There is no way to turn the lethal combo of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma into a positive experience, but Kathy Means from the Produce Marketing Association does her best to put a good spin on it — as has the rest of the industry – and that’s the spirit that will be in focus Oct. 18-20 at PMA Fresh Summit in New Orleans.

“It’s sad because it’s a tragedy but it’s a good analogy for business – shouldn’t we all be thinking that way? What could go wrong and how do we prepare for it and what opportunities are ahead and how do we prepare for those?” says Means, PMA Vice President of Industry Relations. “That’s one of the things I see at Fresh Summit and all PMA events – it gives our members some of the information and insight they need to step away from the day to day and prepare.”

The industry response to recent tragedy reminds Means of an earlier event, Hurricane Andrew, which happened right before Fresh Summit.

PMA’s Kathy Means

It was right before and we had quite a few exhibitors from Southern Florida and they showed up with help from others – [competitors] contributed product so they could see what was there and helped so many ways,” Means recalls. “Since it happened right before Fresh Summit we heard all these stories about what these folks had done, not for each other but for the good of the community at large. Nobody has a bigger heart than produce people.”

Nobody works harder – or plays harder – than produce people. That will also be on display in New Orleans. PMA is focused on marketing of course, but Fresh Summit brings everything in one bucket.

“There are a whole lot – buckets — of challenges and opportunities for members. We are absolutely coming to find some marketing sweet spots as an industry – we know that health is a foundational message for produce, but, ‘Hey, it’s good for you’ isn’t the best marketing piece,” Means says. “What I see both in the products that are being offered and how folks like retailers and foodservice operators are marketing produce, they’re talking about how delicious it is, convenient, accessible.”

‘We’re Responsible For Growing The Whole Pie’

“We’re competing with the rest of the store or the menu but we are at a place where if we apply good strategic marketing there’s no limit to where we can go. First of all, in the U.S. we’re eating about half the produce we should; there are some who are tipping the charts I’m sure, but that means there are plenty eating next to none. What would happen if we did double produce consumption? They say we couldn’t supply that; I say that’s a silver lining problem. We all have to work together on it, every company is doing its own marketing, but collectively we’re responsible for growing the whole pie.”

The ‘Eat Brighter’ campaign pairs produce with popular TV characters; (ABOVE) The Ernest Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, site of Fresh Summit 2017 (Photo by Chip Carter)

There are many fronts to that approach.

“We look at the science and technology area, whether that’s food safety or efficiencies or other types of tech that helps us do our jobs better and safer –that’s an ongoing challenge for everybody,” Means says. “It’s a place where coming together in an association like PMA, you can do more together than you can individually. Like coming up with a coding system or traceability system, we do better on that together than reinventing the wheel alone. That’s one of the benefits whether that’s information on the website or coming together at Fresh Summit.”

Sustainability is another issue in full focus.

“How do we create more demand for products overall? Certainly it’s up to every company to market their products whether they’re doing their own brand or not, big or small, we both have to be doing our jobs in terms of marketing,” Means says. “But there are common things the industry can do. PMA has a couple of those, the ‘Eat Brighter’ campaign that lets people use those Sesame Street characters royalty free  or for next to nothing is a major one.”

Talent Is The Most Important Component

‘Eat Brighter’ puts the healthy eating message in front of kids between the ages of 2-5, when “we build consumers for life. They develop a taste for it and they buy it when they become parents themselves. So having some of these common resources is important, but also the education, the networking, not just what’s going to be our marketing scheme every year,” Means says. “We’re part of the of the food industry and we have to think of ourselves within the food culture — apples and oranges may be competing [against each other] out there but mainly it’s all of us competing against soda and chips and candy and all of that. We have to see ourselves an integral part of the food culture. How do we operate within that culture to drive demand? We’ll be talking about that in New Orleans, too.”

Talent is another important part of the Fresh Summit focus. Attracting and keeping the right people is critical to any business, but especially so in produce, where youth has been slower to migrate.

“None of this can get done without people – no matter how well we think we’re prepared going to market or how close attention we pay to trends like science and technology, if we don’t have the right people in the right seats on the bus it’s not going to work,” Means says. “We’ve got to be sure our industry is getting the best and the brightest and we do that by supporting the Center for Growing Talent by PMA and the programs they have to attract young people and make sure they’re good people and that we developed people. We’re never done learning.”

That includes floral too – growers from around the world will show their finest in New Orleans and “there’s a huge focus on the floral pavilion – we all have good associations with flowers, a wedding a prom, a birthday bouquet or what you’re planting outside, flowers make you feel good. If you get tired at Fresh Summit, just go to the floral pavilion for a boost!”

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