Why today’s marketing is just like a supermarket tomato

by Nigel Hollis | December 09, 2019

I find my Mum’s idea of a salad totally uninspiring. Sorry Mum! But then, she is working with whatever Waitrose and their growers can most easily supply. For instance, the average supermarket tomato is designed to travel well and look good but, as a result, it does not taste of much. A similar affliction applies to a lot of marketing today: it is efficient but not necessarily effective.

The problem with today’s supermarket tomato was summed up in a recent segment on Marketplace in this quote from Harry Klee, professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida,

“After World War Two, breeders really intensively focused on improving varieties, increasing yield, getting disease resistance. Flavor has been neglected and it’s deteriorated dramatically.”


The problem is that taste is hard to track. Breeders focused on breeding for disease resistance, shippability and shelf life, which could be measured and helped ensure a better return on investment. Meanwhile the taste of many tomatoes eroded. Today we all know that supermarket tomatoes taste bland, but our options are limited. You either buy what is easily available for your salads, sauces or sandwiches or grow your own (and trust me, that is not easy if you live somewhere like Vermont).

To me, the story of how we got bland tomatoes is similar to why so much marketing fails to engage its intended audience. Too much time and resource has been spent on figuring out how to get content in front of people on a cost-efficient basis and not enough on what content people might want to attend to once it gets in front of them. After all, it is easy to measure cost-per-impression or click, not so easy to measure whether the content made a lasting impression and will eventually change people’s behaviour.

Part of the problem with both the taste of the tomato and the effectiveness of marketing content is that the producers and distributors are not the consumers. Delivering tons of unspoilt tomatoes to a retailer is a bit like delivering thousands of display ads across an ad network. The distributor can say, ‘They got where they were meant to go, job done.’ Meanwhile the metrics involved make it easy for the buyer to say, ‘Next time, let’s have the same again only cheaper.’ The end audience does not have any say in the matter. All they can do is avoid engaging with insipid content.

Turning back to the article on tomatoes, the interesting thing is that Harry Klee has developed a new, hybrid tomato that has much better flavor than the current commercial varieties. The problem? Yields are 10 percent lower, so no commercial grower wants it. As noted in the article, demand for more flavourful tomatoes will have to come from consumers, feeding back through the distribution system to the grower. Sounds like a marketing problem to me. Right? Please share your thoughts.

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  1. Raluca M., December 11, 2019

    That is a surprising, yet excellent analogy! 

    The problem is - how will the feedback reach the grower? The consumer buys the tomatoes anyway because they have no other option, so the grower will not be forced to admit the problem. But then again a smart grower will take on the opportunity and sell at a higher price and this grower may be highly successful and inspire the others. This as an analogy applies to marketing, as well :)

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