The pandemic may be finally behind us (fingers crossed), but the grocery retail landscape is still proving difficult to navigate as operators grapple with such problems as lingering supply chain snarls and surging prices due to record inflation. In such a climate, those brands that have stepped up to provide trusted guidance on how to keep sales growing not just in their particular categories — even relatively mature ones — but also throughout the store, have emerged as retailers’ staunchest allies in generating hard-won profits.
Whether by creating attractive in-store displays, rolling out smart cross-merchandising initiatives, launching effective traditional and digital marketing campaigns, developing on-target new products to meet evolving customer needs, or sharing impactful advice based on carefully gathered consumer insights, the 19 brands profiled below refused to let category and total-store sales slide, choosing to work with their retailer partners to make a real difference in the aisles.
[Read more: "100 Iconic Brands That Changed Grocery"]
Based on their submissions detailing the various ways that they helped retailers succeed despite the many real challenges encountered by food manufacturers and sellers over the past year, Progressive Grocer chose those brands whose efforts in this space our editors deemed the most impressive. Read on to find out just how each of the 19 companies profiled below earned its well-earned spot as a 2022 Category Captain.
The Coca-Cola Co.
As an iconic 136-year-old brand, The Coca-Cola Co. is consistently looking for ways to deliver exciting innovation to consumers who are familiar with the brand, while investing in the refreshment of future drinkers. Developed under the successful Real Magic brand platform, Coca-Cola Creations launched in February 2022, seeking to drive engagement and relevance with Gen Z by quenching their thirst for discovery through unexpected beverages and packaging designs, culturally relevant expressions, and creative collaborations.
Coca-Cola Starlight and Coca-Cola Starlight Zero Sugar hit shelves in the United States in February 2022 as the first limited-edition flavor offering from the global innovation platform Coca-Cola Creations. Appearing on the market for about six months, the Starlight beverage was inspired by the infinite possibilities of space, fusing signature Coca-Cola taste with unexpected touches like a new reddish hue. Coca-Cola Starlight also boasted a novel packaging design featuring a multidimensional light-filled star field.
With the private space exploration sector seeing $366 billion in revenue in 2019, as reported by the Harvard Business Review, Starlight created a category solution by leveraging the outer-space curiosity of Gen Z. Throughout its limited release, Starlight generated $225 million in incremental dollars to the sparking soft-drink (SSD) category, based on data from Numerator and Nielsen. This was largely achieved by expanding existing drinkers’ consumption while also recruiting Gen Z into the category with the aim of haloing across core Coca-Cola brands.
Positive results for Starlight were realized early on: Walmart pre-order product completely sold out in one day, resulting in the highest one-day unit sell for The Coca-Cola Co. on Walmart.com.
“Walmart is leaning in,” notes Todd Wetmore, merchandising director of carbonated soft drinks at the retailer. “We deem [Starlight] as the [SSD] category’s No. 1 innovation item for Q1.”
To connect further with trendy Gen Z consumers, Starlight also became the first Coca-Cola product to debut on the popular livestreaming platform Twitch. Starlight also harnessed the power of Gen Z influencer culture by creating bespoke boxes that articulated the full magic of the Starlight experience. The campaign was anchored by a partnership with global pop star Ava Max that featured an augmented-reality “Concert on a Coca-Cola” experience available exclusively by scanning a Starlight can.
The launch of Starlight has no doubt proved successful for Coca-Cola Creations, with the products generating $57 million in total year-to-date sales, and 50 million bottles and cans sold, according to Nielsen. Starlight created a strong, positive halo around the Coca-Cola brand, with 78% of previous non-Coca-Cola purchasers having purchased another Coca-Cola product since buying Starlight.
With additional limited-edition beverages already in the works, Coca-Cola Creations is poised to introduce more innovative products and experiences across the physical and digital realms.
It was a challenging year for produce, thanks to such headwinds as supply chain disruptions, inflation, and consumer trends toward indulgent foods. Dole’s category leadership rose to meet the challenges, providing strategic direction to retail to re-engage lost buyers, optimize promotions, and implement winning pricing, merchandising and marketing strategies.
