Messaging Madness

August 31st, 2010 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Messaging Madness

In the September issue of Natural Foods Merchandiser, Jane Hoback writes an excellent article (no link because the online version is not yet posted) entitled, “Organic vs. Natural”. Apparently shoppers are very confused. It looks like natural products have a stronger favorability rating than organic products. According to Hoback, ”while products certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are tightly regulated and inspected, few rules exist for producers using the “natural” label. Yet, consumers seem confused about the two words”. She goes on to write: “When asked what is the best description to read on a label, 31 percent of respondents chose “100 percent natural,” 25 percent chose “all-natural ingredients” and 7 percent chose “contains natural ingredients”, according to results of a survey released this year by the Shelton Group, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based advertising agency. In contrast, only 14% chose “100 percent organic” and about 12 percent chose “certified-organic ingredients.”

On the surface these numbers are pretty stunning. I am always a tad cautious about polls and surveys because how the question is asked can be a very significant variable in what type of response you receive. Still, these numbers are quite strong and suggest that we are currently lagging behind in the message war when it comes to organic.

So, how does such misinformation get out there? Frankly, I fault the media. I realize that’s an easy target, and to be clear, I’m not referring here to industry publications, but rather mainstream national media publications. Their existence thrives on stories that portray controversy or tension. Presenting both sides of an issue (even if one side is so wrong it shouldn’t even be presented as relevant) and finding the “tense-spot” in the argument is how these publications seem to survive. From newspapers to magazines, I have read at least a dozen articles this year still questioning the legitimacy of organic foods. Are pesticides really that harmful? The answer is unequivocally, yes! Any true scholar or scientist will confirm that the use of pesticides in our food supply can cause serious health problems and is destructive to our land and water. That’s it. This is not something that should be continually debated by reasonable people. Facts are facts, and just because you don’t like the outcome of where the facts lead, does not mean that they are incorrect. As the old saying goes, “you are entitled to your own story, but not your own facts.” With all this said, these mainstream publications reach a wide audience and are taken seriously by those who read them.

Organic is typically tossed about in the media with controversy and tension headlining the story. Rarely is there a “feel good” piece written on the subject. So over time, depending on which snippet or headline a consumer gleans from the story, they come to understand organic food as something that may be illegitimate in its claims, certainly over-priced, and maybe not even as nutritious as conventional food. Even as organic is gaining ground in the marketplace, it is also gaining ground in controversy.

On the other hand, “natural” is able to take advantage of “organic” getting beat up a bit. Even though natural is a very vague, unregulated, and often dubious claim, it’s looking better and better to shoppers because no one is really attacking it. It’s unscathed. Sure, within the industry there are huge questions and an ongoing debate, but in the world-at-large, natural is benefiting from all of the negative and controversial attention being focused on organic.

We need to take control of the messaging on organic foods, and by we, I mean all of us involved in the organic industry. I particularly look to the retailers, after all, you have the most direct contact with consumers. You are face to face with them everyday. You touch their food and you can also touch their lives. At the very least, you can provide an opportunity for them to understand the food they eat. We all need to support this effort. Think about this: more people (at least according to a survey that we shouldn’t take lightly) believe that they are better served by buying foods labeled as natural (this could be Corn Puffs even) rather than organic, and by a significant margin. We can change this, and we need to. It will take reaching out more to customers, initiating more interaction with them, sharing information, asking questions, and just generally getting more involved in their food choices. In a nutshell, be more hands on with your customers. The idea that shoppers looking for organic and natural foods tend to be knowledgeable about the foods they eat just took a bit of a hit. We have all been served a wake up notice. Shoppers need help. So let’s get passionate about changing this conversation. Let’s put organic foods first in the minds of our shoppers. And who knows, along the way, we just may all sell a little more organic food . . . even better, consumers may eat a little more organic food.