PACIFIC FRUIT LOOKS TO BROADEN BONITA'S APPEAL

NEW YORK -- Building a brand name from scratch can be an uphill battle, particularly in the produce department.And taking on one of the best known commodity brands of all, Chiquita, in a crucial category, bananas, requires near-military precision and determination.That is exactly what Pacific Fruit, the U.S. distributor of Bonita brand bananas here, is trying to do.Pacific Fruit has launched new regional

NEW YORK -- Building a brand name from scratch can be an uphill battle, particularly in the produce department.

And taking on one of the best known commodity brands of all, Chiquita, in a crucial category, bananas, requires near-military precision and determination.

That is exactly what Pacific Fruit, the U.S. distributor of Bonita brand bananas here, is trying to do.

Pacific Fruit has launched new regional ad campaigns in Phoenix and Portland, Ore., designed to create name-brand awareness for Bonita. If the campaigns prove successful, the company plans to expand the program beyond those two cities, market by market.

"Why are we doing this? That's the fundamental question," said executive vice president David Bernstein in an interview with SN. In essence, it appeared Bonita executives decided they had little choice in the matter.

"Our owners sat back and took a look at where the industry is going," Bernstein said. The company's owners believe they have a high-quality product; however, retailers were telling Pacific Fruit that they wanted to market produce with consumer recognition, he said.

"That raises the issue, what about Bonita as a franchise? It then led us to an inevitable conclusion: that we have to enter the consumer and trade marketplace with a more aggressive and a more definitive presence." Bernstein acknowledged that there is a clear market leader in the banana category. However, bananas are consistently a best-seller in the produce department, and Pacific Fruit decided there was room for more than one player with a marketable name in the category.

"Yes, it's a strong branded category, and yes, there is a brand leader, but the research showed us that there is room for a new, exciting brand," he said. "There is certainly room for another strong marketer."

Howard Nager, newly appointed marketing director for Pacific Fruit, agreed with that assessment -- especially if a new brand brings something new to the game, such as added value.

"[Bananas are] a tremendous category, with a lot of room for high-quality, value-added programs," Nager said.

Branded produce is becoming increasingly important to both customers and retailers, a factor that contributed to the campaign, Bernstein said.

"Branding is probably the best way to create ultimate consumer confidence," he said.

At the same time, Bernstein said, branding carries only so much weight with consumers. "It doesn't mean people are going to come in and pound on the tables for one particular brand.

"But with branded produce, consumers realize someone out there is taking care of the quality control and watching the product," he said. Retailers are looking at branded produce as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition, he said.