When we launched the first New York Produce Show and Conference back in 2010, one of the first calls we made was to Professor John Stanton at Saint Joseph’s University to see if we could get him and the school involved in the show. He was very generous, and one of the early “sneak preview” pieces detailed his intentions on his presentation at that first show:
It took just a few minutes after that piece was published before an industry luminary, then President of the New York Apple Association, sent in a note:
With great excitement and anticipation, I await The New York Produce Show and Conference and the presentation on Local Preference Versus Organic, by Dr. Stanton.
John Stanton, undoubtedly in my book, is one of the best, if not the best authority on consumer behavior when it comes to purchasing foods and produce.
He continues to “Delight” his audiences with thought-provoking data, information and advice on how to reach consumers in a way that will influence their purchase decisions. Time after time, Dr. Stanton has identified consumer traits that if properly applied in marketing, will end in success!
His presence, along with the other outstanding presenters at the New York Produce Show, is certainly worth the registration fee alone, while the excitement of the show will be a bonus!
— Jim Allen
New York Apple Association, Inc.
Fishers, New York
This was the start of a great friendship, and Professor Stanton has presented at our events in New York, London and Amsterdam unveiling important research that we chronicled in pieces such as these:
So, of course when Professor Stanton told us he was working on mangos and marketing to Generation Z, we were intrigued and asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Dr. John Stanton
Chairman and Professor of Food Marketing
Saint Joseph’s University
Q: We’re always honored to have you present at our events, and especially as we celebrate the 10th year of our iconic New York Produce Show & Conference. Attendees praise you for mastering the art of imparting pull-no-punches wisdom to jostle industry norms with quick-witted jocularity. Your talks elicit great ideas and engaging audience participation.
A: Thank you so much for saying that. I think part of it is I really like this stuff. I like the food business, and I like the challenges that come within working in the food industry. Because of that, I just enjoy sharing the results of the things that I do.
Q: What research have you been working on recently to share with us at the Show?
A: I just finished a short research piece on Gen Z knowledge and uses of fresh mango. It was interesting for me as I never knew how often the kids drink smoothies and how frequently they use mango.
Q: That sounds promising for the mango industry!
A: On the surface, maybe, but unfortunately that’s not the reality based on my research.
The biggest challenge for the food industry, in general, is being willing to accept change. Many of the food companies all want to be first at being second. The problem with the produce industry is it’s really focused on the product as opposed to the consumer. It’s really a very sales-oriented mentality as opposed to a marketing mentality. If we think about marketing, it is the process of making what people want to buy, not making people buy what you want to sell.
Q: Wouldn’t you agree, though, that pre-cut fresh fruits and vegetables and other convenience-type produce items have quite a strong presence in the market now, with value-added, trend-right products on the rise; albeit there were plenty of naysayers in the infancy of packaged salads?
A: That’s right. There are certain segments and hundreds of companies that have really done a good job at this — cauliflower rice, for instance, or Perdue’s plant-based nuggets.
Q: Our October Produce Business cover story lays out the case for the produce industry to re-capture the dialogue in the plant-forward movement, as the ‘original’ plant, to drive plant-based diet trends and shifting lifestyles.
A: The whole market, no matter what segment, is looking for more and more convenience. We must focus on making our produce more in the form that people want it. The produce industry is doing it, but I’d argue it’s happening relatively slowly. That’s kind of the problem. I think the industry still perceives that as the exception, not where they should be heading. I imagine someone saying, ‘I can’t believe we can’t just sell apples anymore. Now, we need to cut the darn apples up and put them in bags,’ instead of being happy, ‘we can pre-slice the apples in individual-sized packs, so mothers can give them to their kids, and get a lot more margin on this…’
My specific research that I’ll be presenting is related to this. I was working with a distributor of mangos, and he said to me, John, mango consumption around the world is going up must faster than in the U.S. We have to figure out what are the issues that Millennials and Gen Z’s have with fresh mangos.
This is going to be the group of people who will be the success factor or the failure of the mango industry in the U.S. if we can’t get Millennials and Gen Z’s to buy more mangos. The category is not going to grow that fast, to say the least.
