Sarah Bird is senior VP of marketing at Annie’s and vice-chairman of the board at the Organic Trade Association (OTA). She has more than 20 years of experience in brand management, and was named one of Ad Age’s top 50 marketers. Nutrition Business Journal spoke to Bird from her offices in Napa, Calif.
NBJ: Are efforts now underway to create a coordinated, national advertising campaign for organics?
Sarah Bird: Over the past few years, OTA has prioritized its efforts on two fronts—policy work to make sure organic is part of the agricultural agenda in Washington, and driving consumer awareness. We’re a membership-driven organization with a lean budget, so there’s no “mad money” laying around for a consumer campaign. One of the industry’s biggest opportunities is to educate consumers about all of the goodness inherent in organics. This drives consumer demand and fuels strong growth.
We’ve talked for several years about getting a research & promotion order in place to create a pool of money for driving consumer education and engagement in organic. Over the summer, OTA kicked off two streams of activity to begin the due diligence of assessing the feasibility and complexity of this. One stream is policy-focused and the other is industry-focused. At our board retreat in January, we’ll hear reports that summarize the findings. Our intent at that meeting is to reach a go/no-go decision as to whether now is the time to tackle this opportunity head on as a top priority for OTA.
On the policy front, OTA partnered with NBJ Survey: When Will Organic Reach 10% of Total Food Sales? Podesta Group, a top lobbying firm in Washington, and their challenge is to fi gure out how to navigate this politically. OTA also created a steering committee of various industry representatives and hired Kim Dietz, an independent contractor, to facilitate its complex work. This committee is challenged with helping the board accurately gauge industry sentiment, since this effort would need to cut across so many product categories. This isn’t like milk, where it’s just milk producers at the table. We need to build a well-grounded team that refl ects the voice of the collective industry, a team that accurately represents those various constituencies.
NBJ: How would this work? Is this another checkoff program for organic producers?
SB: Yes, that’s right, but not necessarily ‘another one.’ What would have to happen for this to fall into place is that those dairy producers, say, who now pay into the dairy research & promotion order, would need the option to choose whether they stay in that category or they put those funds into organic. The strategy here is to avoid incremental costs to producers, and just redeploy the costs already in place. We need to understand the logistics of this better, and we will. How could you put this in place legislatively? How do you give farmers that option to choose, because you can’t require them to pay into both orders? And who exactly pays here? Is it just farmers and producers, or does this extend out to manufacturers and retailers?
NBJ: Will the fractious nature of the industry work against these efforts at all?
SB: I’m an optimist. I think we can get it done. The two streams of activity OTA is pursuing to get their arms around the issues—political logistics and industry sentiment—should come together in January and then the board can vote. We will decide if this is the time and place to lean in and get this done, or we can decide that it’s not the right climate. I think of organics as the little engine that could, so again, I’m optimistic.
NBJ: As a marketing executive at Annie’s, is this an idea you would support?
SB: Absolutely. I think the biggest opportunity we have as an industry is to educate people about what organic means—why it’s good for us as consumers, why it’s good for the environment, why it’s good for the economy.
There’s a wonderful study out from Rodale Institute and their Farming Systems Trial. They’ve been running a trial for 30 years, and the report talks about the true impact of organic—that yields on an organic farm are about the same as a conventional farm, but the organic farmer is making more money and the soil is healthier and more tolerant to extreme weather. With a louder megaphone, we can get news like this out there and push back more effectively against some of the entrenched voices in Big Ag. A research & promotion order is a great way to build that megaphone.
NBJ: What might a national campaign for organic look like? I remember Alex Bogusky, AdWeek’s creative director of the decade, suggesting ‘Kill Natural’ as one idea.
SB: I’m a big fan of positive messaging. We are all bombarded with so many messages now. Would consumers be motivated by a campaign built around organics as good for their health and good for their families? As good for farmers and good for the Earth? I think so.
Maybe the underpinnings of any potential campaign address pesticides and the scarier chemicals in our food system, but we need to figure out how to say that in a way that engages consumers rather than turn them off. We also need to get the message across that you can trust organic, because there are people out there certifying the farmers. There’s real rigor to the organic industry, which is clearly lacking from natural. There are lots of layers to this, but I’d hope we could engage people with a more positive message. An aggressive message is fine, but not a negative one.
NBJ: What kind of budget would you expect for this effort?
SB: Early research from OTA suggests a minimum of $10 million to have an impact on consumers. We certainly haven’t set a budget for this, but suffice it to say, the scale of this effort is much larger than other projects underway at OTA. The organic industry is roughly $30 billion now, and even a small, checkofftype fraction of that gets you to a large number. The beauty of these campaigns from other industries—milk, beef, pork, eggs—is that once you get the slogans and messages right, they tend to succeed and then need very little maintenance.
Time is now for a nationwide, organic ad campaign
NBJ: Why now? Why is momentum for this building?
SB: I just think the time is right. This is an industry growing at a healthy clip, and it can only tackle so many ideas and opportunities at once. I also think there is—or was—a feeling that the time is right in Washington. I’m not sure this is true anymore, but we saw a period of increased political openness to organics for awhile. There was some genuine optimism surrounding the political crowd, from people at the USDA all the way up to President Obama, and their receptivity to our message.
Organic is also reaching critical mass. We’ve grown beyond that niche segment of the market, even though we’re still only a couple percentage points of total food consumption. Organics are now distributed broadly, way beyond the natural channel. Given this much expanded distribution, the industry needs to increase awareness and give consumers more reasons to pull the products off shelves. If we’d been pushing for this when we were just in the natural stores, it would have been hard for all consumers to find the products at retail.
NBJ: From your perspective, are the bigger companies and bigger personalities in organics behind this idea?
SB: Yes, absolutely. My sense is that the big players in the industry agree there is a need for this. I don’t think there is going to be much resistance from the bigger companies.
NBJ: Do you believe the industry can truly coordinate here and pull this off?
SB: Again, the little engine that could. We can do this because ultimately, if the industry grows, everybody that has a toe in the industry is going to benefit. More people are going to demand organic after this. We all win. We win as manufacturers, we win as consumers, we win as farmers, we win as environmentalists—all the way through, on every level. This is where that committee through OTA tackles the real work of building consensus and galvanizing the industry around this idea.
NBJ: Would this affect the marketing strategy at Annie’s? What about your natural products?
SB: No, this would be a wonderful complement to what we are already doing with our marketing. We continue to try and go organic in everything that we can. At Annie’s, we always start with organic when we are developing new products and we only back off from “fully organic” to “made with organic ingredients” if the costs get to a place where we know consumers won’t buy. If there is more demand for organic, then there are more ingredients available, and if there are more ingredients available then those costs will come down. I have no concerns about any possible ramifications for natural.
NBJ: If the board votes for this, what will it then take to make it happen?
SB: A bundle of money and some big muscles to power it through. OTA can say this is the right thing to do, but we’ll need lots of help to execute it.