Marketplace Perception vs. Reality (Part 2): Organics

The “law of perception” is the fourth of Al Ries’ and Jack Trout’s 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. They say, “Marketing is not a battle of products; it’s a battle of perceptions.” An unfair statement? Well, that depends on your perception.

Produce companies that perceive an opportunity in responding to consumer perceptions can redefine their marketing strategies to keep pace with changing consumer consciousness.

Last month, I looked at consumer perceptions of food safety. Now I’ll turn to the second major theme of the Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) research conducted with Cornell University to study consumers’ and retailers’ perceptions and focus on organics. We surveyed 544 produce shoppers in stores in four U.S. markets in the second half of last year. We then asked 40 produce executives representing 81 percent of U.S. supermarket sales to predict their customers’ responses.

Generally, we find consumers’ organic produce purchasing decisions are most often based on perception not reality — but like it or not, we must respond. We also find retailers generally know their customers’ minds regarding organics, with some exceptions.

Increasing organic offerings could go a long way to attract and keep organic shoppers’ dollars from competitors; almost half (47 percent) of this group say they select their primary food store based on an organic selection.

Health is a key motivator for organic shoppers: 84 percent buy organic because they perceive those items to be more healthful than conventional. That science is still out on that topic doesn’t stop many consumers of organic produce from believing it. And it often seems to me that the more educated consumers are, the more strongly they hold this belief.

The environment is also important to this group: more than two-thirds prefer organics in bulk to reduce packaging waste. Retailers and suppliers know the operational and regulatory challenges of keeping organics separate from conventionally grown and in getting the right ring for the item. If you want evidence that produce companies are responding, you need to look no further than the flurry of new environmentally friendly packaging, ranging from degradable plastic clamshells to fiber trays.

This stood out this year in PMA’s first Impact Award: Excellence in Produce Packaging. Where it is feasible to offer organic items in bulk, that is the preferred option. Where it is not, marketers should develop packaging that appeals to these shoppers and do everything they can to communicate the benefits of the packaging. Packaging can and should convey a great story if you have one to tell.

The organic sector doesn’t own these topics; we all should have some level of story to tell about how we are reducing our environmental footprint and about the health benefits of the foods we grow. So, tell your story!

Conventional produce shoppers are not unaware of organics; 36 percent disagree with the statement they “don’t pay much attention to” organic fresh produce. Only 23 percent say organic produce doesn’t look as good as regular; almost half (47 percent) perceive organic fresh fruits and vegetables as more healthful — yet they still don’t buy organics.

One barrier appears to be the price. Sixty percent of conventional shoppers would buy organic produce if it weren’t so expensive; retailers predicted this to the same percentage point. Yet, putting organics on sale is lost on conventional shoppers — 75 percent are unaware of sales or not convinced of organics’ benefits enough to part with their money.

With these conventional produce consumers, I think matters of relationship reign supreme. They aren’t swayed as much by environmental issues and feel conventionally grown items are just as healthful as organic. Nearly 62 percent of conventional shoppers told the researchers they strongly favor “local” over organic produce; local is sought at least sometimes by almost 70 percent of all shoppers. The upsurge of consumer interest in local produce, combined with a distrust of imported produce, indicates strong “homegrown” retail programs may be well received.

Virtually everyone in our industry can play the locally grown card in some way. Consumers’ definition of local is variable. As Jim Prevor wrote last month, a good marketing strategy ought to “emphasize the authenticity of their production locales and the experience and integrity of the farmers who grow the produce.”

Organic produce has sparked the desire of many consumers to have an emotional connection with the land and the people who bring the produce to them. Conventional produce suppliers can borrow a page from the organic industry’s marketing playbook. The same emotional perspectives fueling interest in organics and locally grown challenge our industry to reconnect with basic agrarian values.

We have the tools to win shoppers’ mindshare but need the right perspective to use them properly. Produce marketing is not a battle of organic vs. conventional or local vs. imported. It’s a battle of perceptions. Our response will make — or break — the sale. Remember — “Marketing is not a battle of products; it’s a battle of perceptions.”