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Reinventing the Wheel: A Q&A With Frances Dillard, Vice President of Brand and Product Marketing, Driscoll's

Reinventing the Wheel: A Q&A With Frances Dillard, Vice President of Brand and Product Marketing, Driscoll's

For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen Driscoll’s berries at retail. Conceptualizing that level of brand legacy and consumer loyalty might have been unfathomable to me as a child, but I now know it’s par for the course for industry powerhouses like Driscoll’s, who have taken the berry category to premium heights.

In order to reach that legacy level—where an experience sticks in the mind of a child and becomes a synonym for delight from a young age—that is a viewpoint through which I need to know more. Luckily for me, I have Frances Dillard by my side.

The Vice President of Brand and Product Marketing knows that years of innovation have solidified Driscoll’s position as a category leader and wants to utilize its latest launch to hammer the point home.

It’s too big a launch for me to unveil, so I’ll leave the introduction in Fran’s capable hands.

Buckle up, industry. You’re about to meet the Tropical BlissStrawberry.

Anne Allen: Fran, I’ve got to know the journey behind this new proprietary variety. Don’t hold back.

Frances Dillard, Vice President of Brand and Product Marketing, Driscoll’s: We were the first to introduce a complete premium collection of high-flavor berries across strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries in 2019. The collection included Sweetest Batch strawberries and Rosé Berries, and this premium strawberry collection spoke to our heritage as strawberry growers and the deep genetic pipeline we have.

Several of our cross-functional groups are constantly working together to identify what varieties in the pipeline might have consumer appeal and, in turn, fit a profitable marketplace need. In this instance, Phil Stewart, our Director of Strawberry Breeding, identified this proprietary variety, which has a unique flavor profile and an interesting visual appeal. As a product concept, we put the idea through a traditional Stage Gate process for product innovation to test the marketplace appeal across various stages—such as consumer tasting, focus groups, all the way to brand architecture and pricing scenarios.

AA: Taking a variety from its figurative infancy and developing it into a full-fledged product is quite a feat. When you’re working on an innovation like Tropical Bliss, how are you ensuring that these new varieties also translate as category sales at the retail level?

FD: This is super important for us as we began to expand our super premium high-flavor collection, since we ground ourselves in the science of flavor. As part of a strategic move to manage our product strategy, we felt that we needed to introduce Berry Patch Sensory Wheels as a credible validation of the accurate eating experience for the consumer.

Our communication strategy for the high-flavor strawberries; Sweetest Batch Strawberry, Rosé Strawberry, and Tropical Bliss Strawberry, is to “Try all Three Flavors,” as each brings a unique and incredible eating experience. The consumer is incentivized to trial and purchase all three.

AA: Fran, wait a minute, we’ve got to pause on Sensory Wheels! What is this new innovation? Now, I know that the premium berry eating experience is an essential part of Driscoll’s mission, so I can imagine that Sensory Wheels speak to that on some level.

FD: If you look at other categories like the coffee or wine industry, they have created the true discipline and accuracy of a consumer consumption experience through the art and science of sensory and flavor wheels. These tools take out the guesswork of what to market because it’s direct validation of a rigorous sensory process.

Driscoll’s is a consumer brand, and our proprietary varieties are not a commodity. Our dedication to the consumer and their consumption experience is at the core of our mission for delight. We wanted to validate and map that delight through our proprietary Sensory Wheels. We have sensory experts as part of our research and development team of experts, and they took the challenge to develop the sensory wheels to ensure our marketing of flavor is accurate to what is communicated to the consumer.

AA: Before we make our way back to Tropical Bliss, what are you hoping Sensory Wheels will bring to the berry industry?

FD: We are hoping Sensory Wheels elevate the credibility of our marketing communications efforts to ensure the consumer is getting what they are buying. How do you know you have tropical flavor notes in a berry unless it’s been put to the test of sensory analysis? The sensory notes are accurately captured, and we include them on our packaging and other marketing materials, so in those ways, we’re continuing to lead the way in elevating a full sensory experience.

AA: For Tropical Bliss, Sensory Wheels must have played a huge part in its development. Who else is behind this product launch?

FD: The cross-departmental team that brought this to life is indispensable to this launch. A strong, cross-functional team, as anyone in the business knows, is critical to bringing a product to market.

Naomi Sadoka, our Senior Product Marketing Manager, and Grant Garbinski, our Product Marketing Manager, worked to identify the consumer need and clarify product positioning.

As I mentioned earlier, strawberry breeding was led by Phil Stewart, and he’s an essential part of this process. Then there’s the Sensory Science aspect of it, headed up by Consumer Lab Lead Henry Yeung and Sensory Scientist Katherine Phetxumphou. Branding and packaging design also plays a huge part, and that was handled by our Senior Brand Marketing Manager Jamie Bassmann. And we’ve got our omnichannel strategy plotted out, which is handled by our Director of Omnichannel Marketing, Diane Scalisi; and then our product business management, handled by Joe Palomera, our Product Business Manager.

“We are hoping Sensory Wheels elevate the credibility of our marketing communications efforts to ensure the consumer is getting what they are buying.”

Frances Dillard, Vice President of Brand and Product Marketing, Driscoll’s

AA: Hats off to that incredible team! Because of them, Driscoll’s now has three high-flavor strawberries already under its belt, and now, the Sensory Wheels innovation as a vehicle through which to market them. What’s next for Driscoll’s?

FD: Understanding and adapting to the changing needs of the future consumer is a priority for Driscoll’s—not only in product innovation but throughout all the marketing communications strategies. On the product innovation front, we’ve introduced several new products outside of the high-flavor premium segment, including Berry Big Strawberries and a trio pack of berries called Rainbow Pack.

You can expect new packaging innovations moving us toward a more sustainable footprint and, of course, continued news coming from our partnership with Plenty® for indoor-grown strawberries.

Ultimately, we are poised to leverage our market leadership in flavor and identify new usage occasions to deliver delight.

I no longer think it’s strange that I can remember Driscoll’s from childhood. The obvious and undeniable strategy here is a foregone conclusion; I don’t mean to dismiss it, because the brilliance of this master plan is underscored in every word Fran speaks.

We’re working with innovation on a sensory level—and that means bending the sensory wheel.

Essentially, Driscoll’s is provoking that level of wonder I felt as a child. The Driscoll’s team is taking consumers back to a time when senses ruled and crystallized memories—and our shopping loyalty. That’s a part of the magic, and Driscoll’s captured the way those senses spin. 

Reinventing the Wheel: A Q&A With Frances Dillard, Vice President of Brand and Product Marketing, Driscoll's