Q: So, you embarked on targeted consumer research to increase U.S. fresh mango consumption by capturing the category’s elusive consumer segment of Gen Z’s and younger generations?
A: Exactly. We did the research to try to determine what are some of the obstacles for this younger generation to buy and eat more mangos. Of course, the younger generation for me, personally, is everyone else, since there are so many people younger than me now!
Q: I’m starting to feel the same way.
A: I’m talking about the truly younger! The first thing that surprised us, was that most of these kids in fact had mango, but the biggest use was the frozen mango that they put in smoothies.
Now, just to show the difference between my generation and the younger generation, I probably had five smoothies in my life.
I was surprised in the focus groups, when we asked, how many kids have smoothies at least more than twice a week, everyone’s hands went up. We discovered some didn’t even know what a whole mango looked like, only as the frozen pieces used in their smoothies. They like the taste of mango; it’s not that they don’t enjoy the product. They were just not familiar with the fresh fruit.
Here are some of the things they didn’t understand: They had no idea how to judge a ripe or non-ripe mango. Part of the reason is some of the mangos come in and stay green forever, even though they are ripe and perfect. Some others have blush on them when ripe. Different varieties look different when they’re ready to eat. The younger generation is confused by this.
We gave them a taste test. There was one mango they all said looked the worse; it was pure green and it didn’t look ripe, but when they did a blind taste test, they thought it tasted the best. The one they thought had the worst flavor actually had the best flavor.
The other thing, they had no idea how you cut up a mango. The ones who tried to do it were stumped by the big seed in middle. We had a guy do a demo on how to cut it up, and people were surprised. There was a complete lack of knowledge on how to cut it up.
Q: I don’t want to interrupt your flow, but what were the demographics of your focus group? If you had more of an ethnic background, you might be very familiar with mangos. Then I would think the results would be quite different….
A: Oh, yes, that’s true. The answer is, we intentionally concentrated our research on non-Hispanic, Caucasian Gen Z’s, and a few Millennials, but mostly Gen Z’s. Our group was roughly between ages 20 and 25. They were all college students in the Philadelphia area who were exposed to things and sophisticated.
If we did this study in a remote place and I said people don’t understand mangos, that might not be surprising. I think a fair criticism would be, why don’t you do this in New York or Massachusetts. But this group we interviewed, if anyone was going to know about mangoes, they would.
Q: And how many people were included in your research? Do you feel it was a good statistical sampling?
A: Focus groups aren’t supposed to be statistical. Let me answer it this way: I believe that the opinions and attitudes in our focus groups comported with what the larger world would be like for this segment. I’m convinced based on our research that virtually anyone in this targeted age group wouldn’t know how to judge a mango. I think the views were representative to help in our specific study objectives.
Q: Thanks, this provides some perspective.
A: Of course. The key to this is we didn’t have Hispanic people in the group. For the record, I would say we didn’t because we really wanted this focus on non-Hispanic Caucasians. That is still the largest group to be focused on.
The second reason, if the industry wants to market their product in Hispanic grocery stores, or on various TV shows — however they would market it — they would do it totally differently for Hispanics. It’s almost like two entirely different marketing programs. Imagine having a marketing program to tell Central Americans or South Americans, we want to show you how to pick a mango, and they would be saying, ‘my Grandma taught me how to pick a mango.’ And that’s what we’re missing. We don’t have that kind of tradition with this product.
The third thing, unlike other fruit… when these kids were really young, five or six years old, their parents probably had fruit around the house — apples, pears, nectarines, plums — but virtually none of them grew up with mangos in the house.
Certain industries like the apple industry can rely on a level of knowledge passed on through generations of families. The mango industry really has to start from scratch with the Gen Z’s and the Millennials.
Q: The U.S. is a melting pot of cultures and international cuisines, where Gen Z’s have wide access and exposure. Doesn’t that help push things forward?
A: Young Americans didn’t know what avocados were at one time. Now avocados are a major choice. Guacamole toast is something every college kid eats. The good news for the mango industry is, it can be done.
The results of this study, if you will, showed the importance of doing the most basic type of information-sharing with the audience. The mango industry cannot make an assumption it is anything like the apple, pear or plum industry, where this younger generation is going to have a long tradition of eating their product. It’s going to be a new product, even though it’s been around a long time and for sale a long time; this younger generation doesn’t understand it.
