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Northwest Cherry Growers is looking at 2016 as another big crop year with marketing to consumers grounded on a concept worth repeating: “Awareness, awareness, awareness.”

James Michael

James Michael

James Michael, vice president of marketing in North America for the five-state Northwest Cherry Growers organization and the Washington State Fruit Commission, says marketing cherries is a complex puzzle involving a host of factors, such as weather, the size of the crop and the velocity of the harvest. But the key to consumer sales is making buyers aware when cherries are in season.

Consumer awareness is activated in large part by traditional midweek print ad fliers found in newspapers or on racks at stores, supplemented by coverage in radio, TV and print and by newer tactics, such as briefing food bloggers and sharing on social media.

Based in Yakima, Washington, Northwest Cherry Growers represents 2,100 growers whose harvest value of 19.3 million boxes last year was $827 million.

This year, the group projects a crop of 20 million boxes, a number that will be adjusted as the season progresses. By comparison, last year produced 19 million boxes and 2014 produced a record 23 million boxes. (About 79 percent of Northwest cherries are sold in the U.S. and Canada.

For a discussion of export promotions, please see “Big export year for Northwest cherries” in the February 1, 2015, issue of Good Fruit Grower.)

When cherries will start to move from tree to packing house and in what numbers are critical questions for retailers who work four weeks in advance on merchandising, ad placements and shelf space.

Typically, about two-thirds of the cherry harvest ships in four weeks, a compressed window to alert consumers and induce repeated purchases.

Because grocery weekly circulars are so critical to sales, Michael and his team of part-time regional representatives work hard to encourage retailers to create ads for cherries, using a combination of crop data, category research and promotion programs.

Timing ads for a highly perishable crop can be tricky; because of unusual heat in 2015, for example, most Northwest cherries arrived in stores two weeks earlier and finished three weeks sooner than in recent years.

For all the curveballs thrown by Mother Nature — be they rain, heat, birds, hail or all of the above — Michael and others in cherry marketing have sophisticated tools to promote fruit.

Those tools start with extraordinarily detailed research on people who buy cherries and the catalytic effect cherries have on overall sales at grocery stores.

For example, research shows that 76 million people in the U.S. buy cherries, and that cherry buyers shop more often and spend more than average shoppers. Typical cherry buyers spend $28 more per grocery trip than non-cherry buyers. Put another way, cherries are the

No. 1 dollars-per-square-foot item in July and fiercely compete with berries for the top spot all summer. To assist grocers with how to sell more, Northwest Cherry Growers suggests setting up secondary displays at perimeter locations, even at checkout stations because 53 percent of cherry sales are impulse buys.

Grab-and-go packages are effective. Visibility and attentive merchandising are key. Michael says it’s the responsibility of Northwest Cherries to conduct that type of research on behalf of growers and then turn those studies into usable statistics for retailers and cherry shippers.

Health is another driver of cherry buying. Northwest Cherry Growers promotes awareness of research showing that cherries help protect against Alzheimer’s disease, reduce inflammation, combat hypertension, discourage diabetes and fight cardiovascular disease. Cherries even help people sleep better.

Michael and others spend considerable time working with writers and producers to cover cherry topics, at times talking months, even years, in advance to magazines with long lead times.

The results have been impressive, generating coverage in the New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Bon Appetit, O magazine, Family Circle and other major outlets.

The health message has driven additional coverage in in Shape magazine, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Yahoo! Health, the Food Network, the Dr. Oz The Good Life magazine and elsewhere. Media research shows the cherry health coverage generated 267 million audience impressions in 2015.

When the crop begins to ripen, Northwest Cherry Growers ships more than 2,000 pounds of fresh cherries to more than 30 influential food bloggers across the U.S. whose “buzz” is a powerful validator of cherry buying.

At the same time, Northwvest Cherry Growers steps up postings on its Facebook account, a platform for Michael to post articles, images and cooking tips for consumers to share. More than 11,000 people follow that account.

In June, as the cherry crop begins to emerge, Michael will be visiting senior editors at places such as Condé Nast and Hearst, owners of many magazines and websites, to educate and entice them with Northwest cherries.

He will pitch ideas for print and online articles about the coming season. It isn’t hard getting people to write about cherries, he says. Editors know they are a popular topic. The trick is coming up with fresh angles for the popular topics.

To further improve communications to both consumers and industry insiders, Michael is overhauling the websites nwcherries.com and cherryupdate.com.

Aimed at consumers, the updated nwcherries.com will go live in late May, featuring images and various articles on health and nutrition messages. For the Northwest cherry industry people, nwcherryupdate.com will feature frequent postings on crop data and will provide more video reports from orchards by growers.

“It’s an attempt to strengthen the established trust retailers place in our representation of the overall crop,” said Michael. “With the best information, everyone succeeds.” •

More NW Cherry Videos

Go to vimeo.com/nwcherrygrowers to see videos of chefs talking about recipes using cherries.

– by O. Casey Corr