In recent years , there has been a steady decline in the number of fresh potatoes that find their way to the Canadian dinner table. It’s a complicated problem, one the country’s potato marketers are prepared to tackle through increasingly sophisticated and innovative approaches.
But first, they are working to fully understand what the consumer wants.
Joe Brennan, a potato grower and chair of the board of Potatoes New Brunswick, says recent U.S. consumer surveys show a good-sized portion of the decline in sales is due to the decreasing number of sit-down, pass-thepotatoes-please meals that modern families eat, and an increase in one-dish meals such as pizza and pasta. More exotic cooking trends and the low-carb crazes of the past decade also haven’t helped the situation.
Breeders and marketers have tried for years to overcome the challenge of selling potatoes to time-pressed families. Consider, for example, the microwaveable potato: Brennan has talked to U.S. growers who note that while it has helped, it hasn’t taken off the way industry had hoped it would.
“There are a number of things that have been tried, but there hasn’t been a home run. None have unlocked the secret to big sales,” Brennan says.
The secret, it seems, may have as much to do with style as substance.
Last year, the P.E.I Potato Board caught consumers’ attention with a contest that carried a buyer from in-store intrigue to online engagement. called “Pack Your Appetite,” the promotion offered a chance to win prizes by visiting a web site and entering the unique code found on every bag of P.E.I potatoes. The contest, a collaboration with Tourism P.E.I and the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture, drew 114,000 entries to the web site—51,000 unique visitors—to compete for grand prize culinary trips as well as weekly prizes of grocery gift certificates (with which, of course, winners could buy more potatoes).
According to Kendra Mills, marketing director for P.E.I Potatoes, the retail promotion brought the pizzazz of the cereal aisle to the produce department. And while working to make buyers mindful of the quality of P.E.I potatoes and to build consumer loyalty, it also gathered consumer data by asking a handful of directed behavioural questions.
One key finding: only six per cent of buyers base their potato-purchasing decision on price. This echoes a U.S. survey, Mills says, that reported most shoppers leave a store uncertain what they paid for their potatoes.
“People buy potatoes for nutrition and versatility,” Mills says. To build on those factors, initiatives are focused on emphasizing that the potato is a vegetable—not just a starch—and on recipe development and culinary alliances.
Giving consumers what they want is also a breeding challenge. Today, the federal government and private breeders are putting more money into new varieties.
“In the past, the focus was on economic and production traits that would improve yield and disease resistance and so forth,” Brennan says. Now, he believes future varieties will be focused on what consumers want, with factors like colour, texture, flavour, and appearance topping the charts.
That’s where the special marketing appeal of varieties such as baby roasters, fingerlings, or the anti-oxidantrich purple flesh potatoes comes in. While less common in Atlantic Canada, where fewer high-population centres make it difficult to build a significant and loyal market, producing new varieties is still a growing trend.
“There’s been a real effort among some growers to carve out a niche and target a certain demographic. They’re working to build a brand,” he says.
Mills agrees that the focus must be on the consumer: “It’s up to us to provide them with options.” Getting that right relies on understanding wants and needs, honing in on unique selling points, and generating some excitement. “From a marketing standpoint, there’s good reason to be very
excited about the future.” Leslie Vryenhoek