Natural Foods Merchandiser

Organic Consumers Share Values, Not Demographics

The organic products industry is often portrayed, at least anecdotally, as a movement for affluent suburbanites who fit a predictable demographic profile: well-educated, high-income, liberal-leaning, heterosexual Caucasian females in their 30s or 40s with children. As the organic movement strides into the mainstream, however, any effort to pigeonhole the organic consumer may lag behind reality. Marketing professionals may find lucrative returns from looking beyond the stereotype to new segments whose common traits are personal values rather than high-end addresses or advanced degrees.

In fact, the "traditional" organic consumer—that affluent suburban mother—may well reflect the current availability of organic foods as retailers choose premium locations, rather than define the market. "We think there's a general feeling that the organic consumer is Caucasian, female, suburban, and that's not true," says Laurie Demeritt, president and COO of The Hartman Group, based in Bellevue, Wash. "It's hard to identify the organic consumer these days, because it's everyone. That said, we know there are geographic areas where there's heavy usage, but we can see that there's participation across groups not traditionally thought of as organic consumers."

With limited marketing resources, every company naturally seeks to target consumers who will provide likely and significant returns. Those desirable consumers, however, may look and behave very differently from each other and from the models on which the industry relies. Instead, they are linked by common values and principles that shape buying habits and purchasing priorities.

Cultural Creatives: A Diverse Group
One of the most compelling marketing concepts to have captured the industry's collective imagination is the idea of the Cultural Creatives, defined by researcher and consultant Paul H. Ray, Ph.D., in The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World (Harmony Books, 2000). In Ray's model, old-style demographic groupings give way to values-based categories of Traditionals, Moderns and Cultural Creatives. The definitions dissolve quantifiable limits of income, age, gender, education and ethnicity.

Cultural Creatives exhibit and purchase according to social and environmental values with a premium on authenticity and an interest in global cultures and heritage. This dovetails perfectly with the social and environmental benefits offered by organic foods, and the organic movement's underlying current of a deeper relationship with food sources.

"The thing to know about the people who really want to buy organic [or natural or green] is that this grows out of their values, and values are much deeper than demographics," Ray says. "Most of all, values are uncorrelated with demographics. You can have people with the same demographic profile, down to a gnat's eyebrow, and they can live in entirely different worlds and want entirely different things."

The diversity of values-based purchasers presents all the opportunities inherent in expanding markets, and all the challenges of reaching potential consumers who can't be easily identified by traditional means—and who share a defining characteristic of balking against categorization.

"The range of people who want green and organic products is very broadly distributed through the population. It's entirely possible to find working-class households that want organic foods, or ethnic households that you don't think of as the standard natural products customer," Ray says. "The overarching premise that I'm operating from is that the true market is much more broadly spread throughout the entire population than the organic community is assuming."

That said, Ray adds that high prices, lack of product information and lack of accessibility to products can all inhibit organic purchases even if the consumers' interest and fundamental value system exists. "Looking for where the price break really is, getting better information out, and placing organic products in grocery stores that are not thought of as upper middle class all turn out to be very important marketing strategies," Ray says.

Case Study: The Hispanic Community
Across every industry in recent years, marketers have noted the Hispanic community's phenomenal impact—its growing size, its cultural influence and its purchasing power. Perhaps not traditionally thought of as natural products consumers, there is in fact a very high index of interest in organic foods among Spanish-speaking Americans, according to Demeritt.

In a survey conducted by The Hartman Group in south Florida, both English- and Spanish-speaking consumers were asked about what was important to them in shopping for food. Sixty-seven percent of Spanish-speaking consumers were looking for a good selection of organic and natural foods versus 31 percent of English speakers.

"We found that the idea of a more pure type of food, a whole food, traditionally and culturally had authenticity for [the Spanish speakers]. It made them think of how their parents used to cook," Demeritt says. "There was an emotional attachment to these products that had to do with tradition and cultural interest, and that translated into 'natural' and 'pure' for them." Herbal supplements also showed a high index of interest among Spanish-speaking consumers, Demeritt says.

This isn't necessarily a new trend. Lisa Bell, president of Crescendo Communications, a Boulder, Colo.-based marketing and public relations firm, saw good reason to target the Hispanic market as organic buyers as far back as 1994, during her tenure as public relations director for Earth's Best baby food. "At that time, market research data showed that the Hispanic market had a keen interest in organic foods, especially where the youngest members of their family were concerned," Bell says. "We would often target that market in our public relations activities, in newspapers and magazines, and in cities with strong Hispanic populations."

More recently, Lifeway Foods, based in Morton Grove, Ill., initiated a strategy specifically targeting diverse populations for a natural line of kefir products. Their La Fruta line is all-natural and may be certified as organic soon, making the organic transition as other products in the company's line have in response to growth and interest, according to Julie Smolyansky, Lifeway's director of sales and marketing. "In cities like Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York and in areas of Texas, the natural foods industry is booming and the Hispanic population is growing," Smolyansky says. "We thought it would make an excellent marriage to put the two together."

