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    Maximizing Variety Marketing

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    [deck]Why selling fresh potatoes as “reds” or “whites” soon won’t be good enough.[/deck]

    If a customer were to ask for a Vivaldi white-skinned potato in a Canadian grocery store, they would likely receive blank stares for their trouble. In some areas, such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand, the vast majority of potatoes are marketed by specific variety name. However, the odds of a Canadian consumer knowing the difference between a Yukon Gold potato and a Vivaldi are low—we’re used to looking for, and purchasing, red potatoes, white potatoes and the occasional purple potatoes. But in the increasingly competitive playing field of the produce aisle, if potatoes remain “staples” classed by colour, they will have nothing to offer discerning—and increasingly brand-conscious—consumers.

    The need for variety marketing represents a significant shift in thinking in North America, but it’s one that many progressive growers are passionate about.

    “I definitely think marketing by variety is the way to go [if we want to] maintain the market share that we have now. If we don’t get our act together it’s going to hurt us,” says Peter Guichon, a founder and current vice-chair of BCfresh, the British Columbia vegetable marketing commission. Guichon is a Delta-area grower who grows fresh potatoes for BCfresh, along with a small amount of potatoes for processing.

    He sees variety marketing as a necessity for the future. “Unless things are labelled as a specialty and consumers pick up on it, most of the time consumers don’t know what they’re buying, just what’s presented to them.”

    Turf Wars

    Larry McIntosh, chief executive officer of Peak of the Market, a Manitoba fresh vegetable supplier, says that until now, consumers have never been given the opportunity to choose potatoes by variety. “They can choose red, yellow or white potatoes for their taste preference but not varieties within each type of potato,” he says.

    The reason for this, Guichon says, is that for the most part retailers make decisions about how potatoes will be marketed. Because retailers often must maintain national store brands, it is very difficult for niche branding or variety marketing to get a foot in the door.

    “We have our own brand name, but a big problem we have is that all the major retail chains have their own private labels, so we’re dictated by what they want to do,” says Albert Streef of southern Ontario-based Streef Produce.

    When potatoes are marketed specifically, it’s usually in reference to their region of origin rather than by variety, according to Streef.

    The problem gets even more complex. Potatoes are seen as a staple food, explains Streef, “so when they’re featured at retail, the volume increases substantially because it’s seen as good value. Retailers want to keep those costs down to a low retail price point. When you go into special varieties with all the packaging, etcetera, it’s not likely you want that product at lower price point values.”

    But consumer ignorance of specific potato varieties makes things difficult for growers trying to break out of the box.

    “If we do nothing, it won’t change. But I think if we get together with retailers and say, ‘Okay, let’s sit down and here’s what works for us, let’s see if it works for you, and hell, let’s get the best-tasting potatoes out there,’ [it might be possible] to sell varieties that taste good that people ask for,” says Guichon.

    Knowledge-Hungry

    The challenge for Canadian producers will be to increase consumer awareness of the distinct qualities and benefits of various potato varieties. One example of a knowledge gap involves  one of the few potato varieties that is a household name—Yukon Gold.

    Yukon Gold has become one of the hardest yellow-fleshed potatoes to produce. However, consumers continue to ask for Yukon Golds, so growers continue to struggle with the variety’s low yields, even though there are many other yellow-fleshed new varieties that are much easier to grow. But consumers can’t ask for potatoes they haven’t heard of. “It’s become somewhat misleading because there are lots of yellow-fleshed varieties, but all the marketing for Yukon Gold has made it challenging to sell other varieties,” says Streef.

    Variety awareness in Canada is still in its early stages

    – Larry McIntosh

    However, the average Canadian consumer is knowledge-hungry, especially about food. Given the chance, the greatest proponents of variety marketing would likely be the consumers themselves, who would benefit from knowing which potatoes to bake and which to boil.

    McIntosh recognizes that potato branding is the wave of the future. “Variety awareness in Canada is still in its early stages, but we see that changing over the next three to five years as consumers are starting to want more and more information about their potatoes.”

    Central to variety marketing will be branded packaging. But before that becomes the norm, says McIntosh, basic consumer education should be the focus. “People need to be educated on how to use potatoes,” he says. “Recipes and cooking information, in the short term at least, are more important than labelling bags by variety.”

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