(June 10) MONTEREY, Calif. — Produce companies wanting to improve their business can learn a thing or three from the bottled water, meat, gasoline and coffee industries.

That’s the message from Don Neal, senior vice president of direct marketing agency Rapp Collins Worldwide. Neal, who led a concurrent workshop and spoke at a general session June 2 at the 2002 Produce Marketing Association Retail Produce Solutions Conference. He told conference participants that branding is a critical way to win over consumers and attract more business.

Anyone who believes category management does not work should check out the bottled water section of the local market, Neal said.

“That category was created in a short period of time, where water is more expensive than gasoline,” Neal said.

Meanwhile, meatpackers have been fighting a 41% drop in demand over the last quarter century, and companies such as Hormel, IBP, Farmland, Cargill and ConAgra are reversing the trend by building national brands, Neal said.

“They released 70 new products in 1997, but in 2001 they released 474 new products, almost all of which had a strong branding element,” Neal said.

Neal pointed out that coffee consumption fell by more than 50% over the 40 years before the 1990s, when Starbucks re-energized the category. Starbucks did so by offering a premium product that supports a higher price, controlling its locations and using packaging and word-of-mouth to promote a branded experience, Neal said.

But one of the greatest examples of category management and brand promotion comes from the gasoline industry and Exxon Mobil, said Neal, who held up the SpeedPass as a way of building financial, social and structural bonds with consumers.

“This category lives from its imagination rather than its memory,” Neal said. “They are, at their core, not customer-focused organizations. They’re geologists. Their marketing departments are smaller than yours. So for those of you without marketing departments, there is hope.”