumers are very interested in cherry content. The CTR of both the social and native promotion of the recipes was well above benchmark, again showing the quality and relevancy of the recipes to the Simply Recipes audience. Most importantly, viewers showed intent to purchase recipe ingredients and make the recipes at home. More than 1K people printed the recipe, but the power of this program is the link to the actual shopping cart. The “Add recipe to shopping list” buttons had an overall CTR of 2.40%, with a high conversion rate to retailer of 9.35 percent.
Since the start of the pandemic, YouTube usage remained at a steady 80% increase year-over-year, and the ability to run ads with a portion that couldn’t be skipped presented an opportunity to create awareness for the cherries on the shelves in one’s nearby store. Highlighting the health benefits of cherries as well as their easy freez-ability, we secured a list of zipcodes for every store from two different retailers and launched our July ads to targeted cherry shopper demographics. Our modest investment, on par with a similar ad intent for that window, returned over 915K impressions of our “In Stores Now” messaging and 480,000 views, which was an increase of 22% year-over-year. For the second year in a row, perhaps the most amazing statistic is that comparison of views to impressions. Both retail programs maintained average viewership (aged 30+) of over 52%, which means the viewer watched at least :30 seconds of the 1-minute ad. That’s significantly higher than the industry standard and indicates strong interest in the material (and tips) being presented.
With over half of surveyed cherry buyers in 2020 stating that the health benefits of cherries made an impact on their decision to purchase, it’s clear that not only our messaging is working but we must continue to do more. During a series of bracketed focus groups and national surveys during the 2021 season, the NWCG uncovered that a very similar number of cherry buyers (61 percent) stated that they would buy more cherries if they knew cherries contained a personally-relevent health benefit. With such a wide range of impacts on personal health, it seems clear that continued promotion and development of cherry health messaging is a large key in developing a stable and supportive domestic market for future crop growth.
Each season we evaluate our programs and promotions, and determine whether it’s an avenue we want to move on from or explore further. Over time, that’s created a very solid collection of pathways we use to distribute our message, but a well-funded promotion stimulus allowed us to access greater tools and programs to boost our reach along the way. Whether it was placed ads, podcasts, streamed commercials or MAT releases to name just a few, these channels were used to amplify similar messages to our in-store efforts while also driving immediate, mass visibility among consumers across the U.S. in a controlled, highly scripted manner. It allowed us to expand and deepen our reach to shoppers who may not be spending as much time in the stores.
As consumers across the country continue(d) to cope with the physical and mental strain of the pandemic, we took the opportunity to educate the public on sweet cherries’ natural abilities via several sponsored content partnerships with top digital wellness outlets, such as this example on Well+Good. Well+Good is a trusted adviser for Millennials navigating the wide world of wellness. Since its launch in 2010, the publication has set the standard for reporting and trend trend-spotting on the healthy healthy-living beat in order to help define and demystify what it means to live a well life, inside and out.
After discussions with their editorial team, the NWCG sponsored two articles: one detailing the ways that cherries rounded out someone’s wellness routine and another that showed the dermatological benefits of sweet cherries. The combined impressions of the dermatology article were just over 1.4 million readers, with 225K clicking through to read the article. Combined with a follow-up email blast, the program reached 1.57 million readers.
For several years, the NWCG has pursued a strategy of message flooding during the start and key moments of our season. An impulse-based product with seasonal distribution can’t rely word-of-mouth or chance encounter. Targeting influencers to post within certain windows increases the likelihood of message echo, which in turn increases the likelihood of recall during purchase opportunities. As this idea has grown around the world from “new” to standard practice, the commercialization and data sophistication has developed with it.
In 2021, the NWCG partnered with several influencers that reach core and developing demographics for sponsorship posts. These posts allow us more control of the messaging, which can be critical when it’s a health benefit.
Final-step messaging, like that shared by most influencers, is phenomenally impactful. But at a certain point, repeating the same messages to this group of trend-based marketers will return a diminishing ROI. Over the past several years, the NWCG has built a campaign to target registered dieticians and health researchers with upstream marketing. Leveraging a mailing list of over 2,500 nutritionists and academics, we began a semi-annual email newsletter. Each email highlights the lastest research developments and approved statements, as well as featuring a letter written by a leading cherry researcher.
Along with seasonal tips and a simple, healthy recipe that can be incorporated into their dietary recommendations, we are aiming to seed the clouds with ready-made cherry statements which will eventually flow downstream to general influencers and consumers alike. So far the emails have been received well, and our included surveys have helped the NWCG understand the current status of cherry health awareness in this key group.
In 2021, our Food & Lifestyle efforts included 345 placements spanning print, broadcast, online and social media. Our paid partnerships garnered another 7.9 million impressions across the summer. Always great promoters, our fruit-supplied “Canbassador” influencers created 84 posts, for a total reach of 3.3 million people…a 272% increase in year-over-year promotions in this program’s 12th year.
Northwest Cherry Growers
Yakima, WA, U.S.A.