The Meaning of Natural

Now that long-term consumer demand for natural products has been firmly established, personal care products positioned as ‘natural’ have become increasingly available in a variety of channels, well beyond availability in the traditional “natural products” stores. For many, this is a good thing. Since most consumers will never set foot in a natural products store, it follows that the only way to reach them is to expand into different channels, such as mass, specialty, direct, etc. However, others see this channel expansion as a hotbed for conflict, from issues such as the lower prices at Wal-Mart to whether or not certain products are truly ‘natural’ and can be ethically marketed as such.

A Natural Issue

This leads us to what is perhaps the #1 issue facing the natural personal care industry – What Does Natural Mean? As you probably know, there is no legal definition anywhere, so marketers both have and use full creative license in terms of positioning their products. The inevitable result is that many products positioned as natural are not really very natural. In these cases, they may contain a few natural ingredients, but most of these ingredients are synthetically derived. Several brands come to mind, and you likely know who they are.

The bottom line is that the word “natural” means something to consumers, and this alone justifies its use for positioning. Marketing 101 teaches us that successful marketers develop products in response to or in anticipation of a market need; they no longer develop products and then attempt to find a market for them. Therefore consumers are always the most important variable in any marketing equation.

In the personal care world, the word “natural” can differentiate a product that is healthier for the body, better for the environment, and safer around children and pets, from a product that is none of those things. It is critical though, not to confuse the consumer. Some natural brands, like Aveda, have chosen not to use the word “natural” in any of their marketing communications, and I do not recommend this course of action. Aveda has chosen to de-emphasize the fact that the consumer does place some meaning on the word.

A Definition for Natural

Remember, there is no legislation, but I feel that if the product contains more than 70% natural ingredients (borrowed slightly from the U.S. organic food regulations), a marketer can position it as natural without fear of an ethical breach. If a product contains any less than 70% (a fairly arbitrary number, but you get the idea!), then the marketer can notate the ingredients as natural, but calling the product “Nature’s Essence” will confuse the marketplace and misrepresent the product. Acts of “dusting,” adding a non-functional amount of a natural ingredient in order to justify a claim, and “green washing,” the positioning of a product as natural when it is not, are prevalent in the mainstream channels, but not in the natural channels.

Perhaps a better way to view the natural concept is in the form of a continuum. Draw a straight line. Put points at the end of each line. You now have a continuum. Above the left point write the word “synthetic.” Above the right point write the word natural. Any product marketed as natural should be on the upper right 30% of the continuum. The idea is that very few products will appear exactly on that “natural” end point.

Most truly natural brands are found in traditional health food stores and natural supermarkets. These retailers have long been the gatekeepers of what is natural and what is not, and this is still the best way of discerning which is which. The mass and specialty channels will eventually be more discerning, but for now it is a bastion of green washing, dusting, and products that belong on the left side of our continuum.

A Call to Action

It would be helpful if natural products industry members were to agree upon a broad, working definition of “natural,” so that we could begin to self-regulate and perhaps affect channels outside of the natural products industry. For mainstream product developers, they should simply begin using more natural ingredients. Consumers understand the “natural” concept, and marketers do have a responsibility to their shareholders to provide a return. Since we have been experiencing 20% annual growth rates in natural personal care and mainstream cosmetics growth rates have been fairly stagnant for years, marketing natural products seems to be a good way to provide this return.

Darrin C. Duber-Smith, MS, MBA, is president of Green Marketing, a Colorado-based strategic planning firm offering marketing planning and marketing plan implementation to natural products companies in all stages of growth. He has 15 years of specialized expertise in the natural products industry and is currently an adjunct marketing professor at Metropolitan State College’s School of Business in Denver, CO. He can be reached at [email protected] .
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