Q&A: Del Monte’s New CMO Raises the Bar on Fruit

These recessionary times are supposedly causing consumers to go back to the basics. And what’s more basic than fruit? If that’s the case, Del Monte, one of the world’s largest distributors and marketers of fruit, is well positioned. The company’s profit for the quarter ending Oct. 26 doubled, largely on the strength of the sale of its StarKist-led seafood unit. Still, sales for consumer products rose 6.1 percent as the company was able to pass on some price increases. All that was before the launch of a $20 million campaign for the cup-based Fruit Naturals that played up the “au natural” nature of fruit with headlines like “The full monty,” and “It’s better in the buff.” The campaign was the latest fruit of the labor of Bill Pearce, Del Monte’s first CMO, who has been on the job since May. Here, Pearce—a veteran of Procter & Gamble and Taco Bell—talks about other efforts to grow Del Monte’s fruit and pet food sales via marketing.

Brandweek: You formerly held top marketing positions at Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup and Taco Bell. What made you decide to join Del Monte Foods?
Bill Pearce: At the core, I’m a brand person . . . [and] for the first time ever, Americans realize they have to eat better and get more fruits and vegetables in their diets. There is very favorable demand on the consumer side of the business. On the pet side, there is an increase in pet ownership and the household penetration of pets. So combining the two, I just saw an opportunity to work with brands that have a great history and to take them further.

BW: We’ve seen so much new work from Del Monte’s pet and food brands since you were appointed as its first CMO. What are your goals for these brands?
BP: Our goal when we judge ourselves relative to our peer groups is we want top-tier growth for our businesses, top-tier share on our brands and top-tier job satisfaction among the people that we work with. The packaged produce business that we have is one great example. It’s a business where people are looking to get more fruit into their diets and we’re getting it to them in a way that’s more convenient.

BW: No doubt you’re referring to the ‘Fruit Undressed’ campaign, in which Del Monte gave a whole new meaning to eating fruit outside of its skin. How did that idea come about and why is the campaign hitting now? Is it in response to new competition in the category?
BP: No. It comes from consumer insight about how people shop and think about that category. A lot of people who go to the grocery store don’t know if they should touch or bump a fruit. They don’t know if it’s fresh. There is a high degree of anxiety in the category. The shopper feels like they’ve failed if they bring the product home and it doesn’t taste good or the family doesn’t eat it. One of the ways we came up with the ‘Fruit Undressed’ campaign is the fruit you get from Fruit Naturals is packed at the peak of freshness. It’s always there for you, no matter what time of the year. It’s handy, it’s convenient . . . and it’s available in a more convenient and easy-to-use form.

BW: Next up is the cup-based SuperFruit (already shipping), with flavors like acai blackberry juice and mango passion fruit juice. What’s Del Monte cooking up for the January campaign?
BP: We’re going to keep the ‘SuperFruit’ campaign along the lines of what you’ve seen in the ‘Fruit Undressed’ campaign. It’s a significant media buy. We’ll be in major media outlets, both in print, online and in targeted word-of-mouth networks.

BW: Has word-of-mouth traditionally been a huge part of Del Monte’s advertising push?
BP: It’s an emerging area. What we have found in testing is it’s very effective when you’ve got something a target audience recognizes as both unique and beneficial. We think this is just spot on for SuperFruit. The product is so unique and so visual that when we were testing it with consumers, we got an immediate reaction. People saw it, tried the product and were just so excited, they started talking about it. From that, we learned that this is something they’re really excited about and want to tell their friends.

BW: Despite reporting strong, top-of-line quarterly growth last week, has Del Monte felt the impact of the recession at all? Which brands have been affected the most from private label, if any?
BP: You can argue that the pet treats category is a discretionary purchase, but our soft and chewy business, which includes Pup-Peroni, has seen a growth of 11 percent in the last 13 weeks and our biscuits business, which includes Milk-Bone, is up 7 percent. Private label on the pet side of the business is not that significant. On the consumer side, we lead the category up in pricing at the beginning of our fiscal year. We expected to see some share dislocation over two or three quarters. We have seen some of that, but that has been less than what we thought. Around the turn of the calendar year, private label [manufacturers] renew their contracts with retail partners and what historically happens is, you see private label prices float up and shares tend to go back to where they were.
BW: Oh, and one can’t help but to ask about The Meow Mix Think Like a Cat Game Show. What’s the brand trying to accomplish with that? It’s like half-infomercial, half-game show, and it’s gotten mixed reviews.
BP: The game show is one of the ways that Del Monte is enhancing the emotional connection between pets and their parents through innovative marketing programs. We got a lot of people talking and thinking about Meow Mix because this was a quirky and interesting way to talk to our consumers. And we think the reaction has been terrific. Right now, we’re evaluating the results. This is just the latest in a series of ways we’ve tried to make sure the brand remains relevant and is talking to the consumer in a way that’s useful to them.

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