Photo: Cassie Neiden

This year’s PMA Fresh Summit conference was held in Orlando, Fla., where more than 20,000 attendees from 65 different countries gathered for education sessions, networking opportunities both on and off the trade show floor and of course, new marketing perspectives. Here are a few of the overarching themes observed throughout the event:

NatureFresh Farms grows and packages mini servings of snacking tomatoes.
Photos: Cassie Neiden

1. Food safety is No. 1.

As the industry nears the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) October 2017 compliance dates, safety proved utmost importance during the summit. Dr. Bob Whitaker, PMA’s Chief Science Officer, presented a session on Day 1 about the importance of food safety in an ever-growing population.

By 2050, there will be an estimated 9 billion people on the planet, according to the World Health Organization. “We want them to consume fruits and vegetables,” Whitaker reported via his presentation. “We can’t grow consumption if people are concerned about safety.”

Dr. Whitaker took a challenge-versus-opportunities approach as he outlined 10 major trends in food safety. These trends included pathogens, technology convergence, the need for talent, data, the legal and financial climate and more. While some of the challenges included costs, the need for more testing and data analysis, opportunities for producers include the integration of food safety as part of a business plan, leveraging technology and developing communications plans that meet consumers’ needs.

Intergrow Tomatoes in Western New York has branded its cherry tomatoes on the vine (TOVs), and markets them via long, sleek packaging; California-based Sun Valley Farms presents itself as a farmers market, with signage that adds a local feel to its cut flowers.
Photos: Cassie Neiden

2. You can brand yourself on a small budget.

PMA presented speakers with genuinely inspiring branding advice, two of whom included New York Times Bestselling Author of “Salt Sugar Fat,” Michael Moss, and serial entrepreneur (and classic prankster) Johnny Cupcakes.

Moss, who presented during the first day of educational sessions, had a full and attentive audience as he spoke about ways small growers can self-identify by borrowing ideas from food giants. He outlined the potential to collaborate with retail outlets and grocery stores, partnering with local universities to attract a younger demographic, taking advantage of notable spokespersons or characters (i.e. PMA’s eat brighter! campaign), and selling the idea of fun, rather than touting the benefits of being healthy. As an example, Moss referenced a mock broccoli campaign that he helped facilitate, which took this approach to inspire consumption of the healthy green veggie.

Johnny Cupcakes’ name is a moniker the entrepreneur designated himself when he started his namesake company, which, ironically, is not a bakery that sells cupcakes. Instead, his business venture is a T-shirt shop — themed with vintage ovens and refrigerators that display the clothing products, vanilla-scented air fresheners to build on that theme, as well as pastry-box packaging that every customer receives at the purchase. The idea began as an underground phenomenon, one that was a joke to tease customers into craving the frosting-topped treats, but it evolved into a retail success with a cult-like following after building momentum via social media.

Johnny Earle (the owner’s real name) has found his own success, but the company built on that success via collaborations with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Hello Kitty which has created even more influence with consumers. Earle also believes in the power of packaging, noting that, “Good packaging doesn’t get thrown away.” Instead, it continues to work for you to help consumers remember your marketing message.

Using the friendly bee character pictured, NatureSweet rebranded itself this year to outline the sustainable ways in which it’s producing its tomato varieties that are sold in major retail grocery store chains.
Photo: Cassie Neiden

3. Innovate before adversity strikes.

The final day of Fresh Summit began with a keynote presentation about the “5 Obsessions of Innovators” from another New York Times bestselling author, Josh Linkner.

Linkner, who founded and sold ePrize, which is touted as the largest interactive promotion agency in the world, said that business owners must innovate their businesses before they are forced to react to change. While it may be tough if you’ve utilized the same business model for decades, Linkner swears by the art of humoring our own curiosity, and releasing the “old” to make way for the “new.” Linkner says the ability to do so can “fuel our continued sense of wonder.”

And to do so, it’s not about having the biggest balance sheet, but instead possessing a “tenacity and resilience” to move forward.

One of our favorite examples he provided also came from a broccoli campaign, this one by a brand called Tenderstem broccolini — serving up the tagline “Get Tender Tonight.”

Packaging companies are moving away from plastic and toward compostable materials.
Photo: Cassie Neiden

4. The packaging is as important as the product.

We learned this earlier from Johnny Cupcakes — but that message has already been implemented by many of the growers we saw on the trade show floor. Packaging choices are beginning to evolve past the classic bag and clam-shell into more sustainable solutions — like top-cover films that reduce plastic waste — to even compostable containers that can help keep produce fresher longer.