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NatureSweet’s creating buzz with its new chocolate tomato. The company’s VP of marketing shares some of the marketing strategy that’s convincing people to give it a try.

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January 6, 2016
Chris Mosby

At PMA’s Fresh Summit 2015 event in Atlanta, Ga., a number of large companies debuted their most exciting new products. One of the standout introductions was a brown, chocolate tomato being rolled out by NatureSweet. To test the market for the new product, the tomato is being added to the company’s new medley collection of snacking, sandwich-making, salad-enhancing and grilling tomatoes: the Constellation. The medley was designed with all consumers in mind, offering a variety of tomatoes that are good for every occasion. The tagline for the product is “a tomato for every occasion.”

Photo: NatureSweet

Michael Joergensen is the vice president of marketing for NatureSweet. He says that the Constellation medley package is still being updated. At the time of Fresh Summit, the Constellation was available at only a few retail outlets. It is now available nationwide.

The Constellation was originally introduced with four, brightly colored tomatoes. Joergensen says that medley was partly the result of consumer research. The company learned that the four major uses of tomatoes, in no particular order, were: snacking, sandwiches, salads and grilling. So NatureSweet included four tomatoes that were perfectly suited to each particular usage. Then, recently, they added the chocolate grape tomato.

Why? “We think the chocolate tomato does interesting things. Inside the pack, it gives consumers something to play with. The advantage of a chocolate tomato is that consumers can experiment with it. If we asked consumers to go out and buy a package of all chocolate tomatoes, most consumers wouldn’t take that risk,” Joergensen says. “They won’t know what it’s going to taste like.”

Convincing a consumer to take a chance on a product is extremely difficult. NatureSweet feels confident that the public will enjoy the new tomato, if they can convince them to try it. To get the public involved, instead of rolling out an individual line of chocolate tomatoes, which might be overwhelming for consumers, they’re trying to package the chocolate with items customers are already familiar with.

“This provides a low-risk way for people to try the chocolate because they already know they’re going to get a bunch of tomatoes they know and like,” Joergensen says. “From a color standpoint, the chocolate really pops next to the red, the yellow and the orange. It gives you a cornucopia feel.”

He says that the chocolate tomato packs a lot of flavor. Joergensen describes it as a cross between a sweet tomato and one with a bit more tang. He thinks that consumers will find they can use the tomato for a variety of things, including simple snacking or grilling.

Including a new product with a package of familiar, reliable products makes an introduction easier and low-risk for a company. NatureSweet may give the chocolate tomato its own product line or they may not, but they will have consumer research and a market test to support that decision, when and if it arrives.

For NatureSweet, it’s also an opportunity to grow a new variety. “This gives us the opportunity to grow the tomato, learn about it and see how consumers respond to it. Certainly, selling the tomato on its own is a possibility down the road.”

Finding the right fit

Discovering the perfect variety of tomato to add to the Constellation required quite a bit of legwork. Each year, NatureSweet visits a variety of seed breeders around the world. They’ve made stops at greenhouses in Spain, Mexico, Holland, Canada, Asia and facilities within the United States. Having established their network, the NatureSweet team will convene, discuss the qualities they may want in their next tomato and then they’ll approach their breeders.

For the chocolate, NatureSweet wanted an all-purpose tomato. “Some of our varieties, like the Sunburst, have very high sweetness. We position that tomato around snacking because it tastes more like a grape than a tomato. But part of what makes it so good is that it has very thin skin, so if you tried to put it on a skillet it would last about 60 seconds and then evaporate,” Joergensen says. “You can’t use every tomato for every occasion. We found good versatility with the chocolate.”

The chocolate tomato, he says, has interesting shape. It’s not quite oval and not quite round, setting it apart from grape and cherry tomatoes. It has a unique color that lets it stand out from its companions in the Constellation and it can be utilized for snacking or cooking. Finding a variety that fit those criteria was difficult. Joergensen calls the chocolate a sort of “hybrid” tomato because it can be used for so many purposes.

“We’re always testing about 300 different varieties,” Joergensen says. “We have the largest tomato testing program in North America. So, we’ll go to our breeders and say we’re looking for chocolates or browns or blacks (depending on how dark we want our browns to be), and ask them if they can provide certain qualities within those colors.”

He adds that the company is less concerned with disease-resistance qualities and high-yield potential. Instead, NatureSweet wants tomatoes that produce a mouth-watering taste. That said, the company’s growers will communicate quickly if a plant is too finicky to be a realistic product; or they will praise a plant that responds quickly to the greenhouse’s growing conditions.

“But we’ll put up with a lot of headaches in growing if the taste is there,” Joergensen says.

Once NatureSweet has selected some targets, they visit the breeder’s facilities. Joergensen says those visits are now part of the company’s annual calendar. If they’re impressed by the variety, they’ll be sent a sample selection of seeds, usually ranging between 50 and 200 seeds within a packet, and experiment.

Currently, the chocolate tomato is being grown at the company’s facilities in south central Mexico, near Guadalajara.

Joergensen says the company has 1,400 acres of greenhouse production space, spread across approximately 600 greenhouses. When they’re experimenting with a new tomato, like the Constellation’s chocolate tomato, they’ll dedicate parts of a few houses to the variety. For NatureSweet, that’s a small investment and, at this point, it’s paying off for the chocolate tomato.