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We know that unlike the "natural" label, the USDA Organic seal connotes meaningful physical differences when applied to food products. Marketers in the category are highly cognizant of how the rigors required by USDA organic standards contribute to the production of functionally superior food.
But do consumers share a similar understanding? While rising sales within the channel suggest that the purity promised by seals is valued, to what extent are the actual differences between natural and organic perceived? Moreover, as the market grows increasingly competitive, how effective are these labels at truly differentiating the brands that promote them?
To answer these questions we at Solve conducted a survey of more than 1,500 U.S. residents who completed either most or all of their household's grocery shopping. Surprisingly, the natural label was more effective at influencing respondents' perceptions of taste than organic. When compared with conventional foods, 57 percent of shoppers felt that foods labeled as natural were better-tasting, while only 49 percent said the same about organic. Natural was also more effective than organic at signifying product freshness.
Just as startling, shoppers saw no difference between natural and organic foods in nutritional value. Organic was viewed, however, as slightly safer to eat than conventional by 72 percent of respondents. Only 65 percent said the same about natural.
Why is organic food falling short of natural in taste and freshness? Signs point to a lack of knowledge. Only 27 percent of shoppers said there was a substantial difference between organic and natural food. Seventeen percent actually said there was very little to no difference.
Shoppers' sense of interchangeability between organic and natural is also reflected by behavior in the aisles. One out of three respondents indicated that, if given a choice, they either often or always opt for organic food over conventional alternatives. Nearly identical percentages said the same about natural foods.
Organic food brands may chafe at natural's ability to co-opt the rigors of the USDA seal, but marketers should resist the temptation to educate consumers about organic standards. Doing so only increases category demand, which can increasingly be met by private label competitors.
Communication Strategies for Organic
To stave off these challenges, marketers in the organic category should focus on building passion for their brands in a way that doesn't rely upon the rational appeal of the USDA seal. Developing and investing in communication strategies that meet current and prospective consumers on an emotional, aspirational level will prove more effective at building brand equity and competitive advantages that are long-lasting and difficult to replicate.
Research has proved that brands tapping into personal values and beliefs are the most capable of forging lifelong, loyal bonds that persevere against competitor price-slashing. A survey conducted by Gensler in 2013 found that 87 percent of consumers choose brands that represent their values, and 71 percent avoid brands that go against those values. Even more important, 43 percent are willing to pay more for their favorite brand's product, even if the identical products were available for a lower price from a private-label counterpart.
Regardless of how well shoppers understand its benefits, marketers shouldn't rely on the USDA seal to perform the heavy lifting of brand building. Although the seal signifies that one's products have been produced to a more stringent standard, it doesn't alleviate the need to build brand affinity and loyalty through a compelling, resonant position and emotionally relevant communities.