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What would inspire 18 of the nation's largest supermarket chains, along with dozens of food manufacturers, to work in harmony with their competitors for a month to drive sales across all of their food brands and retail stores?
In a word, organics. The goal behind the monthlong effort is to generate consumer awareness, acceptance, and sales of organic food in mainstream supermarkets. The vehicle for this 68-company collaboration: the "Go Organic for Earth Day" campaign, an in-store promotion program that unites 2,500 retail store locations with the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association (OTA) and the worldwide environmental advocacy organization Earth Day Network, to execute the largest-ever national promotion for organic foods, culminating on Earth Day, April 22.
Such an expansive organics promotion tied to Earth Day would seem to be a natural, but the timing is especially right given the category's unprecedented acceptance into the mainstream. Overall sales of organic food and beverages jumped 20.4 percent in 2003, reaching $10.38 billion, according to the findings of OTA's 2004 Manufacturer Survey.
"Expanding shelf space for organic foods in supermarkets makes business sense, since research reveals that the average organic shopper's cart contains $36 more merchandise than the nonorganic consumer's," says Michael Martin, president of MusicMatters, the Minneapolis-based marketing firm that's coordinating Go Organic for Earth Day. "That's not only good news for public health and the earth's environment, but it's also great news for organic category growth and supermarket profitability."
The Go Organic for Earth Day campaign grew out of discussions of OTA's marketing committee during fall 2003. Committee chair Chuck Marcy (then c.e.o. of Longmont, Colo.-based Horizon Organic), formed a task force to investigate the feasibility of producing a promotional event around Earth Day. Task force members included Carrie Branovan, creative manager of Organic Valley in LaFarge, Wis.; Laura Coblentz, senior director of marketing for Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats; and Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of OTA. The task force recommended that OTA hire MusicMatters to conduct a feasibility study on an integrated in-store campaign, and Go Organic For Earth Day was born.
"I raised my hand and said that I was on the board of Earth Day Network and I already knew many of the organic food vendors as clients," recalls Martin, "and I heard myself proposing that I would facilitate the effort which became Go Organic for Earth Day."
The Go Organic For Earth Day team quickly began negotiating with supermarket chains: In addition to Pick 'N Save, Giant Eagle, Food Lion, and Rainbow Foods, participating grocers include Kroger Co. and several of its subsidiaries, Publix, Wild Oats, H.E. Butt Grocery Co., Ingles Markets, Henry's Marketplace, Sun Harvest Markets, and others. Independent retailers and cooperatives across the country are also participating.
"We're excited to participate in Go Organic for Earth Day," says Neil Norman, category analyst for Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion. "We think it's a great way to heighten our customers' awareness of the natural and organic products offered by Food Lion. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Adds David Atkins, director of natural and specialty foods for Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, "We're committed to accommodating the lifestyle needs of the nearly 25 percent of Giant Eagle customers who purchase natural and organic items."
A few chains requested exclusive rights to "Go Organic" in their regional market; those retailers are not part of the 2005 campaign. Although retailers' participation in Go Organic for Earth Day is free, the stores are expected to use the program's point-of-sale materials -- with each individual supermarket putting up Go Organic for Earth Day end cap displays; 25 manufacturer-customized shelf talkers and 150 generic campaign shelf talkers that highlight manufacturer partners and the chain's own organic private labels, respectively; three 16-inch-by-24-inch Go Organic for Earth Day posters; and 1,000 free coupon books for customers.
Perhaps the most important sales collateral for the campaign is the 12-page coupon book, of which are 2.5 million copies. Titled the Go Organic For Earth Day Action Kit, the full-color brochure provides cents-off coupons for organic food products, food facts (noting that organic farms use 50 percent less energy over the long run than conventional farms, for example), and recipes -- such as Pasta with Broccolini or Four-Grain Yogurt Pancakes -- that use organic ingredients.
"The entire organic food industry and major supermarket chains are working together -- for the first time -- with the shared interest of making a greater sales impact for organics," says Gary Hirshberg, president and c.e.o. of Londonderry, N.H.-based Stonyfield Farm, the world's largest maker of organic yogurt. "But more importantly, the Go Organic for Earth Day coupon books and other marketing materials are results-driven. Not only is Go Organic For Earth Day fostering awareness of organic food and environmental events at Earth Day celebrations, it's also moving organic products off the shelves."
The importance of choosing organic products will be further reinforced by distribution of free Go Organic for Earth Day educational materials to more than 80,000 K-12 schoolteachers involved with the Earth Day Network's Educators Network. A national TV, radio, and print publicity campaign involving Chef Akasha, an organic chef who works with campaign sponsor Silk, will generate media coverage of the campaign through newspaper food pages, syndicated food columnists, feature articles, and broadcast interviews. More than 45 organic food manufacturers are now involved in the program; participation was open to all manufacturers that are OTA members. Food manufacturers received promotional benefits such as logo/brand visibility in proportion to their financial participation level.
