Last week, I had the opportunity to spend some time in the Sacramento, Calif., pepper, lettuce, tomato and melon fields with a half-dozen plant breeders. Now before you think that this column is going to be just about produce trends, stop. It's a column about consumer marketing and a valuable lesson I learned from these breeders.
Plant breeders typically have a singular focus — for example, one I met who started out as an organic farmer in New Jersey is focused on finding a pepper plant that is resistant to a fungus that not only destroys the plant, but then contaminates the soil for 10 years or more, keeping the acreage non-productive for this crop for that time period.
Another breeder is focused on melons. Most shoppers (and retailers) these days smell the end of a cantaloupe and press in on the sides hoping to find one that has the right texture and sweetness. The reality is finding that discovery without opening the melon is practically impossible for most. So this breeder's focus is a cantaloupe that has a smooth skin (to eliminate the rough texture) that can be washed properly and has an almost translucent skin at one end which can signal ripeness.
For these two men, who are passionate about these laser-focused crops, these might well be all they accomplish during their careers.
They explained to me how discovering the plants that can accomplish these objectives usually take 10 years or so. Scouring the globe for just the right traits is a painstaking and obviously time-consuming process. Then comes the step to being able to grow these plants under controlled conditions to further prove that they can deliver on the promise. After those years, being able to pollinate other plants, often using bees to bring the pollen from plant to plant, takes even more years and at least three crops to again see if the results are what the breeder had hoped for.
And by the way, this process actually uses the most advanced diagnostics (think medical and CSI-type DNA marking tools) to speed the process along. What used to take hundreds or thousands of years now can be realized in say, 15 years!
For some marketers, what I am describing may seem to be analogous to watching paint dry. For me, it was a wake-up call to reaffirm that developing and marketing our foods and new products to our shoppers needs a richer, more passionate and certainly more committed long-term effort. We must move beyond quarterly results if we are to decrease the new product introduction failure rate.
Just imagine the difference if a brand manager was given the marketing reins for a 15-year time frame, in which to build a solid product, consumer base and relationship with their shoppers. We might actually have our shelves stocked with products that people want.
Phil Lempert is contributing editor of Supermarket News and CEO of The Lempert Report and SupermarketGuru.com. He is a well-known author, speaker and media personality focusing on topics such as consumer behavior, marketing trends and new products.
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