After nearly two decades of double-digit growth in organic sales, the recent plateau suggests that more than the slowing economy is affecting the organic market’s stall in growth.
Until now, organic has mostly been championed as an attribute in and of itself. Now, the organic and natural products industry has the opportunity to shilft to a participatory, emotionally-driven conversation. Simple changes in the way organic companies use the tools of branding can have a significant impact towards brand loyalty by supporting their consumers to be a force for positive change in the world.
This article is adapted from the September/October 2009 Organic Processing cover story, Conscious Branding, by Kevin Williams and Dan Mishkind (Yadim Medore).
The 8 Practices of Conscious Brands
How do organic brands encourage consumers along the path from the purchase of products based solely on attributes to becoming active and conscious participants in the values that organic stands for? It is possible to use the same manipulative tactics of emotional branding employed by conventional brands, capitalizing on collective insecurities to promote affiliation, but while this strategy may work in the short term, it would erode the confidence consumers have in organic brands and ultimately reduce sales.
Here are 8 strategies that will help us return to our organic roots:
1. Identify Your Truths and Tell That Story
What do you actually believe? What strides are you taking to make your actions match your beliefs? What are your passions? Use all these truths to develop your brand’s story, the authentic and true image that you will present to the world.
2. Get Emotional
It is essential to appeal to people’s feelings to gain consideration — and ultimately loyalty — for a brand. For years, conventional branding has successfully leveraged fear and uncertainty to motivate consumers in ways they are not even aware of toward actions that do not reflect their values. The difference in conscious branding is not to merely elicit a response, but to celebrate your passion to provoke consideration of what is being offered in context of cultural values that promote self-directed behavior versus a reactionary response. Share your feelings, hopes, desires, concerns, joys, and vulnerabilities; allow people to get to know the heart and soul of who you are as a company.
3. Give Customers an Active Role
While conventional branding seeks to persuade you to buy something, conscious branding seeks to invite you to participate. Organic Valley’s Theresa Marquez frames this perfectly. “We call those who buy our products ‘citizen participants,’ she says. “Once you invite them to be a part of the solution through purchasing your product, there must be actions on your company’s part to continue these participations.” Give them a chance to develop and deepen their sense of being “part of the team.”
4. Use Positive Reinforcement
Reminders of positive behaviors reinforce a consumer’s belief that they can facilitate change in the world, effectively elevating their self-perception and affiliation to the brand. This fall, Organic Valley will launch one of the most innovative means of achieving this goal, using what’s called The Calculator, an online interactive tool that allows consumers to view the level of synthetic chemicals they have kept out of the food system with each Organic Valley product they buy. The Calculator also can track the full amount of chemicals retained throughout the entire relationship with the brand to date.
The brilliance of this tool is that it not only reinforces the positive behavior of consumers, encouraging further brand interaction, but it also provides a very simple reference for the abstract concept of sustainability, making it tangible and real.
5. Create Alliances
Support causes that reflect the values of who you are. In addition to helping these organizations, this will reflect positively on your brand. Similarly, nurture strategic relationships with other organic brands that are aligned with your values. These co-branding efforts are great ways to increase marketing efficiencies while creating the opportunity to reach a broader client base. Nature’s Path, Organic Valley, and the Rodale Institute collaborated on the Organic Heroes campaign, a celebration of consumer “citizen partners” that also offers support to the Rodale Institute, one of the early pioneers and supporters of the organic farming movement. The campaign also spotlights the roles we each play within the “Chain of Organic Heroes,” celebrating the role of the consumer.
6. Be Open
Give these consumers the proof behind what you are presenting, and they will shift from skeptic to advocate. One method is to be transparent and offer traceability. Openness is the highest form of confidence that creates trust. Patagonia, a brand whose innovation in sustainable apparel has changed the industry, has sought to raise the bar by producing the “Footprint Chronicles,” an online interactive posting of supply-chain stories of 17 products. You can see where the products are made, materials used, waste, and social implications, both good and bad. This all serves to show that Patagonia is real and not perfect; they, like the customer, are on an authentic path of self-improvement because they care. Consumers can identify with this.
7. Build Connections
Enabling consumers to picture where the product comes from and know details about the people growing it changes the nature of the relationship and personifies your brand. Organic India celebrates the community of farmers who create and benefit from its products by featuring photos of actual members on the front label and telling their stories in advertisements. This allows the citizen participants to understand the social values of the brand that go far beyond the NOP Standards. This effort contributed to triple-digit growth for the specialty tea brand.
8. Celebrate Your Passion
True passion and commitment is contagious; people are drawn to it, inspired by it, and want to participate in it. In the early years of many organic companies, the founders would go out on the sales calls, do the demonstrations in store, and be at the social events that their customers would go to. Their passion is what motivated them and created believers. As organizations grow larger, it becomes easy to lose the dynamism of that excitement. Small Planet Foods, a group of brands owned by General Mills, could have easily lost the small company energy of Larabar when they acquired the brand, but recognized early on that the value of the brand resides in the excitement generated by being in touch with their customers. As described by a Small Planet marketing executive, “By getting people excited, they want to participate. Then they want to learn more…it’s much easier. We would see founder Lara Merriken connect with people at running events and realized more resources need to go into actually meeting the people and building relationships.” Larabar now has a full-time person on staff who monitors blogs to encourage ongoing and personal dialogues with people as the brand is mentioned within the blogosphere.