"For 2005, Earth Day Network has chosen the theme of Earth Day to be "Protect Our Children and our Future," says Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, the coordinating body that works with 3,000 U.S. environmental groups. "A main focus of the Go Organic for Earth Day campaign is educating America about the health and environmental benefit of choosing organic products whenever we can." Working with Earth Day Network enables the campaign to tap into thousands of Earth Day 2005 events and classrooms across the country.
The agendas of environmental educators, supermarket retailers, and organic food vendors overlapped and intertwined. Retailers expected a free, cost-effective, credible turnkey program that would spark in-store traffic, offer customized collateral with their logos, and extensive in-store sampling. In fact, more than 300,000 organic food samples will be distributed during the campaign.
What organic food manufacturers most wanted from the campaign was participation by major supermarket chains, including agreements to use in-store signage, circulars, and end caps. In short, the manufacturers wanted supermarkets to become organic category evangelists.
"It's critical that the Go Organic campaign convince supermarkets to avoid segregating organic foods," says David Neuman, v.p. of sales and marketing at Richmond, B.C.-based Nature's Path Foods. "One key to fostering widespread acceptance of organic food is giving consumers access to organic products where conventional foods are located. Part of our rationale in sponsoring Go Organic was our belief that retailers who carry our products could think about organic not as a niche segment, but as one of the fastest-growing mainstream categories in the grocery business."
"Earth Day is a great time for retailers to drive attention to environmentally sound products, and organic products fill the bill for retailers," says OTA's DiMatteo. "With nearly 125 million in-store consumer impressions expected for Go Organic for Earth Day, OTA hopes to turn major chain retailers into organic category champions -- which is the best way to transform mainstream consumers into organic food buyers. At its core our integrated campaign message is that organic products are good for the planet's health and therefore good for public health, and are now widely available on the shelves of your favorite supermarket."
With organic food breaking into the aisles of major chains, there are sensitivities: Go Organic for Earth Day has to refrain from alienating the hundreds of natural food co-ops that have traditionally been the core of organic food sales. And although one benefit of choosing organic foods is a dramatic reduction in pesticide residue exposure in a consumer's diet (almost six out of 10 consumers surveyed by the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) said they were concerned about pesticides and other chemicals used to grow their food), the campaign treads gently with regard to the pesticide issue. Much of the food sold by the supermarket chains participating in the campaign is nonorganic, so the focus of the program is on the overall environmental benefits of choosing organic products.
Why start the Go Organic for Earth Day campaign now? The 35th anniversary of Earth Day makes it especially timely, and several organic food companies have grown large enough that helping fund a project like Go Organic makes financial sense. But more important, OTA says there's a critical mass of awareness among consumers: sixty-five percent of Americans surveyed were aware of food and beverages made with organic ingredients, and 54 percent of those consumers actually purchased them, according to a February 2005 NMI study, which was commissioned for the Go Organic campaign.
What's more, acceptance of organic foods by the management of supermarkets is higher than ever. The embracing of organics as a profitable category by supermarkets is critical to organic sales growth -- the NMI survey showed 55 percent of organic food users first learned of organic products through a grocery store display, rather than from advertising, doctors, or friends and family members. That data aligns perfectly with the program, since in-store displays and sampling demos are central to promoting the campaign's mission to increase organic awareness among mainstream consumers.
Although campaign organizers won't share their predictions on expected sales lifts from Go Organic for Earth Day, the campaign's return on investment for sponsors will be quantified: Each of the 18 participating supermarket chains have agreed to provide sales data for the April 2005 campaign period. Other benchmarks for the campaign will include tangible changes in consumer awareness of organic food as measured by NMI research, redemption of organic food coupons contained in the free coupon books, hits to the Web site, the number of teachers who download the Go Organic for Earth Day curriculum from Earth Day Network (www.earthday.net), press clippings, and anecdotal surveys of all 18 participating supermarkets.
At very least, Go Organic for Earth Day is likely to be the single biggest boost for organic food awareness at supermarkets in the history of the category. At best, this April campaign may create a new high watermark in the relationship between organic food manufacturers and supermarkets.
OTA plans to repeat and expand the campaign in spring 2006. "Once every few years, supermarkets profit from a food trend, like low carbs," says MusicMatters' Martin. "But once every decade, supermarkets benefit from a cultural shift that transcends a fad and involves a lasting change in America's dining and grocery shopping habits. That's what organic food could be, and what Go Organic for Earth Day is working toward.
"Whether the organic category achieves its potential will depend upon the commitment and vision of supermarket retailers," adds Martin. "To paraphrase "Field of Dreams," if you market organic products, the customers will come."
For more information on the Go Organic for Earth Day campaign, Progressive Grocer readers can visit www.organicearthday.org.
Paul Maccabee is president of Maccabee Group, a Minneapolis public relations agency whose food clients have included the Wedge Community Co-Op, Twin Cities Natural Food Cooperatives, Lloyd's Barbeque, M&M/Mars, Malt-O-Meal Cereal, and Kemps Ice Cream.