'Local Choice' marketing campaign hits a snag

A marketing initiative designed to motivate Florida consumers to buy fresh fruits and vegetables produced within the state has run into an unanticipated obstacle.

Based on results so far from a "Local Choice" campaign created by Florida Specialty Crop Foundation, in cooperation with the University of Florida, buyers do not distinguish between locally grown products and those from anywhere else.

The first phase of research conducted by the University of Florida's Center for Public Issues Education, known as the PIE Center, has shown that "supporting local agriculture" is not a message that consumers clearly understand or relate to.

"We tested that message and it wasn't wildly successful, because people don't really understand how they can support local agriculture," said Joy N. Rumble, the PIE Center assistant professor who is spearheading the two-year projected funded by a $151,101 USDA specialty crop block grant administered by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "It surprised me, because we really expected people to get behind that idea. But it just created a disconnect."

The disconnect, Rumble said, "is that when you say 'support local agriculture,' consumers don't think of the financial support that comes from buying local food. They think of other ways of 'supporting' something and don't know how they can do that for agriculture."

Florida sales of local food accounted for $8.3 billion in economic activity for a one-year period during 2011-12, according to UF.

But consumers do not understand that simply buying locally grown food translates to supporting local agriculture. "And they don't seem to see that there's any personal benefit to them in supporting local farmers," Rumble said.

Sonia Tighe, executive director of Florida Specialty Crop Foundation, said she was also surprised by the finding that consumers do not comprehend the importance of supporting local farmers.

"I was even more surprised that they indicated a general interest in buying 'Fresh from Florida' products, but that they just weren't aware of any in-store signage or promotion," Tighe said. "It just isn't something they give any thought to once they're in the produce section."

The good news, however, Tighe said, is that the new effort coincides with an aggressive "Fresh from Florida" advertising campaign being conducted by FDACS. "That means our timing is perfect and that we do have tools available to promote Florida agriculture to the state's consumers," she said. "But we have to do en even better job of educating consumers."

In order to determine how to do that, three UF researchers are conducting six focus groups in West Palm Beach, Orlando and Tallahassee this month. The goal is to better understand consumer attitudes and buying habits in order to create a marketing strategy that farmers can use to promote their products to local consumers in their markets.

After results of the focus groups are analyzed and tabulated, a statewide online consumer survey with 500 participants will be conducted later this year.

Next fall, the information and insights gathered from the project will be packaged into a detailed report that growers can use to help develop advertising and promotional campaigns in their local markets.

And the importance of succeeding in that goal increases every day, Tighe said, as Florida farmers face ever-increasing competition, especially from foreign producers in places such as Mexico, where labor costs are much lower.

A good example of what's at stake is represented by Florida blueberry growers, Tighe said.

"When our blueberries come to market in the state, growers only have about a three-month window to market an entire crop," she said. "What happens from March through May makes or breaks them. Meanwhile, blueberries are still coming in from Chile. So we need consumers to make a conscious decision that Florida blueberries come from their own backyard and that they traveled at most a day to get to the store, as opposed to blueberries coming into the U.S. on a ship."

There is also growing foreign competition for Florida strawberry and tomato growers, so another critical aspect of a "Local Choice" effort is stemming the tide of new competition, which grows each year in an increasingly global marketplace.

"The real challenge is to get consumers to make a real conscious decision when they go into a grocery store to buy locally produced products," Tighe said.

Rumble said that despite the surprising early findings of the project, she is guardedly optimistic the campaign will succeed in the long run.

"I think that eventually, we will be able to get to where we want to be," she said. "But a lot of work needs to be done to reconnect people to agriculture."