As Organic sales decline, maybe they should learn a lesson from Fairtrade and keep it simple.

Things are not looking good for Organics with over 12% fall in volume and over 11% fall in sales last year, and this year’s performance is looking bad too with a 5.8% decline. So has Organic labeling failed? Can the Soil Association (through the Organic Trade Board) ‘Why I Love Organic’ PR, social media and advertising campaign reverse the slide?

The UK is the only market in the world where Organic sales have dipped so something is going wrong, especially as UK consumers are getting more eco-ethical year on year. Fairtrade sales are up over 24%, free-range up almost 6% and local produce going through the roof – Asda’s seen a 400% rise over the last 4 years.

Denmark leads in Organic sales per head of population, followed by Switzerland, Austria, Germany and then France.

The recession hit Organics hard, with consumers abandoned this over inflated sector looking for value and having gone back to ordinary products discovered that there was little taste difference. This was highlighted in a report by the food Standards Agency that claimed, “There is little difference in nutritional value and no evidence of any extra health benefits from eating organic produce.

Despite an increase in the number of ‘Organic’ badged items in the supermarkets, sales are in decline and many new products are being ignore because of a lack of faith, so bad news for those who have given up a good job to make organic biscuits, sauces or pies.

However, the Organics market is complicated, not just because it is a label that appears across a diverse range of produce and products but because there are many reasons why people buy them, from ethics to snobbery. Maybe this is why the OTB, in a vain attempt to remarket the label, has 6 different propositions. Yep 6! So much for the marketing wisdom of a single minded proposition.

The beauty of Fairtrade, and a tribute to how to do it, is that despite the many positive aspects of Fairtrade – environment, financial loans, logistical support, setting up co-operatives, education, etc – they stuck to one emotional proposition – people get a fair price. “Simples” as any meerkat would say.

Consumers respond more to ‘people’ issues than ‘planet’ ones, and emotional propositions are 20 times more effective than rational ones (if not 100 times). Fairtrade got it right and it’s no wonder that sales are up year on year. In one survey we carried out Fairtrade was the number one label consumers would pay more for, Organics was seen as over priced. The Fairtrade label always comes out as the most recognised as well.

It doesn’t help that the Soil Association has one of the worst logos of all time, and I’d thought they’d start there. It’s unrecognisable, unlike Tesco’s Organic logo, which is an excellent design.

There is some good news, brands like Eller’s Kitchen is one of the most high performing Organic labeled products in supermarkets though the Organic word has been scaled down on pack. However, the product is first class, innovative and because mums buy it the Organic badge delivers a message of ‘purity’. The organic baby food sector sales are up over 10%.

In the yogurt market, Rachel’s made the dramatic decision to drop the word completely from their name. In other dairy areas, Organic milk sales are down, the Co-op is one supermarket that is reducing organic milk supplies.

Good news for fresh meat though, Organic beef is up 18%, maybe due to our love of animals – Organic offers a symbol of good animal husbandry. Though I’d never buy Organic fish, as that implies it can only have been farmed in a fish farm, which is like the equivalent of battery hens.

The ‘Why I Love Organic’ is a very PR agency type of approach, full of people (a typical consumer endorsement campaign), a few celebs and far too rational. It lacks the edge of a great ad campaign. Just look at the ‘Got milk’ milk moustache campaign -simple fun and effective (especially in the US where it was first created). Or Yeo Valley’s farmer rap. Or any of the more innovative and entertaining campaigns in the dairy market. My view is, it’s boring and unnoticeable, just another endorsement campaign that doesn’t compete fro attention when there are so many more interesting things to look at. It fails to emotionally engage me or anyone I showed the ads to. The OTB may disagree, but with only 683 likes on the Facebook site it’s hardly the talk of social media (and average postings are 3 days apart).

By contrast, Fairtrade Foundation has 62,970, Organic Gardening Magazine 30,265, Rachel’s 6,110, Yeo Valley 5,054, Ella’s Kitchen 11,773 and Cravendale Milk has 24,150 (though why so many people want to be a fan of a milk beats me).

