Four Tactics for Superfruit Success

December 10, 2009
Sarah Clachar

Superfruits burst onto the functional foods and nutraceuticals scene with a juicy splash unmatched by many other ingredient categories. A recently published SPINS report noted that for the year ending in October 2008, superfruit products as a whole amassed $851 million in sales a 15% growth over the previous year's sales.

According to a 2008 Natural Products Insider webcast titled "Scientific Strength and Market Data Confirm the 'Super' in Superfruits," in conventional markets, superfruit sales growth was even higher-19% over previous year sales in mass-market retail channels.

These fantastic fruits have garnered so much public interest that consumers are shifting their efforts toward using superfruits to meet the five-a-day fruit and vegetable recommended consumption quota, instead of using more-traditional fresh produce, such as apples, to do so. (This finding was reported by Datamonitor in a report on United Kingdom fruit and vegetable consumption.)

Many consumers, especially those from younger generations, are turning to superfruit products, despite superfruits' often higher price tags. Consumer research group The Hartman Group stated in its recent Point of View report, Superfruit, that "superfruits are a rich opportunity for companies to align with long-term food trends."

However, every superhero has its kryptonite-and consumers' powerful interest in superfruits has its limits. While some companies selling superfruit products, such as Sambazon, with a reported growth rate of 58.9%, have thrived in the last year, many other superfruit companies have launched and failed. Even pomegranate-powered Pom Wonderful stumbled a bit during the same time period, with sales shrinking by 1%, according to the Natural Products Insider webcast.

Are shrinking sales for some companies a result of the current economy? Are people watching their budgets and finding that it's too much to splurge on an expensive superfruit drink or snack? These could be factors, but they're not everything. In fact, while superfruit products cost a pretty penny, they may be just the kind of indulgence consumers can afford and want right now.

As consumers cut back on larger expenses such as vacations and home renovations, they've turned to smaller splurges to compensate. A taste of an exotic fruit topped off by the guilt-alleviating health benefits of that fruit fits right into today's consumer budgets. As The Hartman Group report points out, this is a significant trend that marketers can tap into.

"Interest in foods that combine indulgence along with health and wellness benefits to achieve a higher quality of life [is increasing]," the report stated. "And fruits have always been the ideal health food for their ability to deliver on this combination. Most consumers have no problem finding a fruit they truly enjoy eating."

Consumers' Superfruit Concerns

So, the economy isn't necessarily a problem for superfruit products. However, there are some consumer concerns regarding superfruits that are worth paying attention to.

In the wake of the news about superfruit spam scams, consumers may be increasingly skeptical of superfruits' health benefits. For instance, e-mails touting unauthorized celebrity endorsements sold consumers questionable weight-loss supplements featuring acai berries. Several of these marketers are currently facing lawsuits linked to the fraudulent use of endorsements, as well as to consumer rancor linked to order-refund problems. Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Memhet Oz are examples of celebrities currently suing acai marketers for using their unauthorized endorsements in product advertising.

Manufacturers need to make a convincing argument that choosing these exotics over homegrown produce makes sense. A recent Mintel survey found that 38% of fruit juice and juice drink users believe that they can find the benefit of super-premium juices in regular juices.

Consumers are also having a difficult time distinguishing between superfruit products. With 60 acai products launched in 2008 alone, according to Mintel, consumers need help in deciding which ones to choose. A marketer's superfruit product needs to distinguish itself by characteristics other than the superfruit ingredient alone.

Consumers are concerned about the quality of superfruit products-how effectively the fresh fruits' health powers are translated into new, processed forms. And when it comes to imported superfruit ingredients, consumers are even more wary.

Finally, consumers are concerned about sustainability issues. While local doesn't necessarily trump superfruits' appeal, more consumers are weighing the larger costs and factoring them into their decisions to purchase.

By paying attention to these four issues when developing products and marketing strategies, product marketers can better secure their piece of the superfruit market pie. And the best place to start, as discussed at the end of this article, is with the source-the ingredient supplier.

No Science, No Superfruit Status?

Paul Gross, PhD, the author of the book Superfruits, contends that a fruit only merits superfruit status when there is adequate science to back it. Gross documented the dearth of research associated with some of the latest superstar ingredients.

All of us in the nutrition industry want to see more research on the ingredients that we build our businesses on-especially when so many of us practice what we preach by applying the nutrients that we market to our own personal healthcare. And certainly, scientific documentation factors into how consumers see the potential of superfruits. Pomegranate has garnered plenty of attention due to the research on it. The Web site www.clinicaltrials.gov lists no fewer than 18 clinical trials looking at pomegranate's health benefits.

However, there is an inherent contradiction in relying on science to validate superfruits' health properties. Many of these fruits are newly "discovered" in modern cultures. This newness gives many superfruits much of their marketing appeal. This also means, however, that Western science has not had much time to investigate these new superfruit arrivals.

Even so, that doesn't mean that there is a complete absence of proof. While using scientific research to unlock the secrets behind a fruit's health benefits is important, it's not everything. History can also serve as a testimony to a superfruit's benefits. For thousands of years, people have relied on these fruits for good health and have documented their effects.

And truth told, much of the consumer shift toward supplements and natural health products stems from this type of historical proof. For many natural-product customers, science only confirms what people already believe and have experienced personally-that healing can be found in common-sense nutrition. Traditional approaches may offer healing and insights that conventional medicine can't. In fact, The Hartman Group has also found in its research that people are often dismissive of science when making wellness choices. Instead, they prefer testimonials and recommendations from close associates.

