About 40 percent of American adults buy organic foods or beverages at least some of the time, but market experts say it's not clear those consumers actually understand what they're getting.
"Even among organic users there is no clear reason for usage," said Steven French, managing partner with The Natural Marketing Institute in Harleysville, Pa. NMI and San Francisco-based SPINS are just completing the Organic Consumer Trends Report, which assesses consumer attitudes and behaviors and category analysis. The report will be released this month.
The NMI research flies in the face of manufacturers' claims that the National Organic Program's naming convention will erase consumer confusion because organic and made with organic ingredients will be clearly defined.
Phil Lempert, publisher of The Lempert Report, said making the NOP work will require plenty of consumer education.
"Brand managers and marketers can't rest on their laurels and hope that consumers will get it," Lempert said. There is potential, but consumers need to be educated and companies need to be proactive with these efforts.
"It used to be easy. Now there's a NOP and four designations within that," he said. "That's consumer confusion waiting to happen. Confusion leads people to make buying decisions with which they are most comfortable. If they don't know exactly what they're buying, most won't experiment."
Under the NOP, which takes effect Oct. 21, only those products that are at least 95 percent organic can carry the USDA Organic seal. Only products that have at least 70 percent organic ingredients may say "made with organic ingredients" on the label. Then there are distinctions for 100 percent organic products and products that contain a significant organic ingredient.
But those distinctions are meaningless if the consumer can't define them.
Among the general public, 56 percent know the word organic means foods grown without the use of chemical pesticides compared with 72 percent of organic users. "Only seven out of 10 organic users understand the straightforward definition of organic in the first place," French said. "The levels are even lower across understanding that organic foods are not irradiated, don't contain chemicals or don't contain genetically modified ingredients."
Even fewer consumers understand the benefits of using organic products. French said among the general population, only 34 percent say organic foods are safer than conventional, compared with 52 percent of organic consumers.
"This is definitely a challenge when you're doing brand development, marketing communications or merchandising strategy," French said. "Since there is a relatively low and inconsistent reason for using organic products, it makes all of that communication a gigantic challenge."
But whether or not they understand what they're eating or why, the organic consumer base is quickly broadening to include younger, more ethnically diverse populations, new market research shows.
ACNielsen's Consumer PreView study released in August showed that 33 percent of U.S. households purchased organic foods in the six months before they were surveyed. Of that group, 48 percent were Asian and 35 percent were black. Among the survey group, Asians were most likely to cite "no pesticides" as an organic benefit; black consumers were less likely to say organic foods are "more expensive."
"For the first time, nonwhites are having a much stronger interest in health than whites," Lempert said. "For the past 30 years, it's been just the opposite."
An April 2002 study conducted by RoperASW for Walnut Acres found that 68 percent of 18 to 24 year olds purchased organic foods or beverages at least some of the time, saying it was a smart choice for long-term health and well-being. This compares with about 52 percent of 35 to 49 year olds, who typically are considered the organic market sweet spot.
"I think Americans are expressing that they want to eat more healthily," said Michael Neuwirth, corporate communications director for Acirca Inc., parent to Walnut Acres.
The NOP and the USDA Organic seal in particular can only help firm up the concept of organic among consumers. "The more we as an industry invest in consumer communication, the more we can raise the tide," he said. "All of this has a cumulative effect."
Series Part 1: Retailers Ready For The National Organic Program
Series Part 2: Fine Line Between Certification And Responsibility For Organic Retailers
Series Part 3: NOP Just For Food Products
Series Part 4: Certified Organic Delis Offer Opportunities And Challenges
Series Part 5: Farmers Ready To Face Production, Financial Challenges
Series Part 6: Federal Program Little Help For Foreign Trade
Series Part 7: National Program a Culture Shock for Certifiers
Series Part 8: Distributors Score High Marks for Organic Commitment
Series Part 9: California Retailer Turns a New Leaf on Organic Retailing
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 7