But the other good news is these younger people love the taste of mango, they love putting mango in their smoothies, but for them mango is just stuff that’s so good for their smoothies. They really didn’t understand what this product was, and where it came from and how to judge it and how to cut it, etc.
Q: Is one of the goals to market mangos beyond smoothies, to expand young people’s horizons to use mangos in more ways?
A: The key about their interest in smoothies is the evidence they like the product. It’s not something you have to convince them to eat, that this is something they should learn to like.
Q: Right, it’s not like you’re trying to persuade them to eat root vegetables.
A: That’s a good example. You’re exactly right. Before we even begin, we have evidence that they really do like this product. They just don’t have enough knowledge and skill to be able to make it part of a more regular purchase.
I think to be successful in the U.S., the mango industry has to go beyond smoothies.
Q: And what would you suggest?
A: We didn’t really get that far in this research. We got to the point that Number One, the industry has to do some educational promoting, because people just don’t know enough about mangoes and the different varieties. How many different varieties of apples are there?
Q: It’s countless…and there are new apple varieties continually being introduced.
A: How many different varieties of mangos can you tell me about? Do you know how many there are?
Q: I’d just be guessing, maybe five to ten, until going on the Internet. I’m surprised to learn there are over 500 known varieties of mangos! Although, I’m seeing the number commercially grown with access to the U.S. market is a small fraction of that…
A: That’s the point. You and I are both reasonably knowledgeable about the produce industry, and when I started this project, I didn’t even know there were different varieties of mangos.
To give you an example… when one of my ex-students, who works for a mango distributor, came to my international marketing class to discuss the results of our research, he didn’t bring any mangos with him. He said it was because the types of mangos we were importing now weren’t the best variety. Here was a variety that wasn’t very good.
Q: Could this be related to some requirements with imports to the US? Industry executives say mangos either have to be irradiated — and none of the retailers seem to want irradiated fruit — or put in a hot water bath, which can have a negative effect on the quality of the fruit. It does kill the insects and meet U.S. import regulations, which is important, but the world’s best mangos may not come to the U.S.
A: This is an overall issue, and a challenge, but my research focuses on the opportunities…
Q: Have you connected with Nic Jooste? He worked for Cool Fresh International, which is now part of The Jupiter Group, at our events? I think you’d be simpatico. He has developed some clever marketing strategies for winning over Gen Z’s, and his entertaining presentations suggested we have eight seconds or less to make an effective pitch! It takes Generation Z’s eight seconds to decide if something is good or bad, according to Jooste, noting, the attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds, referencing an empirical study on web-use with attention span statistics.
A: That’s absolutely true. There’s no question about that. What that’s going to do is put a lot of pressure on the mango marketing association because Gen Z’s total lack of knowledge on mangos means, somehow, they have to break through in eight seconds, as Nic Jooste brilliantly sums it up!
That’s going to be a challenge. It’s going to be hard for the mango industry.
Q: Going back to your point of how you would market differently for a Hispanic audience, is there a subset marketing strategy for how you would reach Gen Z’s?
A: There has to be. We’ll probably do some more research in the future, trying to look at what kinds of statements we can make about mango that actually gets their attention in eight seconds.
Q: You’ve talked in other presentations about retail disruptions, changing demographics, and effects with the Internet and social media, so that plays into the equation as well…
A: There’s a lot of things happening. For example, the mango industry is probably going to continue to grow but a lot of their growth is going to come from the US Hispanic market where their challenge is totally different; it’s not trying to get people to know how good a mango is, etc. The challenge is trying to get the best quality mango in the store where the Hispanic shopper shops. At the same time, they have to have a separate marketing program to get these Gen Z kids to start thinking mango.
The difference is with Gen Z you’re almost starting from ground zero. I’ll tell you what a success would be… we see a younger generation person at a grocery store walking in the produce section; the young person might look at apples and glance at plums, but stops when he or she sees the mangos. The first objective of the mango industry has to get the younger generation to stop and at least consider mangos.
