The Surprising Benefits of Being a Polarizing Natural Products Brand

Right now, we are in the midst of a highly polarizing presidential election.

Picking no sides, it’s clear that appealing to extremes or saying things that are designed to create equal parts affinity and antipathy can gain political attention. But there are side effects to this. While a candidate may gain a loyal, even fervent following, they also risk increasing their negative ratings, and minimizing their potential for victory in a general election.

The natural products industry is no stranger to polarization. It was built in large part on the premise that the existing conventional food system was unhealthy — even dangerous and corrupt. The industry called out these processed food giants on their bad practices and as a result gained an ever-increasing and loyal customer base.

Another example is the dietary supplements sector. It is in a constant state of polarizing flux between those, especially in the media, who claim that supplements are unregulated, unnecessary, untested and unsafe, to those who say they just the opposite.

And yet, as I walk the show floor of Expo East or West, or scan a number of natural products websites, I don’t see polarity as much as I see claims of being good, better, best, of being noble, nobler, noblest. These pitches are designed to attract as many people as possible, without antagonizing anyone.

What’s worse is that they are, for the most part, indistinguishable and forgettable.

Choosing positions

When we conduct market research for our natural products clients we test different positioning for brands through the lens of segmentation. These are not arbitrary positions cynically devised to trick the consumer. Each position holds a truth about the brand. For example, a brand could be:

  1. environmentally concerned

  2. mission-driven to help people in need

  3. rigorous in its scientific breakthroughs, and

  4. just tastes great and is fun

These are all aspects of the same brand, but which one do you lead with? Another equally important question: which positioning appeals to which segment? For example, a scientific breakthrough position may be the most popular with all possible consumers, but your most loyal customer responds best to a more emotionally-charged, environmental message.

Now look at those four positions again. They likely look familiar, because so many different companies in the natural products industry incorporate these positions. Maybe 20 years ago they would have been memorable, but what was once different from the mainstream is now commonplace in the natural products market.

Enter polarity.

Polarity is not for the weak

Being willing to be polarizing takes courage. And not all natural brands have the potential for polarization in their DNA. However, if your brand truly believes in something, if it is willing to potentially lose sales to stay true to its cause, if it believes that staying quiet is just as bad as being on the wrong side, then you are ready to take the plunge.

We had a client that felt very strongly about the state of affairs in natural products. This client believed that too many companies were only paying lip service to some of the core principles that built this industry. Beyond lip service, there was concern that bad practices were being swept under the carpet.

However, as much as this brand wanted to speak out, it was concerned that being too vociferous would alienate buyers, even their own.

We conducted quantitative research with over 2,000 respondents sourced from both independent panels and from email lists from the brand. What we discovered was that the most strident position for this brand was the preferred one — more so than the softer, “friendlier” ones.

It is important to note that the brand had permission to express itself this way because that position was authentic to the brand. It was not going to take this polarizing position just to make noise.

The added bonus of being polarizing

While this more strident position was preferred to the softer ones, there was an added benefit to taking this position. 80% of the respondents equated higher quality with this polarizing position. That’s right. Whether they liked this position or not, they felt than any brand who put their stake in the ground in this way must offer the highest quality products.

This does not mean that polarization equals perception of higher quality. What it does imply is that those who are willing speak out must also be willing to be scrutinized. There is an implicit transparency that goes with taking a strong stand.

Remember, there is a range of emotions

When we speak about brands connecting emotionally with their customers, we’re not just talking peace and love. There are many different emotions. Looking all the way back to ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle offered the following: fear, anger, friendship, shame, kindness, pity, indignation, envy and love. There are many others.

When you are determining whether to be polarizing or not, always look at the potential emotions your position might elicit. For example, if your position feeds into a fear, be sure to be the solution that will conquer that fear.

With polarization comes a responsibility, and if you don’t deliver on that responsibility, that’s when your negative ratings start to emerge.

And just so we are clear, anything you have to say about this post, I agree with.