Denise Donohue, Donohue Associates
Denise Donohue, Donohue Associates

There was a time when we were working to sell fruit to a large retail grocer.

Well, actually, we weren’t working that hard to place produce with them.

The retailer is widely known as a quality upscale chain with a very strong social conscience. Organic comes quickly to mind.

But since it’s pretty dadgum hard to grow organic produce in Michigan, where it rains and dews daily for months, we sort of wrote off the retailer.

We can’t do anything with them, sob, sob. We can’t grow organic fruit here — it’s too hard, too expensive, etc.

The grocer did pick up some of our product via a wholesale marketer, but since we “knew” what it wanted to sell and thought we couldn’t provide it, we pretty much steered clear of direct dealings. Let the littler growers nibble around the edges for them.

We essentially wrote off the entire chain.

One day, a produce buyer from there called me. He was straddling the fence of social responsibility, needing to promote locally grown produce and at the same time demonstrate they were preserving the environment.

“I know you can’t grow organic fruit in Michigan, just give me something I can tell my customers,” he practically begged.

“I know Michigan growers do good things for the environment. Give me something so I can tell my customers.”

Well, let me say that most produce buyers won’t pick up the phone and plead with you to fine-tune your marketing approach so they can buy more of your stuff.

For me it was a priceless lesson — actually several lessons — for a lifetime of better food marketing.

First, why would we make an assumption about what the customer wanted?

Moreover, why would we conclude we couldn’t do it — didn’t want to get our feelings hurt?

In hindsight, produce companies interested in growing sales and profitability will make a thorough study of their top prospects and design a pitch specific to each retailer and its clientele.

You have the top-quality produce they need, but are you positioning it properly for their shoppers?

It’s a micro-marketing world these days.

Of course, that kind of thinking means we have to break away from the intense hour-by-hour demands of existing customers, clear our minds and immerse ourselves in the new customer and their shoppers.

What do they want?

This takes time and concentration, which is probably why it doesn’t get done routinely. Especially after a prolonged economic downturn, where staffing and resources have been bare bones.

Another lesson: Why had we in the produce sector bought into the concept that unless we were Certified Organic Produce we had nothing to offer this chain’s shopper?

Don’t all growers believe they’re doing good to the environment? I hope so. Don’t all growers think they are the original conservationists? I think so.

Growers have a story to tell the shopper — and these days the shopper wants to hear it. Especially the upscale shopper, who is interested in what nearby growers are doing to benefit the environment, sustain the land and maintain the family farm.

My moment of truth was when I realized I’d mistaken what we were promoting with the chain. We weren’t just selling the usual best-tasting apples.

If you think you’re simply an item on a shopper’s checklist, that’s what you’ll always be. Hopefully. Unless a lower price comes along.

No, we were promoting an emotional connection to a healthy snack that was actually improving the environment and sustaining local grower-families.

That was what the buyer and shopper wanted to hear — and we had neglected to tell it.

Given this dramatic shift in viewpoint, within two days we put together a simple sign that the retailer pledged to post. It talked about Integrated Pest Management, or, in layman’s terms, harnessing nature to fight insects.

We can’t tell the grower’s story if we don’t try.

Denise Donohue is founder of Donohue Associates, DeWitt, Mich., a marketing and public relations firm specializing in agriculture. Before that, she was director of the Michigan Apple Committee, Lansing.

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