B.C. co-op brands produce

Used to be, all vegetables were created and marketed equally. Now, one Canadian company is trying to change all that.The Vancouver-based Western Greenhouse Growers' Cooperative Association is cultivating a new approach to marketing produce by building brand awareness of its B.C....

Used to be, all vegetables were created and marketed equally. Now, one Canadian company is trying to change all that.

The Vancouver-based Western Greenhouse Growers’ Cooperative Association is cultivating a new approach to marketing produce by building brand awareness of its B.C. Hothouse tomatoes, long English cucumbers and sweet bell peppers.

It is a radical departure from traditional thinking on the part of produce marketers, says the association’s president, Glenn Wong.

‘What we’re trying to do is to apply the disciplines of packaged foods to the agricultural market,’ Wong says.

‘Agriculture has always been treated as a commodity,’ he says. ‘Now, we’re trying to `de-commodisize’ the category.’

Beginning in April, the Western Canadian co-op plans to build consumer awareness of its premium B.C. Hothouse brand through its first advertising campaign.

Wong says the campaign, created by Vancouver ad agency Lanyon Phillips Brink, will be run initially in b.c. and might be extended into California and Central Canada next season.

The first step in restaging the 10-year-old brand has been to create a new logo and upscale point-of-purchase displays.

Peter Lanyon, creative director of Lanyon Phillips Brink, says the shop’s ideas for p.o.p. are ‘really innovative’ for the produce department.

‘We’ll be attempting to `boutique’ the product – branding it in the way clothiers, like Ralph Lauren, have been doing in department stores for years,’ Lanyon says.

Part of the overall marketing strategy will be to educate consumers on the premium qualities of greenhouse-grown, as opposed to field-grown, vegetables.

Wong says B.C. Hothouse’s produce has higher nutrition levels and is grown without pesticides.

‘But first and foremost, people are going to buy the product because there is an obvious visual difference,’ he says. ‘The vegetables look beautiful and luscious. That’s the real competitive advantage.’

To control aphids, which eat vegetable plants, the company uses natural predators – lady bugs and wasps. Bumble bees serve as natural pollinators in the Vancouver Island and Fraser Valley-based greenhouses.

The vegetables are hydroponically grown.

Wong calls it a kind of Club Med for plants, where they are pampered through the use of high-tech equipment.

Levels of carbon dioxide, air flow, heat, nutrients and water are all monitored through a sophisticated computer system.

Because the vegetables are far more expensive to grow, they retail at a price two-to-three times higher than average for the same products.

The Western Cooperative’s sales hit $27 million in 1992 and were up by 40% in 1993 to $38 million- a figure Wong expects to double in five years, aided by company marketing efforts as well as a growing consumer trend of eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

While produce typically accounts for about 8% of dollar sales at the retail level, it contributes nearly 30% to overall profit, according to Wong.

The co-op is shipping product throughout North America, including major Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, and the u.s. states of Ohio, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Washington, Oregon and California.

California, which is the world’s largest producer of tomatoes, is the company’s largest market.

Although most of the major supermarkets carry the B.C. Hothouse brand, Wong says his challenge over the next year will be getting them to carry it more frequently.

He says most of the company’s competition comes from several Dutch companies that are also infiltrating the u.s. market.

He describes the Western Co-op as essentially an export-oriented company, which is currently looking to build the B.C. Hothouse brand throughout the u.s. and is soon hoping to penetrate the Japanese market.

He says tackling the Asian market will also mean augmenting its vegetable selection to include those more appealing to the Japanese palate.