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Organic sector challenges itself over future

Date Published: 12/10/2009

A unique conference has taken a bold look at the future of selling organic food and how to move the market on in coming years.

Delegates from leading organic companies and organisations across the UK gathered at London’s South Bank University to hear from key entrepreneurs, academics, industry leaders and marketing experts in a day that was hailed by many attendees as the most useful of its kind for many years.

Organised by control body, Organic Farmers & Growers, with Organic Conferences Ltd, the day took a focused and practical look at the realities of the current promotion of organic food and its methods of production.

As a sector, organics has come to realise that it is not succeeding in clearly defining its benefits to its customers, and potential customers.

This first event of its kind combined the experience of key brands and acknowledged industry leaders with the insight from researchers, academics and marketing experts in a bid to build a picture of current perceptions of organic food and farming and to address ways the industry can move forward in a positive manner.

A key part of the day was the message from the OrganicUK campaign to collaboratively finance a generic advertising and promotional campaign for the good of the whole organic industry, which would be match-funded with EU money.

Catherine Fookes, of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming, outlined the initiative and how more members of the sector were needed to pledge their financial support, at whatever level, to meet the £250,000 target for the bid. The fund currently stands at just below £200,000. Every pound raised will be doubled by the EU if the bid is successful

Catherine, who is co-ordinating the project, told the conference that the whole sector would “get more bang for their advertising buck” if consumers understood organics better and that the initiative was a great opportunity for smaller businesses which do not have significant marketing budgets.

The campaign will aim to produce a message that is “brave”, has “clarity of benefits, warmth, is not lecturing, is humorous and has a single, consistent message but the ability to talk about all of the benefits of organic food.”

Both Craig Sams, Founder and President of Green & Black’s, and marketing director of Rachel’s,Steve Clarke, demonstrated how their successful brands had used positive messages and carefully targeted audiences to achieve their success.

Craig Sams stressed that the marketing of organics should “avoid being angry, worthy or boring” and highlighted how his businesses had achieved this over the years. Steve Clarke demonstrated the approach now being used by Rachel’s to reach its audience and maintain growth, even in a challenging market. He stressed that Rachel’s as a brand was about more than organics and that a recent change, which saw the word “organic” dropped from the brand name, was an “evolution, not a revolution”.

A bold message on the realities of reaching a mainstream market was delivered by Andrew Fearne, Professor of Food Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Kent Business School, as well as director of the Centre for Value Chain Research.

He analyses supermarket data and consults with small businesses on successful brand building. He told the delegates: “The fundamental thing about organics is not about what you do, it’s how you do it.” He explained that the key to success was for products to be cleverly targeted, communicated effectively and deliver on their promise consistently.

Professor Fearne added: “My observation is that organic producers are passionate about their industry. Consumers are not buying your product for the same reasons you make it.”

This message was reinforced by Dr Matt Reed who was part of sociological research project into the marketing and messages of organic food. He told the conference that, according to their focus groups, consumers often thought organic products used too many vague terms in their promotion and shoppers did not like to feel that they were being misled.

The study found huge positive feelings towards organic food and farming among shoppers but that people had very high expectations of organics. Dr Reed posed the question: should this be seen as a burden or an opportunity?

A particular high point of the day was provided by Carlo Leifert, Professor for Ecological Agriculture at Newcastle University and director of the Stockbridge Technology Centre Ltd, who has led the Quality Low Input Foods study, which is expected to report next year.

His talk was particularly anticipated due to controversy over the summer regarding a Food Standard Agency funded report that suggested evidence to date did not show any higher nutritional content in organic food. The QLIF project has carried out extensive trials and an overview of relevant research and is expected to counter the FSA argument.

Professor Leifert highlighted that a major benefit of organic farming was future food security, with the levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium available to non-organic farming undeniably dropping in coming years, creating potentially large price increases in non-organic food. He acknowledged that this was a fundamentally negative argument in favour of organic food, putting the onus on the organic sector to win consumers by making the case effectively and positively.

He concluded that, overall, levels of a range of nutritionally desirable compounds were shown to be higher in organic crops and milk and the levels of a range of nutritionally undesirable compounds were shown to be lower. On pesticide use, he said the case was “quite obvious – where you don’t use them, you don’t get any residues”.

In a move that demonstrated the clear interest in Professor Leifert’s presentation, delegates collectively requested he be allowed to extend his talk beyond the allotted time and into the lunch break.

In a shift of emphasis to the marketing message, Dom Lane, Associate Director and Head of Food and Drink at communications agency, BrayLeino , talked about the difficulties facing organic food producers in marketing their products and highlighting any benefits, due to the restrictions of the Advertising Standards Agency. He told the conference that the substantiation of organic benefits was one of the biggest problems facing the sector and that there seemed to be “forces working against this” (while stressing that he was not a natural conspiracy theorist, but had experienced this problem first-hand).

His key message was to harness conversational promotion of organic food and farming through modern communications, saying: “Online is off-piste – and so is organic. Off-piste is on-message!”

Dom’s messages were reinforced by Molly Conisbee, Director of Campaigns and Communication at the Soil Association. She explained that UK producers and processors were not even allowed to use promotional slogans developed and approved by the EU and which are allowed across the rest of Europe.

Molly described the process of getting organic messages past advertising authorities as a “nightmare” and explained that ten years of negotiations on the issue still left the sector with very few options to espouse organic benefits.

In slight contrast to some of the other messages of the day, Lawrence Woodward, Director of the Organic Research Centre – Elm Farm, spoke against simplified messages, providing a thought-provoking challenge to much of what delegates had already heard.

He said: “Dumbing down the organic story is a mistake. We cannot deliver simple goods, we are about complexity and we have to get that across.”

He added: “Organic is the only farming system that’s built on a value system, not a single crop or a single product. We have got to educate the mainstream to what organic farming is about – and that is complexity and values.”

The multiple retailer perspective was provided by Quentin Clark, Senior Buyer Poultry, Fish and Eggs for Waitrose. He explained that, from their perspective, the shopper’s understanding of organics was “patchy and variable” and that consumers were now “interrogating the value of their food more thoroughly” due to the economic crisis. His assessment was that for organic to be sustainable it must be consistent and profitable.

The day was rounded out by Susie Willis, founder of the successful Plum Baby brand, who described the creation and growth of her company and whose key message was that if consumers understand their food they will make a connection with it.

Following the conference, Organic Farmers & Growers’ Chief Executive, Richard Jacobs, said: “The feedback we have had from the day has been unwaveringly positive, with people saying they had not seen anything like it before and even that we had enough content for multiple conferences!

“This event was the result of the awakening of the sector to the reality of the challenges it collectively faces. There was a lot of useful information and thought-provoking content. As long as we can retain the practical focus of the day we will certainly be looking to repeat the experience in future and would like to thank Organic Conferences for their excellent organisation as well as all of our speakers for giving their time and expertise.”

>> You can see more pictures from the day on the OF&G Flickr set or the OF&G Facebook pages.