by: Chris Lawer

Here’s an alternative healthy eating challenge for the New Year: How is it possible to innovate the banana, that prime symbol of commoditisation, that staple fixture of any self-respecting fruit-bowl? How can such an unremarkable, taken-for-granted fruit compete against the increasingly exotic fayre now lining the supermarket produce aisles – such as the kiwi, the mango, the papayas and the chikoo* ?

Since being introduced to the west in 1633 by the British traveller Thomas Johnson, then popularized at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 by the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita), banana producers have exhausted practically every promotional trick in the book to establish the fruit as, ahem, top banana – the biggest selling fruit in the world. Perhaps the best known is the little sticky blue label that was added to all Fyffes bananas in the 1920s. It marked the first attempt to brand fruit and in doing so, transformed an undifferentiated commodity into a super brand.  (For more on the history of banana marketing, see Stephen Brown, Marketing – the Retro Revolution, 2001).

Whilst there exist hundreds of banana-derived product line extensions of both edible (banana baby food, ice cream, smoothies, bread, wine, beer, cake, flour, chips, ketchup) and non-edible (The Body Shop’s range of banana-based cosmetics, mats, paper, food wrapping) varieties - with undoubted potential for more - it would be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that there is scant opportunity to innovate the basic banana itself. 

Chiquita Brands International - the global marketer, producer and distributor of fresh fruit, processed fruit and vegetable products - refused to fall into the commodity mindset trap. Faced with stagnating sales in the US market and stiff competition from the new exotic fruits on the block, Chiquita firmly believed that the banana could be "reinvented" to meet unmet consumer needs.

*A fleshy, brown fruit the size of a small tomato which has the flavour and texture of cinnamon, apple, and pear. Also known as a Sapodilla.

How did Chiquita Brands innovate the banana?

When faced with innovating a commodity product or any product for that matter, a typical and obvious response would be to frame the problem in terms of the product itself, in this case the banana. This would entail identifying the attributes of an “ideal banana”- its shape, colour, size, ease of bruising, perishability and so on – and then improving the banana along one or some of these dimensions that are important to a sizeable segment of consumers.

But Chiquita made a deliberate effort to avoid such a product- or in this case, banana-fixated mindset. Instead, they began by identifying all the jobs that bananas are hired by customers to get done. They wished to find out why people choose to eat bananas at different times of day and in what situations and contexts. By knowing what jobs people are hiring bananas to get done, then measuring which jobs are most important and least satisfied, they discovered valuable insight into how the banana can be redefined.

Most significantly, Chiquita found that although many consumers want to snack on bananas for sustenance whilst “on-the-go”, people were unable to obtain ripe, ready-to-eat bananas from non-supermarket outlets such as convenience stores, coffee shops, drugstores and fast food chains. Ripe bananas were in short supply as the smaller outlets didn’t have the luxury of daily deliveries to replenish bananas once they decayed. Unripe, squashed in a briefcase or bruised bananas brought from home did not satisfy the “snacking whilst on the go” job either. In fact,  research revealed that four out of ten people would eat more bananas if they were readily available in more locations.

With the opportunity for the “snacking whilst on-the-go” job precisely identified and validated, and with the help of Gen3 Partners Inc., a Boston firm, Chiquita found a way to keep individual bananas fresher longer so they could be sold in more locations, not just at supermarkets.

To read about the solution Chiquita came up with to keep bananas fresh and ready-to-eat in convenient locations as well as the commercial rationale and benefits, visit this article in the Boston Globe, click here

Speaking of their answer to the banana innovation challenge, Chiquita spokesman Mike Mitchell said, "This allows us to meet consumer demand for eating more bananas. And it's great for Chiquita because we can charge a premium price."

Chiquita is now making more innovations in the fresh foods market. In 2005, the company acquired Fresh Express, a packaged salads seller, and it recently introduced Chiquita Fruit Bites, sliced apples in single-serve bags. They're available in many small grocers, at Subway stores in California, and in McDonalds Happy Meals.

By understanding all the jobs that your customers hire your products to get done, then devising new concepts to help customers get those related jobs done better, you will discover new market growth opportunities.

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