Keeping ahead of – or at least up with – changing consumer tastes, demographics and lifestyles is vital for the family-owned Yummy Fruit Company.
Supplying 70% of the apples, stone fruit and pears it grows across more than 700 hectares (1730 acres) in the Hawkes Bay region to the New Zealand domestic market, the Yummy Fruit Company is a customer-driven business with a vision to bring a touch of excitement to retail.
To do this, it’s invested in delivering colourful branding, high-energy advertising and associations with popular reality television shows and school sports equipment programs. It’s all part of moving towards a model which draws on the power of story-telling – the value of which came into full light last year when up to 70% of its stone fruit crop was damaged by a severe hailstorm.
Traditionally, damaged fruit isn’t saleable but rather a cost to the business as pig producers or compost enterprises are generally incentivised to take it away.
In a bid to stem losses, the Yummy Fruit Company embraced its “consumer first” mentality to create the 'Hailstone Heroes' brand to sell its aesthetically challenged fruit in the local market.
“There were three things we were trying to do,” Yummy Fruit Chief Executive Officer, Paul Paynter, explains.
“First, we wanted to show resilience and optimism, then it was about being honest with the consumer, rather than trying to hide the blemishes, and sneak it through.
“Finally, we wanted to offer value.”
Supermarkets were initially cautious about the 'Hailstone Heroes' concept, agreeing to stock the produce only when it was apparent most other available fruit on the market was also damaged to some degree.
But despite these odds, the imperfect fruit, that was also smaller than expected, opened up some key opportunities for pre-packaging that would boost its marketability.
“The problem is, if you put damaged fruit on the shelf not all fruit is evenly damaged, so what the consumer tends to do is maul their way through it and pick the best fruit out – and when you’ve had 50 consumers do that it looks like a total train wreck,” Paul says.
“This is why you are better-off putting it in prepack where they are basically taking the whole prepack home with them.”
Paul believes consumers appreciated this “frank” approach and, combined with the value offered by the prepack bundle, the Yummy Fruit Company exceeded its budget by 12% while relying on and building goodwill and relationships with retailers and consumers.
The Paynter family has been growing fruit in New Zealand for 158 years, with The Yummy Fruit Company, which produces 25,000 tonnes of fruit annually, established 46 years ago.
With an annual turnover of about $NZ45 million ($A42.2 million) and almost 200 permanent staff, the business focuses on quality by controlling the entire supply chain.
John Paynter is a fourth-generation fruit grower and Paul’s father who, at 79, just celebrated his seventieth stone fruit season and sixtieth apple season.
Growing and marketing fruit has been his life. And, while his commitment to the industry hasn’t wavered, John says it has been the ability of his family business to embrace change that has helped it grow and thrive.
“We went from just being a fruit grower, waving the fruit off at the gate and hoping someone would look after us, to moving into the marketplace and trying to influence an outcome,” he reflects.
Perhaps one of the early indications of this changing mindset was the introduction of fruit stickers in 1975 – a first step towards putting the Yummy Fruit Company front-of-mind with consumers.
“We were the first people to individually label fruit in the world,” Paul says.
“The individual label was all about reaching through the supply chain, beyond having a commodity, to create a connection with the consumer. They have to look at this annoying little label and peel it off, confront your brand, and then bite the product. That little process made us very connected and very accountable in 1975. It makes us super connected these days.”
Customers also share their thoughts and experiences directly with the Yummy Fruit Company via social media, email or phone, while exclusive “farmgate thinking” has gone out the window as changing New Zealand tastes, ethnicities and lifestyles are considered the key to future sales.
This consumer focus and relationship development has worked well in New Zealand and Paul hopes to extend this approach to the growing Asian export market. He wants these new customers to connect with the Yummy Fruit Company and is relishing the opportunity this blank canvas market offers.
“This is a brave new world for us as 10 years ago Asia was 2% of our business and they are now 20%,” he says. “They are growing incredibly rapidly, and the opportunity really is fantastic.”
These Asian markets are where the Yummy Fruit Company hopes its integrated business model and concentration on quality will pay dividends.
“The good thing about Asia is they really love beautiful things,” Paul says. “If your quality is 20% better, in Asia, they will pay you for it. They really appreciate that quality and that’s a wonderful market to be in.”