Facebook now has more than half a billion users, and Twitter has become a popular way for everyone from everyday Joes to celebrity sports stars to keep friends and fans updated with the latest news. And, lately, produce companies and supermarket dietitians are finding that these Web 2.0 tools can be an excellent way to reach out to customers and stay current with industry news.
“Our industry is finally getting beyond the ‘toe in the water’ phase of using the Web to go to consumers directly,” noted Bryan Silbermann, president and chief executive officer of the Produce Marketing Association. “It particularly benefits a sector of the food industry like ours, in which there isn't a huge advertising and promotional budget built into the cost of goods as there are in packaged foods. When you have a technology like the Web — that's available at such a lower cost than traditional advertising and promotional vehicles — it's really the way to go. I wouldn't want to single out particular companies, but there's a lot more going on now than there was 12 months ago.”
Cost savings were top-of-mind for Barbara Ruhs, registered dietitian for Bashas', Chandler, Ariz. When the company went through Chapter 11 last year, she began looking for inexpensive marketing ideas and new ways to reach Bashas' shoppers with news. Her Twitter account, “eatsmartAZ,” was an easy answer.
“I knew our budgets for public relations and marketing would be cut, and I was looking for ways to get our message out without spending any money,” Ruhs said.
Ruhs got the account going by following people and companies she regularly dealt with from work — food companies, nutritionists at other supermarket chains, the Twitter feeds of local competitors and local civic organizations. A year later, she has 2,000 followers, including reporters from the local news media, offering an easy way to get out news about promotions at Bashas'. For example, she recently sent out a tweet reminding her followers that “If you earned 6 ‘Milk Money Rewards’, don't forget to redeem them by 9/15 for a FREE gallon of Bashas' milk.”
The account also has other benefits, she noted. Monitoring the posts of people she is following offers a real-time news feed of supplier promotions and ideas from companies all over the country. If a supplier is holding an interesting consumer promotion, contest or giveaway, she'll often “re-tweet” information about it to her followers.
“That's driving traffic to our stores,” Ruhs said. “I can't say what the actual return on investment has been for this, but really, there's been no investment.”
Other organizations, such as Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation, are using Twitter as a tool to boost traffic to their Website.
“We like to tweet about a topic and link it to something on the Website, like our ‘About the Buzz’ section, or our supermarket insider [column] or maybe a recipe — something that's going to be of interest to the person,” explained Jill LeBrasseur, communications specialist for PBH. “We're hoping, ideally, to get some first-time visitors or some repeat visitors to the site. Once they get there, they'll find a bunch of really cool stuff that can be helpful in their efforts to stay healthy.”
And some produce suppliers are launching increasingly sophisticated integrated marketing campaigns designed to reach customers via a combination of Twitter, Facebook, online contests and in-store signage. One recent example was Del Monte Fresh Produce's “Buy A Bunch. Lose A Bunch” banana campaign this summer.
Del Monte offered consumers five trips for two to the Banana Beach Resort in Belize, which could be won in multiple ways. Special banana stickers and in-store supermarket signage drove customers online to the company's consumer site, www.fruits.com, where one trip was being given away.
The other four trips were contested on the company's new Facebook page, “Fan of Bananas,” where consumers were encouraged to take part in a Diet Challenge Sweepstakes. The Diet Challenge launched with a Twitter party hosted by MomCentral, consumer advice and corporate consulting group with over 16,000 Twitter followers. After completing tasks such as sharing a recipe, taking a survey, or answering quiz questions, participants were entered into the sweepstakes drawing for the four trips and other prizes.
Other industry groups, such as the Mexican Hass Avocado Importers Association, have recently launched smartphone apps to keep their growers' products top of mind when shoppers are at the grocery store. Smartphone owners can easily download MHAIA's “Avocadoes from Mexico, Amazing Recipes” for free, and always have easy access to advice on judging the ripeness of an avocado, along with dozens of recipes featuring avocados as an ingredient.
“There are about 50 million smartphones in use in the U.S. right now, and the average person downloads about 9 apps per month,” noted Tom Edwards, vice president of digital strategy for Red Urban, MHAIA's digital agency that developed the app. “It's a wide spectrum of users, but entertainment, lifestyle and fitness are really hot trends that people like to focus on from an app perspective.”