Inflation has affected shopper behavior, causing trade-down within the value-added salad category and switching out to commodity vegetables. One example of this includes Dole partnering with a national retailer to regain kit buyers, leveraging a $1-off-a-Dole-kit promotion.
The promotion drove a 25% increase in households buying a Dole kit and a 5% increase for any kit, along with 22% dollar sales growth for Dole kits and 4% growth for any kit among households that hadn’t purchased a kit in the previous 12 weeks during the promotion period. Results remained similar after the promotion.
Also, higher average retails on shelf in 2022 wreaked havoc on retailers’ promotional strategies. Dole partnered with a large Midwest retailer, using its historical elasticity coefficients through Nielsen’s Revenue Management and Optimization (RMO) portal to project the impact of adjusting everyday chopped kit pricing from $3.99 to $4.19 and promoted pricing from $2.99 to $3.14. The projected results showed a 5% increase in dollars, with little impact on unit sales, and a 5.3% increase in net revenue. Actual results proved better than projected promotional outcomes for the retailer, with an increase of 25.1% in dollars, 6.3% in units and 30.9% in net revenue.
Finally, organic continues to be the fastest-growing banana segment and the best means to drive organic volume in the produce department. Dole worked with a retailer to increase conventional pricing, narrowing the price gap to organic and fueling trade-up. In addition, Dole identified stores in which to deploy secondary display racks and marketing tactics to boost banana awareness and consumption. These actions led to organic dollar growth of 17.6%, versus run-of-market growth of 0.7%, without cannibalizing conventional — 4.3%, versus 2.0% run of market — and increased total banana revenue of 5.3%, versus 1.5 % run of market.
Activating these pillars, Dole stepped up collaboration to reach new heights in retail partnerships, enabling those retail partners that heavily depended on the company’s category development team to add between three and four points of growth ahead of their competitors.
Fresh Express Inc.
As inflation has taken a bite out of many food categories, shoppers are responding by switching up what they’re buying and eating. That’s true in packaged salads, too, where there has been a bit of shifting going on.
Fresh Express switched gears along with, and, in some cases, ahead of, price-conscious consumers looking for healthy, convenient plant-based nutrition. Following an extended period of strong sales as consumers mostly ate at home, growth in the company’s value-added salads finally slowed a bit in 2021, due to price increases related to fuel costs, supply chain issues and labor challenges, among other market factors.
Heeding the trend and recognizing consumers’ new mindsets, Fresh Express focused its category management efforts on the impact of inflation. For example, the company suggested a promotion update from a three-for-$12 offer to a two-for-$8 offer to stay relevant. In addition, Fresh Express shared information with its retail customers on the slowing growth of premium salads and pointed out the uptick in sales of classic salad varieties.
As shopper interest in private label products intensified during inflationary times, the company also supported sales of its Fresh Express brand. The recognition of that trend and the support led to an increase in repeat buyers of Fresh Express salads, an indicator of loyalty.
The quick pivots during yet another time of volatility worked: Several Fresh Express retail partners outpaced the rest of the market to grow their share by as much as millions of dollars, according to the company. That’s notable, since results cycled growth numbers from the growth-heavy pandemic.
Even as it focused on delivering value to inflation-wary shoppers, Fresh Express has looked ahead and kept R&D efforts rolling. The company recently launched three new chopped kit flavors and one new salad blend, adding variety and shelf interest to the category. The category management team supported planogram builds to include these new items while eliminating slower-moving and high-shrink products.
Likewise, the company has continued to invest in national promotional campaigns throughout the year, using Google PPC and display ads to drive awareness sales. Social media is a priority for Fresh Express, which has a following of 360,000 users. For the first nine months of 2022, the company’s digital ads on social media delivered 1.8 million post engagements and a 2.1 million reach, while its YouTube videos have racked up more than 810,000 views.
A campaign during Salad Month in May was particularly effective. The omnichannel program included social media, digital coupons, influencer and recipe videos, digital ads, an e-newsletter, and a recipe book.