With more than 20 years in the food industry, Sara Hagen has helped many clients with brand development and marketing. As president of Foodmix, a full-service branding agency that has assisted with food advertising and marketing campaigns for more than 30 years, Hagen knows a thing or two about positioning produce for the consumer eye.
Branding vs. marketing
While these terms are often paired, branding and marketing are not interchangeable. Their functions are different, and they achieve separate objectives.
“The simplest way to define branding is, it’s telling your story. It’s who you are and what your promise is,” Hagen says. “On the other side of that is marketing, which is going out to the world and telling that story.”
According to Hagen, everyone has a brand. From social media posts to wardrobe choice and so forth, self-expression allows people to showcase their personal brands. For businesses, however, brand maintenance is much more important.“A brand voice builds recognition. It helps develop loyalty with your target audience,” she says, referring to brand voice as the “Holy Grail.”
“Ultimately, what we’re all trying to seek is brand advocacy and if you don’t have a brand voice and you’re not participating in the conversation, how can you ever achieve that point of advocacy?”
While the role of marketing is typically seen as a sales support function, Hagen says branding is equally important and that it too, helps with selling.
“The brand promise is the magic middle section of what your truths are, what your competition cannot own and what your customer or consumer want. If a company can triangulate those, the message will be powerful.”
What does marketing and branding look like for produce?
While branding is no “one size fits all answer,” Hagen says a company’s story will lead to what the aesthetic looks like and the way it’s marketed. The tone and manner are largely dependent on a company’s heritage, history, ideal customer and product. In the produce industry specifically, the biggest value that should be highlighted is where the produce comes from, Hagen says.
“In produce, I believe the time now more than ever has been focused on roots, farm to table and so forth,” she says. “The trends are plant-forward diets, healthy snacking and nutritious eating for kids. People want to know, ‘Where does my food come from?’ Food safety and security are important and the unique story that the produce industry can drive is where the food comes from.”
Along with its origins, Hagen says transparency and authenticity should be expressed as well.
“Consumers are savvy and they’re more engaged than ever. Conveying that true authentic message is important. We did a brand love study with consumers a few years ago and they weren’t seeking a bunch of claims thrown at them. They were seeking that true, authentic story.”
Hagen says social media is where consumers seek inspiration, from meal ideas on Pinterest to fashion insight on Instagram. That said, the preferred channel may change based on the product a company is selling, but social engagement is essential.
“Social media has created a buzz in the marketplace,” Hagen says. “There has been a shift in how companies use social media. Rewind years ago, and it was like, ‘Oh, I have a free way to do marketing. I can reach the consumer.’ Now, companies are taking strides to make sure they are investing in social media, the way the brand or product is represented and adjusting based on their approach.”
Hagen adds that it’s imperative to create a balanced social strategy to reflect the company voice, but also match the specific marketing objectives you're trying to accomplish.
“Are you looking for engagement in number growth? Are you looking to turn your engaged followers into brand advocates? You want to make sure you have a content strategy and are not just posting willy nilly, but actually posting content that aligns to your brand, tone and manner.”
According to Hagen, people “eat with their eyes.” This said, she believes it’s good to play with color to highlight a “powerful flavor punch.”
When photographing produce, leafy greens and other vegetables alongside the typical brown protein brightens the plate. Since food is visual, this can convey taste. The textual experience is equally important, according to Hagen, and should be stated to express taste, spice, crunch and flavor.
Digital vs. print
There’s a constant conversation about digital, but Hagen says print is still in.
“Being able to display produce through print media or physical marketing is still relevant and should be part of the consideration,” she says. In fact, Foodmix has a client who is using direct mail programs because people are “inundated with digital.”
While most social media influencers are celebrities or public figures, Hagen says there is another option: micro-influencers. Micro-influencers are relatively small accounts with follower ranges from 1,000 to a couple hundred thousand. That influencer should have a niche or voice that aligns with the company. In produce’s case, Hagen suggests working with local chefs or plant-based enthusiasts, to help boost your message to their followers, for example.
All in all, Hagen believes many produce companies underestimate the importance of branding and raising awareness around a product. The first step, however, is outlining an engagement plan, defining goals, specifying the brand promise, telling an authentic story and deciding what’s right from an investment standpoint.
“What’s cool is we have so many tools now, so we can really figure out where the consumers are, what a day in life looks like for them and how we can help put the brand in front of them wherever they are on their journey.”