Is “Making a Difference in the World” for Suckers?

Last November, after speaking at the Biodynamic Association’s annual conference in Portland, Oregon, I struck up a conversation with my Uber driver on the way to the airport. He was familiar with organic and natural foods, but not that familiar with biodynamics (not many people are). It was clear from the conversation that he was aware of the value that good, regenerative farming practices have on the earth. So I asked him, “If you had to choose between a conventional apple for a dollar, an organic one for two dollars, and a biodynamic one for two dollars and fifty cents, which would you choose?”

Without hesitation he said the conventional. Price is important to him. I wanted to see if I could change his mind, so I pressed him about the good that regenerative agriculture does for the earth, and how conventional often does the opposite. Unswayed, he responded, “I don’t want to be the sucker.”

He explained that he did not want to pay more for something while everyone else is buying the conventional (and cheaper) brand. Why pay more for something while the majority perpetuates the current system? His purchase, in his mind, was not making any difference.

So then I asked, “If I could show you that buying that biodynamic apple actually can make a measurable and noticeable difference in your life, would you buy it then?” He answered, “Yes,” but the price couldn’t be prohibitive.

As a natural products marketer, that answer wasn’t a huge surprise to me. Our conversation showcased a major challenge that premium dietary supplement and functional food brands face in today’s marketplace:

How do you convince consumers that their purchase of a food or dietary supplement “makes a difference” beyond the functional benefits?

It’s a critical question for premium brands, especially those with commodity-like products.

Vitamin C is Vitamin C, right?

Everyone who sells Vitamin C offers the same proven benefits. Some will say they are more bioavailable than others, some will say their Vitamin C comes from a food source, etc. In the end, the consumer is looking for efficacy without any side effects.

However, what if I could show those consumers that purchasing your brand of Vitamin C would create positive change in the world?  That would be a differentiator.

Brands are already making a difference

Many brands in the natural products space claim to make a difference in the world. Just look at the most recent example of the hemp and hemp-derived CBD brands who successfully fought to legalize industrial hemp farming in the U.S. People who buy those brands can feel a degree of collaboration with that successful effort, because without their support there would be no brand.

Most of the people I’ve talked to who work for dietary supplement and functional food brands believe that what they’re doing is making a difference. And while these people believe they are making a difference just by working for the brand, we should acknowledge that they have a vested interest in that belief. The success of the brand makes a difference to their own personal livelihood.

But that is not necessarily the case with consumers. Like my Portland Uber driver.

Loyalists and then everyone else

Brands love their loyal customers, but the truth is — the majority of their sales come from outside their loyalist base. Yes, the loyalists buy consistently, but there are not enough of them to sustain a brand (let alone help it grow).

To grow a brand, you need new customers and you need to increase sales to existing ones. And to do that, you need to know what they (not you) think makes a difference in the world.

My Uber driver understood a lot about the value of good agriculture. But I didn’t know how to convince him that it was worth paying more for it.

Sometimes what brands believe is very compelling actually ends up falling flat. They often suffer from the false consensus effect, where they overestimate how much other people will agree with them and their message.

Without attitudinal market research data, there is little hope that they will ever really know.

As I wrote in a previous article, it’s about discovering what consumers believe. This is especially important with supplements, where so many of the vitamins are seen as commodities. Few people want to be a sucker and pay more for a brand that they think will deliver the same results as the cheaper brand.

You can’t assume that just because you believe your brand is changing the world that customers also see it that way.  It’s about finding those segments who are willing to pay more for an intangible idea that is relevant to them, one that makes them actually feel better for making a premium purchase.