Just to add a twist, Spam UK, not at all organic, has 42,583, Corned Beef (featuring a disgusting photograph of corned beef) has 4,024. Marmite, which has done some great fun campaigns, has 740,357, proving that great marketing pays off.  But top dog is Nutella with over 11m. Chocolate wins every time?

The website claims that Organics are “great tasting food, better for nature, better for animal welfare and more natural”. It is true that Organics are theses things but there are many farmers who don’t have an Organic certificate that also adopt ethical values. And it is this way of trying to make it black and white, Organics is a good, everything else is evil, that has resulted in an ASA ban of the ad, “We love organic because we care about animals.” The ASA’s view was that the claim that organically farmed animals experienced better conditions than non-organically farmed animals was not factually correct, so they deemed the ad as misleading. Not good news for the OTB.

Organic blogger Organikal is less than positive about the campaign, “…they promise that the campaign will be brave, thought-provoking and smart”. I’ll bet my professional reputation that it won’t and it will fail. Or perhaps they’ll hijack Farmville and reach the masses that way and I’ll be proven wrong.”

If the OTB wants to win it needs to simplify the message and come up with an emotional one, not a series of logical arguments. Organics need to be in the heart of the shopper not just in their mind, it’s an emotional thing. Actions are based on beliefs & values, which are connected via the emotions. Personally I’d focus on a single-minded purity message (as that tops consumer research as a value at the moment) and do some great entertaining TV and posters that get noticed (press ads are so ignorable). Forget Facebook, that’s micro-marketing, get a real database.

And second, it needs a decent new logo that consumers can recognise. A logo that sums up the real values of purity.

The OTB needs to do something different and quick, because if sales keep declining supermarkets will delist (as many are already doing on some lines and ignoring new lines) which will only accelerate it’s decline further.

  • Chris Arnold

    Read the Organikal blog for an
    interesting opinion on the campaign and the world of Organics. ‘Hammy the hamster
    goes organic’ is cute.

  • Carlo Buckley

    Interesting article Chris and I agree with much of what you say. I gave up my good job as a corporate lawyer to start Mr Organic which we launched in April 2009…we make sauces amongst other things. So far I’m pretty happy with my decision as this year compared to last sales are 65% up..significantly outperforming the market. Undoubtedly our growth could have been quicker but if you have a great product, eye catching labels, strong provenance, are good value for money etc. etc. then you can get results despite the economic crisis and will be successful in the long term. Feel free to visit our website for more info. You have to give consumers more reasons to buy your products – just being organic is not enough! In my opinion, there are too many faceless organic brands owned by huge multinational food companies (in that I include the supermarket own label products) that churn out both organic and non-organic products on the supermarket shelves. They are expensive and not as good a quality as they should be given the price and volumes they must sell. These brands have nothing behind the label on the front of the packaging or are so far removed from the original founding brand principles that they may have been able to pull the wool over consumer’s eyes and sells lots during the good times but no longer. Unfortunately when it comes to the supermarkets they all but Waitrose it seems think from their actions that “organic has had its day”…nonsense. It’s time for a new breed of organic food company and the supermarkets would be better off employing “buyers” that actually buy rather than make excuses for not doing their job. Of course, I don’t put all buyers in those shoes and for many it may not be their fault but when it comes to organic and getting the best products on the shelf that will sell they need to have a re-think on both private label products and the incumbent dinosaurs that currently occupy the aisles.

  • Huw Bowles

    Dear Chris,
    Your Brand Republic piece on Organic sales decline, 31st August made interesting reading and whilst we appreciate your comments on Why I Love Organic campaign, we would like to reassure you it was thoroughly researched and is supported and endorsed by a number of the brands you refer to in your piece. We are just reaching the end of year one of our three year campaign and are aware of certain areas, social media for example, that need to gather momentum and work harder for us. However, as we go into year two, we are pleased with the campaign results so far.  We are starting to talk about organic in a new way – it’s not preaching & it’s not worthy – something organic has been accused of in the past.
    It’s important to remember that our organic market does not enjoy the generous financial support from Government that our European neighbours do.  
    Huw Bowles
    Chair, Organic Trade Board