In 1993, the big milk processors in California faced another down year in a decade-long sales decline. The beverage world had shifted from under milk's feet with the proliferation of soft drinks targeting on-the-go consumers and younger, hipper stomachs. How's a California dairy farmer peddling tired old milk in a clear plastic jug supposed to compete with Coke, willing to spend $100 million annually marketing just one of its brands?
By getting smart and getting organized. Eleven processors voted to form the California Milk Processor Board (CMPB), a nonprofit organization with a $23 million budget funded through voluntary contributions of three cents per gallon of milk sold. CMPB promptly gave that $23 million to Goodby Silverstein & Partners, who came up with the Got Milk? campaign. Within a year, milk sales turned the corner, growing from 740 million gallons to 755 million. The campaign has run for almost 20 years now, with awareness among consumers surpassing 90%.
There was precedent for this, and plenty of antecedents to follow. The California Milk Advisory Board had marketed the nutritional value of milk for years under its Milk Does A Body Good campaign, but nutrition was not sexy stuff back in 1993. Other food commodities, such as beef (It's What's For Dinner launched in 1992, courtesy of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Leo Burnett), pork (The Other White Meat, 1987) and eggs (The Incredible Edible Egg, 1977) set the stage for Got Milk?, and more recent campaigns by Florida orange juice and pistachios have kept the strategy alive.
I bring all of this up because I've been thinking about it, a lot, and I want the organic industry to do the same. Alex Bogusky does too. In a presentation at Expo West, Bogusky—the most celebrated and controversial figure in advertising, even after he left the profession a year ago—called out the organic industry's lack of organization and lack of investment in promoting itself to mainstream consumers. After sixty-plus years and a tremendous headwind now at its back, organic still accounts for just 4% of food sales in the United States. The message has gone mass, but the industry has not. Bogusky's argument resonated for me, and a few weeks later, NBJ's Connor Link linked me to this:
There's something entirely cringeworthy about two CEOs, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm and Seth Goldman of Honest Tea, rapping in DIY companion videos to stock drum beats about organic products, but there's also something entirely charming and savvy about it. CEOs aren't hip, even organic ones, but organic is hip. DIY is hip. Web video is hip. Authenticity is hippest of all, and the authentic voices in evidence here are reason to take heart that the message, properly told, can resonate beyond a core audience of insiders.
I asked Bogusky informally for comment on the organic rappers, expecting a pretty succint dismissal of the end result, but that's not what I got back. Bogusky chose to highlight the limited reach of the videos—52,000 views at blog time—as further evidence that the missing link here is money. There's really no game to change on the advertising front until organic makes some meaningful investment in shaping the food discussion on main street. He's made the argument already, so I'll just repeat a few numbers from his slides, and add a few of my own.
Campaign, Cost, Size of Industry
- Milk, $27 million, $10 billion
- Beef, $42 million, $30 billion
- Orange juice, $16 million, $1.3 billion
- Pistachios, $15 million, $1.2 billion
At NBJ, we peg organic food at $24.1 billion in 2010. I need $40 million to collectively market this industry to American consumers.
Are there obstacles? Oh my, so many. These reference campaigns target single food commodities, not broader business practices that stretch across nigh every food category. These campaigns surfaced mostly as checkoff programs with government assistance and oversight. Is that the way to go with organic? How would we equitably levy contributions from major players as diverse as Stonyfield, Honest Tea, Hain, Whole Foods, Coleman and Annie's? Do we limit the organization effort to food companies, at the exclusion of suppliers and retailers? Do we extend the platform beyond food to skin care, fabrics or even pet food? Does that broaden the base and increase the budget, or cloud the message and raise excessive conflict?
Organic is big and messy, and significantly harder to organize than eleven milk processors or a roomful of Midwestern cattlemen. There's also that ill-defined elephant in the room, natural, which might be one of organic's worst enemies at this point. Will companies operating in both spaces support a campaign that seeks to "kill natural," as Bogusky suggested as a first course of action at Expo West?
I don't know the answers here, but I'm willing to pursue them. I, for one, refuse to be the sort of guy who lets $40 million get in the way of a good idea.