Q: So, this involves many different things … it’s the signage, how you package it…
A: You can buy fresh citrus or citrus in a jar — many of these produce categories have convenience-level foods. Apples do, carrots do, you can buy chopped onions, peppers and celery, spiral squash, cored pineapple, as well as a whole pineapple. I’m suggesting they consider doing the same with mango. I don’t know if it will be successful or not. But certainly, if you look at the market and the success of these other convenience produce products, it’s something they at least have to think about.
I love mango, and always have, and if I had to pay a bit more to have it sliced, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Although, when I slice a mango and I have that big seed, my hands are a mess. I just like to eat as much as I can off that big seed.
Q: I think that would make a nice action photo to add to this piece!
A: Especially with mango dripping down my chin. Almost all the research I’ve done has shown that successful new products come about not by convincing people to buy more of the product but by selling them in the form these people are looking for. Convenience is Number One, making it easier for people to snack or have a meal…The key to this is focusing on convenience and getting an increased margin.
Some categories haven’t done a good job in this respect. In the mushroom industry, for instance, you pay virtually the same price for the whole mushrooms as you do for sliced, washed mushrooms. I think they should be charging a lot more for sliced washed mushrooms.
Q: Wouldn’t they charge more, if they could? Is it a supply-and-demand issue?
A: Well, if you asked executives in the mushroom industry, they would say this — and I know because I’ve worked with them. The suppliers say the retailers won’t let us get that price. It’s just easier to capitulate and charge the same amount, etc. It requires some commitment, some belief if you will, that people really will pay more. Maybe it requires doing the research to show retailers they can make a lot more money for the convenience-focused products.
One of the big obstacles is the retailers themselves. They will fight you to keep price as low as possible. When you go in with these consumer-focused products, you need to convince them and make a compelling case.
A good example is when the produce industry came out with lettuce in a bag, and retailers fought it. Who will pay twice as much for half as much product? Retailers were too focused on keeping the price down. What they didn’t understand was that the modern consumer didn’t want to buy a whole head of lettuce, eat half and throw away the leftovers wilting in the refrigerator. People didn’t want to wash and cut up the lettuce, and all those things that add value for the consumer. If we just make it perfect for the consumer, they’ll pay more.
For the younger generations, I’ve hammered on their desire for convenience, and the second thing is healthy food. And mangos have a wonderful health story, but, of course, so do most produce items.
Q: Where does your research go from here?
A: I would like to do a standard concept test, where we create — not physically but conceptually — certain kinds of pitches, about taste, health, etc., to learn what kinds of things have some impact on Gen Z’s beliefs in a short period of time — remember we only have eight seconds.
With mushrooms, we had focus groups like we did with mangos, where we did a concept test to find out, what are the things that stop consumers from buying and using more mushrooms. We came up with a list of 10 things. For each one of those 10, we theoretically created a product, and had them evaluate that concept, as to how much that could influence their decision. I’ll give you one that was very good and one that was very bad.
We discovered one of the biggest uses for mushrooms was steak, but one of the reasons consumers weren’t using them was they would forget to buy them at the supermarket and realize it when they got home. One of the concepts was to create steak-cut mushrooms and merchandise them in the meat section next to the steaks. It was a successful product.
On the other side, consumers didn’t like to go to the trouble to clean mushrooms, and the concept was to include a disposable brush to clean them off with. And consumers couldn’t care less.
With mushrooms, we did both focus group and online surveys. The focus groups are not meant to be a representation of the whole market. It gives us an idea of the impact, combined with the quantitative online survey — 99 percent of the time I do both. The focus group just helps us do a better job with the quantitative.
Another researcher could say that you don’t know that much about these people from a few focus groups on mangos. I would simply respond in this instance, it was so clear that no one in the room had any clue about mangos. The preponderance of evidence was so strong I wouldn’t have any hesitation in recommending you need to go out and do education on your product. What I wouldn’t be willing to say at this point is here is exactly how you should do it because we don’t have that data.
I think one of the most valuable uses of an executive’s time is to look at what others are doing, listen to what others are saying, and try to integrate these lessons and insights into what they do. Some people use The New York Produce Show to find customers to sell, that’s good, I’m glad they do that.
