Don't judge a book by its cover, and don't judge a fruit by its grotesque extra appendage.
That's the lesson of a Cannes-winning marketing campaign from France that is championing the sort of cosmetically-challenged fruits and vegetables that are often wasted because stores assume no one will buy them. Supermarket chain Intermarché has struck an advertising coup – and raked in sales – with the crusade.
The grocery chain began buying those fruits and vegetables – sad-looking potatoes, deformed carrots, oranges with too much navel – from its suppliers, and selling them at a discount.
In co-operation with its ad agency, Marcel Worldwide, it then used branding and advertising to make "les fruits et légumes moches" (ugly fruits and vegetables) more appealing. Produce such as an apple fused tumour-like with a second apple, or a lemon with extra nubs, were given the glamour-shot treatment. Those glossy photographs were then used, against a bright white background, in promotional materials to advertise the new offerings.
That included labels on packaged juices and soups, which were made from the produce only a mother could love. Consumers were offered those packaged products, which tasted just as fresh as any other soups and juices, to push the message that ugly food is just as good as the others.
The ugly fruits and vegetables were given their own aisle in the store, and sold at a 30 per cent discount.
In the process, the grocery retail industry's assumptions about consumers were upended.
On average, Intermarché sold 1.2 tonnes of the stuff per store in the first two days of the campaign. The buzz brought more people to its stores: traffic increased 24 per cent. Others are beginning to follow the store's lead: Monoprix stores in France, for example, have since begun their own campaign to sell ugly fruit.
Given all the attention the campaign has received, it raises the question of whether retailers in North America might want to consider something similar.
Loblaw Co.s Ltd., Metro Inc., Whole Foods, and Sobeys Inc. all declined to comment for this story.
"I think the campaign is great. I think our market isn't ready for something like that," Mimmo Franzone, director of produce at Longo's, said. "We've always supplied our customers, and what they wanted was the freshest product around. ... They're coming to us for sort of the pick of the crop."
He noted that Longo's does buy some non-standard produce, such as slightly deformed peppers or non-uniform potatoes, and uses them in the stores' kitchens, which cook food daily. Its apple suppliers, for example, use the less attractive of their harvest to make cider, which the chain buys. Many of the vendors the store works with, he said, are able to sell produce not fit for grocery to juice-makers or for use as animal feed.
But not all of the ugly fruit or vegetable makes it.
As much as 25-million pounds of fresh produce is wasted every year in Canada, according to the Ontario Association of Food Banks. (That's the most recent available statistic, from 2010.)
"The farmers throw out that unsightly produce, because the retailers don't want it," said Paola Guarnieri, director of communication at the Toronto Wholesale Produce Association. "Perfectly good stuff. ... They're very reticent to embrace anything new."
Ugly produce could represent a missed marketing opportunity for retailers – not just to feed off the buzz that benefited Intermarché. There is the potential for a program such as this to appeal to a growing proportion of consumers who are more tuned in to where their food comes from, and are hungry for more natural options.
"The consumer wants local and organic," Ms. Guarnieri said. "They want to support any initiative that's not wasteful. I personally think, if someone were to take it and run with it, it would work."
It's not just happening in France. The issue of food waste has become an increasing priority for retailers in the U.K. and Europe.
This year, U.K.-based chain Waitrose said it would begin offering tomatoes that had fallen from the vine or are misshapen. It took in produce from its suppliers at farms in South Africa, Ghana and Kenya after they faced a rash of bad weather, including flooding and hail that left crops edible but blemished.
Late last year, British chain Tesco announced that it would begin putting easier to understand discounts on misshapen produce to encourage buyers to choose them and help fight waste. The retailer said last year 24 per cent of its grapes, 40 per cent of apples and 20 per cent of bananas never made it past the checkout, and were thrown in the garbage.
"We do have a role to educate people," Tesco's group food sourcing director, Matt Simister, told the House of Lords European Union sub–committee on agriculture.
Here in Canada, some charitable organizations are trying to pick up the slack.
The Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto, for example, has an agreement with the Ontario Food Terminal, which donates produce that is too close to its expiration date for retailers to buy. The food bank can turn around that product in its kitchens before it goes bad.
It also struck up a relationship over a decade ago with a collective of Ontario farmers, Bradford & District Produce Ltd., to take their misshapen crops. During the heaviest season, they send eight or nine 4 ft. by 4 ft. by 4 ft. wooden crates full of unsightly produce, making up almost half of the food bank's supply.
"What we get from them is all the stuff that they deem unsellable. Funny looking carrots, too large or too small onions, too large or too small potatoes," Gail Nyberg, executive director of Daily Bread Toronto, said.
The Ontario Association of Food Banks has developed a program to help connect food banks with local farms, and in its first year in 2010, it rescued about 1 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables that would have been wasted. Retailers could have a role to play.
"The increase in food pricing – fruits and vegetables are going up dramatically, and beyond the cost of inflation," director of communications Amanda King said. "So to provide an opportunity, as they did in France, for people to access fresh produce at a discounted price, would be wonderful."