Finally, science may have other limits to accurately telling a fruit's story. As Ephraim Lansky, MD, researcher and coauthor of Pomegranate: The Most Medicinal Fruit, points out, the health benefits of many of these foods lies in the complex synergy of their different components, and not necessarily the individual components themselves. Our current technology and reductionist scientific approaches have a difficult time investigating and measuring this type of synergy.

Perhaps compromise between scientific evidence and historic, testimonial proof can't be avoided. While the more science there is behind a fruit, the better, sometimes that science is simply not available. More importantly, that science may not be what people are looking for.

The key to marketing superfruit products is telling their whole story. Telling the whole story involves discussing the science, the folklore, and the cultivation behind the fruit, and describing the fruit itself in order to give consumers a complete-and juicier-picture.

Tell Consumers About the Science

Tell consumers about the research that documents a fruit's outstanding health benefits. Pomegranate leads the pack on this, but even more recent arrivals such as amla and breadfruit are making themselves known in the scientific world.

However, do more than simply share the data. Relay the science to consumers in a way that consumers can directly connect to. Julian Mellentin, author of recently released Unilever report Failures in Functional Foods and What They Reveal About Success, explains that successful functional foods offer benefits that the consumer can understand. They offer benefits that the consumer can feel and relate to.

For example, you can list an ORAC number for a superfruit. But in addition, describe how the fruit develops antioxidants to ward off attacks from pests and disease and how these very same antioxidants provide the same protection to humans. This makes more sense on an instinctive level to consumers than numbers and discussions of free radicals, according to author and The Organic Center's Charles Benbrook.

Share the "Other" Science

Long before there were Bunsen burners and petri dishes, people were carefully experimenting with food and documenting their experiments. These discoveries have been refined through the ages and developed into a different kind of scientific heritage.

Many fruits that have only recently made it into polished labs have been researched for centuries in traditional cultures. And while there are limits to how this cultural knowledge can be translated into Western health practices and Federal Trade Commission requirements, this "other science," or folklore, holds important information nonetheless.

These reported traditions also fill a gap. Research hasn't yet delved into all these fruits' secrets-and might not even be able to in the long run, because as mentioned before, these fruits are enormously complex.

Yet even the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) acknowledges this form of validation. A traditional history of safe ingestion factors into allowing supplement ingredients into the marketplace.

People who have relied on acai, mangosteen, or goji for centuries have important stories to contribute. And consumers want to hear them. Not only do these stories fill in some of the gaps left by inadequate scientific research, they bring intrigue and entertainment-marketing elements that can help you hold onto consumers' attention.

Introduce Them to the Fruit Itself

Superfruits are not just popular for their health benefits. They offer consumers a quick ticket to the exotic, the promise of a whole new tasty experience.

As mentioned, The Hartman Group observed that superfruits combine "indulgence along with health and wellness benefits." So, don't forget to emphasize the indulgence part of the superfruit story. Describe the color, the texture, and the flavor of a superfruit. Describe the fruit itself-mangosteen's creamy lobes or amla's almost transparent, green-gold skin. This kind of description rounds out the eating or drinking experience, even when the fresh whole fruit is not part of it.

And along with inviting consumers to try the exotic, in an almost contradictory way, sense-oriented descriptions also help consumers to overcome their reservations about trying something unfamiliar. When you describe acai as having a creamy, almost chocolaty flavor, or that goji berries have a carroty raisin flavor, it gives consumers a point of reference. Armed with this starting point, consumers feel more confident about venturing into new taste sensations.

Tell Them About the Quality, without Saying "Quality"

The word quality does little to distinguish your product when left alone in a sentence or a paragraph. Everyone uses the word, and consumers have become jaded about the term.

What people are looking for is the story behind the word quality. The story of a farmer on a box of cereal might do just as much to sell the box as does the nutrition panel on the side of the box or even an organic seal. Such marketing helps convey to customers that a product was created with care and hard work. People can connect with this story.

Similarly, with superfruits, consumers are increasingly aware of the fact that cultivation, harvesting, and processing methods all contribute to the quality of the superfruit experience they receive in the end. Furthermore, more consumers are factoring sustainability into their purchasing decisions.

Datamonitor consumer analyst Michael Hughes explained that superfruits' role in supporting sustainable economic development in tropical regions has even tempered the trend toward local purchasing. People like the idea of local foods. But saving the rainforest sounds pretty good, too.

To underscore the quality and uniqueness of your product, bring in the story of how the fruit is grown, the conditions and climate that contribute to its unique characteristics, and the quality of the fruit.

A Solution in Your Supplier

A good ingredient supplier provides more than just ingredients for a product. It supplies ingredients for marketing as well.

In addition to providing ingredients that meet a brand's criteria for formulating a great product, a good supplier supplies the information that can make a product's messaging stand out. A good supplier helps brands to access:

  • Information about current and past scientific research on an ingredient.

  • Information about the folklore around a fruit, especially in the absence of extensive research.

  • Descriptions of the fresh fruit itself.

  • Information about the methods of cultivation and processing.

 To do this, a supplier has to be more than just a routine import company. It has to be a company with boots on the ground in the countries it sources from. And the company itself should show curiosity, respect, and interest in the fruits it supplies that go beyond seeing these ingredients as commodities.

Sarah Clachar is president of Healthy Marketing Ideas and author of Writing Irresistible Copy for Nutritional Supplements. This article was researched in collaboration with the team at ingredient supplier Ecuadorian Rainforest LLC (www.intotherainforest.com).