But there’s an incremental value in attending the educational micro-session. I can become a more knowledgeable person in my field. We don’t have that many chances to do that, because when we’re at work, we have so many day-to-day things to deal with, but here you have a few days to let your mind be open, and the opportunity is there for those ready to take it.
There’s not a show that I’ve gone to, where I haven’t said, wow, what a good idea. Somebody has a good idea at this show. That’s the value of The New York Produce Show. Is it possible to make calls and sell your product outside of the show, sure, but the NYPS makes it a lot easier because it brings everyone together with so much more to learn.
Q: The educational component in many ways is a grounding element of the New York Produce Show. Attendees commend the virtues of the educational sessions to bring in experts like yourself to share your research.
A: The virtues are reciprocal. I sit in on other speakers’ presentations, and I can attest to the fact, it’s an excellent education.
The core of Professor Stanton’s research is clear. Younger consumers, not from cultures that commonly eat mangos, enjoy the taste of mango as evidenced by consuming frozen mangos in smoothies several times a week.
Yet these same consumers are mostly ignorant about mangos. They don’t know the varieties, how to cut them, how to determine if they are ripe, etc.
Professor Stanton then challenges the industry:
1) To produce more convenient versions of fresh mangos, say fresh-cut variants.
2) To educate younger consumers about mangos so they will feel comfortable buying them.
3) To persuade retailers and condition consumers to pay more for value-added produce
Further Professor Stanton argues that certain items, such as mangos, require this education more than others — because people didn’t grow up with the item and so were not taught to consume it by their mothers and grandmothers.
All this seems impossible to argue with. But there are implications to all this that need to be thought of.
First — I would not let more traditional items off the hook. Yes, the pundit’s grandmother ate a half grapefruit for breakfast every day. So, it was a traditional product consumed in a traditional way.
But, the fruit was so tart that she would cover the entire top of the grapefruit with sugar before she would eat it! Today, of course, fantastic varieties are, themselves, sweet.
Apples may have been common forever, but there is a reason Honey Crisp is so popular today. Traditional memories can lead to lower consumption over time as new varieties take the place of tradition. Consumers need to constantly be reintroduced to products as they change.
Second — We would love to see some research on how young people actually change behavior when given more information that they didn’t request. The Jr. Pundit Primo, aka William, has always loved The Food Network and cooking shows and, as he has reached his late teens, he has begun cooking quite a bit. When he feels like making a new dish, what he does is whip out his phone and, in a minute, has a new recipe, a shopping list, anything he needs.
Information was much harder to acquire when the Pundit was his age. If the Pundit wanted to know about fresh mangos – what would he do? Go to the library? So, we might have been more interested and absorptive of information presented by marketers of mangos.
We need real research, but our sense is that if young people want information today, they get it instantly.
So, the challenge is not to educate young people but to make them want the education. In other words, if you can get Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry to all toast with a Mango Martini or eat Mango toast for breakfast. It will all go viral on Instagram – then the Mango Martini and Mango toast will be trending and everyone gets educated.
Third — The thirst for convenience, low food waste, economical options… all poses challenges to the fresh industry. Buying pre-cut frozen mango and using it for a smoothie is very convenient, zero waste and very economical. Who says that consumers are really desperate for alternative ways to eat their mango? Maybe this is the optimal way?
Fourth — Many options have an upside and downside. This Pundit lives in Florida and frequently buys fresh-cut mangos at his local Publix. It is decent, but it is a little bit like buying sliced tomatoes; the mangos need to keep on the firm side to slice them. So just as fast food chains that buy pre-sliced aren’t buying the most juicy, ripe tomatoes, so the fresh-cut mango is not showcasing the optimal flavor.
Fifth, and perhaps most important for the industry… All these programs may, in fact, boost mango sales and consumption, but would these sales actually lead to increased produce consumption or would it just mean consumers would buy more mango and fewer plums? Another area for deep research!
Come to The New York Produce Show and Conference. Engage with Professor Stanton and help the industry think through these important gateway issues — that, if handled well, could lead to higher produce consumption.
You can register for the show here.
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Come and join the effort to think through these important issues!
We look forward to seeing you in New York!