Touchless faucets, check. Open shelving, check. Stainless steel appliances, check. The backdrop of this kitchen looks like a glossy shot from Canadian House & Home.
Rather, it’s the new kitchen next door to the 10-person marketing department at Pure Hothouse Foods Inc. Its purpose is as hard-nosed as the executive team that must coordinate the growing, packaging and sales of hundreds of acres of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers grown in Leamington, Ontario.
What might be considered a place for a java perk for the staff is actually a multi-functional work space for food photography, brainstorming and hosting visitors. The visual backdrop of thousands of greenhouse peppers is a constant reminder of the real focus: marketing vegetables to meet surging demand across North America.
“A decade ago, marketing wasn’t the powerhouse that it is today for produce companies,” says Chris Veillon, chief marketing officer for Pure Hothouse Foods Inc. “In those days, very small groups of people managed a couple of trade shows, created Powerpoint presentations, handed out product at community events and that was it.”
Today, the 15-year veteran of marketing for three different greenhouse growers is now part of the executive leadership of the Pure Flavor brand. His specific responsibilities include business and market development, market research and planning; strategic direction for promotion and advertising; coordination with sales, and directing the day-to-day activities of the Strategic Marketing Group. That’s a cool job that has him running at full speed in his Adidas sneakers to Mexico, the United States and Europe in the last three months.
“As a kid, I was always fascinated with brands -- how they positioned themselves with colours, messaging and purpose,” recalls Veillon. “We are not a bag of Lays chips or a bottle of Coke or Pop tarts. Fifteen years ago, there was only a handful of well-known brands in fresh produce and everything was a commodity. What we have learned is that we can sell more than red produce that consumers associate with sweetness and juiciness. Other produce can be flavourful too.”
The emergence of specialty crops has been matched by varieties that not only yield well, but provide a unique tasting experience. For Veillon, new greenhouse products such as the two-bite snacking cucumber require a story about the grower, the packer and the IPM manager, so that the parent is confident about buying it for school lunches. At the retail counter, it’s known as the Uno Bites Nano cucumber.
But for the retail category manager, with a Pure Flavor product guide in hand, the Uno Bites Nano cucumber is promoted as an ideal snacking item that goes well with lime juice, dill and mint. It can be paired with bell peppers, black olives and chicken. And for the epicurious crowd, go to the website for the recipe: Cucumber Citrus Salad.
Today’s omni-channel media environment is a tool for defining the Pure Flavor’s value proposition in photos and video vignettes. Five years ago, the Facebook page had fewer than a thousand followers. Today, more than 200,000 consumers in Canada and the U.S. are plugged in. Through the use of geo-fencing, Veillon says the company is able to segment the audience not just by geography or demographics, but by lifestyles. As he explains, there’s no sense in sending cucumber recipes to someone who only eats tomatoes.
Another tactic to reach narrow slices of consumer segments is to employ nano-influencers to tell the story. These are content creators who have as few as a thousand followers. They tend to have higher engagement rates with their audiences because they are regarded as authentic. And they’re cost effective.
The race to brand greenhouse commodities is echoed on the prairies where the Big Marble Farms brand was introduced in 2016. The Red Hat Co-operative, located in Redcliff, Alberta is comprised of about 20 growers. They have reimagined their structure, governance and marketing since the untimely death of general manager Lyle Aleman in 2015. He had guided many aspects of the greenhouse business but was particularly active as a promoter.
Ryan Cramer, whose family operates one of the biggest operations, had a vision to reposition the produce from 180 acres under glass. The result was Big Marble Farms, a unique and memorable name for Planet Earth, under which the sustainability message can be told in terms of water conservation, heat recovery and cardboard or compostable packaging.
“It’s important to tell the story from a prairie perspective,” says Cramer. “We’re not out to dominate the world. We want to be the premier supplier for the prairies.”
One of the pillars of the brand is joyful vitality. And that’s captured in videos of employees doing their work with purpose and pride. In social media outreach, it’s important to demonstrate how food comes to the plate in a way that’s respectful to the employees. Cramer admits that his artistic streak can be expressed in videomaking. He’s not averse to being behind the camera. That’s a millennial take on a president’s job description: flexible and creative.
Taking the marketing portfolio in-house is a mirror of what the big consumer companies are doing. Kraft Heinz Canada is a recent example that’s created an in-house agency called The Kitchen, staffed by marketing pros.
Today, Canada’s greenhouse vegetable sector has a farmgate value of about $2 billion. The staples of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are boosted by eggplant and lettuce, with strawberries and even melons coming on stream in the controlled environments. This growth trend will only continue as consumers buy into the story of less water and pesticide use, and the benefits of regionally-produced vegetables.
“The growth of a multi-billion-dollar industry needed greater sophistication to manage the significant demand that growers and marketers are experiencing,” explains Veillon. “The need for investors to help plan and fund that expansion has created a content war. The need to ramp up product information to feed the masses is real.”
Both Veillon and Cramer would agree that their marketing and branding credentials have evolved in the last decade. They are storytellers, executive producers, and content specialists requiring the talents of on-staff photographers, videographers and social media specialists.
Let the credits roll.