Greg Johnson, editor
Greg Johnson, editor

ANAHEIM, Calif. — When we present The Packer Produce Marketer of the Year Award at Fresh Summit, we do our best to keep it a surprise to the winner.

While that’s fun for the audience, it doesn’t give the winner much time to collect his or her thoughts after receiving the award on stage.

This year’s winner, Jeff Dunn, CEO of Bolthouse Farms, Bakersfield, Calif., composed himself well.

“I believe one thing more than anything else, that business is about people doing business with people,” he said Oct. 19 at about 9 a.m. Pacific time. “This award is really about everybody in this room, our customers, my team at Bolthouse. We work so hard to bring amazing fresh produce to our customers every day.”

When I talked to him in late October, he said that morning was a bit of a blur.

“I don’t remember what I said,” he recalled. “I guess I didn’t have enough coffee yet.”

He did just fine.

Normally we honor the marketer of the year for a great sales accomplishment, but this year we honored an idea.

Dunn spent the 20 years before coming to Bolthouse at Coca-Cola, and he learned how important it is to create demand for a product.

“We’re starting an evolution of shifting to demand driven as much as supply-driven,” he said about his goals in fresh produce.

While fresh produce sales haven’t skyrocketed in the past few years under this change of approach, Dunn said Bolthouse is seeing measurable improvement.

He said the company measures it in two ways.

The first is attitude.

He said the company has measured better attitudes toward healthy eating and fresh produce the past three years.

“Attitudes lead to behavior changes,” Dunn said. “We’re seeing this shift.”

He said the traditional middle of the store, the shelf-stable products, is feeling pressure, while the perimeter, the perishables, is seeing sales growth.

As for his company’s core product, carrots, growth had been pretty flat for years after the peeled baby carrot explosion of a couple decades ago.

Now, carrot sales are growing again, partly to promoting farmers more, partly to increasing sales of carrot juices.

In gathering background on Dunn, I found out that he was one of the sources in Michael Moss’ 2013 book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.”

Dunn talked about his experience with Coca-Cola and how he lost his passion for that business when he came to realize sugar-filled soft drinks were likely contributing to the nation’s obesity problems.

Dunn said his portrayal in the book was fair, and he thought it was a balanced look at some of our food problems.

I read it, and there is some good background on how food giants market to consumers and how they pack unhealthy ingredients into their products because we like the flavor.

It was particularly funny to read that many large food company executives — such as those at Kraft, Nestle, Frito-Lay, Philip Morris and Coca-Cola — avoid consuming their own products because of their diets.

In addition to marketing, Dunn pointed out there are some lessons to be learned from the book about flavor that the produce industry is using and should continue to use.

For instance, carrots are a mild flavor that people often pair with stronger flavors, such as ranch dressing. So Bolthouse has a product called Snackers, which pairs carrots with ranch dip and with chili lime powder.

Dozens of produce companies market their products like this, and Dunn said that’s a step in creating stronger demand.

While Moss’ book tells a tale of how these food giants may have tricked us consumers, he concludes “They may have salt, sugar and fat on their side, but we, ultimately, have the power to make choices. After all, we decide what to buy. We decide how much to eat.”

Of course that’s true, and the fresh produce industry has to keep working hard to persuade consumers to want to buy our products.

But unlike those executives, we can enjoy our products guilt-free.

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