Selling Organic: What's The Story?

Report from Jim Manson at www.naturalproductsonline.co.uk
“Everyone knows the organic sector needs to do a better job at explaining its benefits, but how to go about it?
That was the straightforward but simultaneously tricky question under debate at a one-day conference in London on October 8th 2009.
‘Selling organic: What’s the story?’ — hosted by Organic Farmers & Growers — brought together some of the best known figures from the organic industry and mixed them up with experts from the world of marketing and consumer research.
Dr Matt Read, who studied thousands of promotional texts for organic as part of a study for the Countryside and Community Research Institute, said current marketing for organic was based around vague words and phrases that tended to arouse scepticism. Read said that shoppers often play a “double game”, operating both as consumers and citizens — the organic sector needed to appeal to both modes of behaviour.
Green & Blacks founder, Craig Sams, warned against sanctimonious messaging and urged other organic businesses to harness the power of ‘cool’. “Cool in the end trumps Fairtrade, organic, green, sustainable, revolutionary (non-violent!) intelligent, stylish— the lot. Because it embraces them all. The trick is to be all those things but without ever being angry or worthy.”
Dom Lane of Bray Leino PR told the 120-strong audience that marketers needed to appreciate that “organic isn’t a category it’s an ethical position”. Lane advised a “shift from propaganda to engagement” and “talking to an audience of people, not consumers”.
Andrew Fearne, a professor at Kent Business School, was the professional antagonist on the day, opening his presentation by telling the audience “most of what you do (in marketing terms) is appalling”. Fearne questioned the consensus in the organic industry that its products need to appeal to the mainstream. He said: “When I hear people say we want to turn organic mainstream I think to myself, why the bloody hell would you want to mainstream something so special, so different?”
Both Carlo Leifert and Lawrence Woodward argued for the inclusion of more serious messages about climate change, soil health and sustainability. Leifert, professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University, said: “To me sustainability is the key point about organic — it’s about having enough food in the future. But I’ve not heard that point made very well by any speaker here today.” He said the biggest limiting factor on crop yields in future would be increasing shortages of chemical fertiliser — and that would project organic into the spotlight as sustainable alternatives to industrial farming were urgently sought.
Woodward told the audience: “We are talking about marketing, but I would appeal to you and say please include these important messages — climate, hydrocarbon energy, water, soil, mineral and materials.” He also warned against dumbing down the organic message: “That is just stupid. We’re not selling a simple product.”
• Carlo Leifert, who is also co-ordinator of the EU-funded QualityLowInputFood (QLIF) project also gave the audience a glimpse of further (currently unpublished) research into the nutritional differences between organic and non-organic crops. He said that the findings will show that levels of nutritionally desirable compounds are higher (in the region of +10-15%) in organic crops, while levels of undesirable compounds, such as mycotoxins, are lower in organic.
Key quotes
It’s a shame if organic ends up belonging just to the arcadians.
Philip Bird, green consumer
It’s just frightening the number of brands that have died after swallowing the story from designers that they needed to throw out their fusty old pack designs.
Craig Sams, founder and president, Green & Black’s
Compared to organic, Fairtrade is easy — my concern is that it is too easy. They’ve cast it so wide to capture as much of the market as possible.
Craig Sams
When I hear people say we want to turn organic mainstream I think to myself, why the bloody hell would you want to mainstream something so special, so different?
Professor Andrew Fearne, Kent Business School
Dumbing down the organic message is stupid, we’re not selling a simple product. We talk about marketing … but I would appeal to you and say please include these important messages — climate, hydrocarbon energy, water, soil, mineral and materials.
Lawrence Woodward, director, Organic Research Centre
We are buggering up the potential for clear (nutritional) differential with our supply chain.
Carlo Leifert
People often behave simultaneously as consumers and citizens — we all play this double game
Dr Matt Read, senior research fellow, Countryside and Community Research Institute
Organic isn’t a category, it’s an ethical positioning. It’s convergent, while marketing is divergent. And that’s the bugger.
Dom Lane, associate director, Bray Leino PR”
More info at
www.organicfarmers.org.uk/news/news_more.php?id=201