Lifeway's instincts were correct. "The response has been phenomenal," Smolyansky says. "We've had distributors, retailers and consumers calling to request the La Fruta line of products." Smolyansky credits immigrant populations with being willing to try new dairy and cultured-food products. She also echoes Ray's theory that natural foods consumers share values, not demographics. "We try to market to natural foods shoppers, whatever their ethnicity or age. Natural foods is a population in itself. That means everybody and anybody who's shopping in a natural foods market."

Bell says, "I think there's a huge stereotype that the minority markets are lacking money. In reality, these consumers may spend more money on organic foods and cut back in other areas because it's important to them."

Research suggests that even consumers who do have lower incomes demonstrate a higher interest in organic foods than the "ideal" high-income consumer. In February 1998, Food Chemical News quoted from a talk given by Christine Bruhn of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis: "About 30 percent of consumers with incomes under $12,500 told the Economic Research Service that organic foods are 'extremely important' compared with 14 percent of consumers with incomes over $50,000."

Organic Melting Pot
The first priority for organic marketers may be to do away with any notion of a "typical" consumer, and replace it with an image that's close at hand. "The stereotype of the natural foods consumer is simply not true," says Bu Nygrens, purchasing manager of San Francisco-based distributor Veritable Vegetable. "At the Berkeley Bowl store [in Berkeley, Calif.], the clientele is very diverse, with every ethnic group and every class of people that lives in the Bay Area buying foods from organic to vegan to traditional ethnic foods to ready-to-eat foodservice items. It's great to see such an integrated group of people and so much cross-cultural diversity."

Marketing to this diversity requires new tactics, according to Cultural Creative expert Ray. "All too often organic folks assume they know who their customer is, defined as someone affluent, highly educated and seriously into things that only the Moderns category cares about," Ray says. "The Cultural Creative profile of values and interests is more relevant. Things that appeal to values may be more important than those that appeal to only self-interest."

In addition, expanding the vision of an organic consumer means taking the industry beyond a small niche to the true mainstream, with teen-agers, senior citizens, homosexuals and all ethnic, geographic and voter profiles under the organic umbrella. "I think the natural foods industry would do itself a huge service if it focused on expanding and developing new markets, looking outside of the old stereotypes and looking at a broader market," Nygrens says. "The crossover potential is there with every demographic group because all people are concerned about the foods their kids eat."

And in the long term, expanding organic outreach is the only way to go. "Any organized and focused marketing effort is of benefit," says Bob Scowcroft, organic pioneer and executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation based in Santa Cruz, Calif. "But in any long-range plan, we can't lose sight of the marketing forest for any particular promotional tree, so to speak. There are many constituencies that we not only care about, but they're buying organic food, and we need to articulate where that fits in the long-range picture."

Elaine Lipson is the author of The Organic Foods Sourcebook (Contemporary Books, 2001) and is a writer and consultant for the organic foods and natural beauty and health community.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 18, 20-21

Distributors Topple Demographic Limitations

As natural products companies reach out to nontraditional markets, strong consumer interest hasn't always paired with a smooth pathway for the supply chain. But distributors in two very different markets see future benefits from the marketing groundwork.

Since 1974, Blooming Prairie Cooperative, based in Iowa City, Iowa, in addition to serving retailers as a distribution cooperative, has reached out to what may be considered "unlikely" natural products consumers through its popular buying clubs. These buying clubs are groups of people that pool their orders to buy at wholesale quantities, says Sue Futrell, director of marketing.

"In both low-population areas and very dense population areas, buying clubs might reach people who otherwise would bypass natural products," Futrell says.

While members save money in exchange for their own labor and organizational efforts, they also often solve the problem of access to natural products in low-population areas—proving that interest in natural and organic foods is widespread. "We have really loyal club members in areas where you might not assume a high level of natural products interest," Futrell says. "Nebraska, South Dakota, etc., are filled with people who are educated, environmentally conscious, health conscious, active and involved in their communities."

In both urban and rural areas, buying clubs have generated surprisingly loyal natural products customers. "One positive way to look at buying clubs is this: What a fantastic low-overhead way to begin building a market in an area where there might not initially appear to be enough of a market to support a retail business, but a core of 10 families can start to bring natural foods to their families and friends," Futrell says. "Another phenomenon we've seen is that those who participate in buying clubs when their kids are young become extremely loyal natural products consumers as the kids get older, even if the buying club no longer works for them. So we're building future customers."

Also helping to build a future customer base is Veritable Vegetable, based in San Francisco, a distribution company that has participated in supplying the Berkeley Unified School District since the school board's 1999 decision to provide organic foods to students. While school districts may appear to be fertile ground for organic foods, the bureaucratic nature of the school system presents challenges, says Veritable's Purchasing Manager Bu Nygrens. The pro-organic values in the board's decision are still filtering down to the staff. "The school district and the foodservice staff had to figure out how to implement the mandate," Nygrens says. "Responsiveness varied among the staff, and they're under great pressure and underfunded."

The needs of the institutions and the issues of small and local farmers was a case of worlds colliding, and has required a real commitment to education and dialogue, Nygrens says. "We're looking ahead to the tremendous potential of changing children's nutritional programs to include salad bars, for example."

Building knowledge and access among schoolchildren and urban families now should pay off later: "If you're looking to grow the business, you'll be looking at every market," Nygrens says. "There's an emerging market in every demographic group."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 20

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