nbj: Tell us about your methodology for the latest report.
Amy Sousa: I’m an anthropologist here at Hartman. As the lead qualitative on this report, I conducted in-depth interviews and research groups with 25 consumers. We undertook those in Seattle and Atlanta, and we included consumers of various levels of engagement and knowledge about natural & organic. For the quantitative methodologies, we fielded an online survey of about 1,600 U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 69, and asked them a range of questions about their associations with natural & organic, purchase behaviors, trust around the USDA label, a willingness to pay a premium for organics, etc.
nbj: What did you learn about consumer awareness?
AS: Organic is clearly mainstream now. It’s no longer about the natural food stores having a monopoly on organic food. It’s no longer about being a hippie and buying all your stuff in bulk. This is really the way a lot of consumers are eating today, across many different levels of engagement. We found that almost 75% of consumers are using at least some organic products over the course of the previous 3 months, and a lot are using them more frequently. Over 33% of all consumers are buying organics at least monthly.
nbj: What challenges are posed for organic in the mainstream?
AS: As organic has gone mainstream and become more widely available, the meaning of organic has become somewhat diluted. Consumers are less convinced that organic products are necessarily what they claim to be, or even that they are better for them. A very small percentage of people trust the USDA label at face value, at 100%.
The link between organic as a truly believable and important quality distinction has lessened a little bit. As more big players get in the game, that adds to the decline. And the proliferation of processed organic food in the marketplace adds to that as well, since the link between organic and healthy weakens. There are a lot of organic foods out with long ingredient lists. People don’t automatically think that organic equates to better for me. Organic doesn’t necessarily correlate with healthy in the eyes of consumers today.
nbj: So who becomes the arbiter of trust for organics?
AS: Sourcing plays a huge role, and one thing we found is that consumers are increasingly looking towards retailers as docents. If they trust the store, then that trust spreads to the products they sell. If someone is really a devoted Whole Foods shopper, they trust that Whole Foods is going to do the hard work for them.
But consumers do prioritize their organic purchases. So produce, fresh fruits—especially with thin skins, milk, foods that are inherently nutritious and whole—these tend to be the products that consumers see as most important to buy organic and most worth the organic premium. These are the same products where the consumer has to trust the retailer a bit more. You don’t have a box around your apples, so who knows best about the farm where they were grown? The retailer.
nbj: Is Whole Foods still the bellwether here for trust?
AS: Yes, and I do think that consumers trust Whole Foods quite a bit, but a lot of consumers don’t buy their food there. More consumers are buying their organic produce at more mainstream grocery channels, like Safeway and Kroger, as these stores offer more organic products. We often hold Whole Foods up as the gold standard, but a lot of consumers that we talked to feel outside that shopping experience. They don’t feel like they have the means to shop there, and they don’t feel comfortable in that setting. The more that mainstream groceries can offer more high-quality products, especially more natural & organic fresh products, the more they will respond to consumer need.
nbj: We’ve talked about organic. What about natural?
AS: As the meaning of organic becomes more diluted, the meaning of natural is rising in importance. I should clarify a bit—natural as a marketing term is still viewed with suspicion, but natural in terms of fresh, real, less processed is a huge trend that we have been seeing across consumer segments for the last few years. Even if a product is not organic, consumers still want to see cleaner ingredient lists, less processing and more purity. A lot of consumers reported more willingness to buy natural products with a clean ingredient list than organic products that were heavily processed.
nbj: Any insights on genetic modification and labeling thereof?
AS: The labeling issues that are going on around GMOs are definitely testing consumers’ trust. We found a definite, growing awareness around issues concerning GMOs. A lot of consumers don’t like the sound of GMOs at all. They don’t necessarily know what GMO stands for—‘genetically modified what?’—but most consumers are very uneasy about it. They do say they would like to avoid GMOs. They have a difficult time articulating why, but the base of their concern is a fear that these foods are inherently unnatural. They also have the sense that there is a lot of money to be made from GMOs. When companies are silent on the topic or even actively trying to suppress labeling campaigns, our advice is to become part of the conversation. If there’s nothing for people to worry about, then companies need to say so. The silence just fuels consumer concern over these products. Should labeling come to pass, that could certainly affect natural labeling on products. I believe GMO products won’t be allowed to carry a natural label.
nbj: So the great GMO debate is not going away.
AS: People are more aware than ever about the topic, but still quite confused. We advise clients to think about a strategy here. Just trying to suppress the issue is not necessarily a wise, longterm approach for dealing with GMOs. The consumer quotes regarding this issue can be both funny and a little shocking—‘It’s not real. It comes from a Petri dish. People in Africa would rather starve than eat that. Frankenfood.’ Consumers have all these buzz words at hand, but the picture is not fully developed.
nbj: Was anyone in favor of GMOs?
AS: Close. Some people would say, ‘Well, maybe there is some benefit to be had out of this, but we just don’t know. No one has said anything, if there is.’
nbj: Any specific brand insights? Were there brands that consumers associate most with natural & organic?
AS: In the quantitative survey, there were a few brands that came to the forefront but the really interesting insights center around private label. There’s an idea among consumers that private label actually has a higher level of believability than some of the big brands. We asked consumers to compare tomato sauce brands, to say which brands were most believably organic. Trader Joe’s organic pasta sauce came out high on that. Ragu organic pasta sauce came out at the bottom. Even in our previous studies on natural & organic, we found that some of these store products strike consumers as more trustworthy than say, Cheetos Organic.
AS: Yes, there are lots of barriers to overcome.
nbj: Does this distrust of big brands extrapolate beyond natural & organic food?
AS: Yes, that’s one of our big findings. Establishing trusting relationships with consumers is challenging in the current economic climate. This comes up over and over again. We have a population that is bewildered and distrustful of big business and government. This is part of that underlying distrust of the USDA label as well. Consumers really worry that profits are valued above health, and there is increasing blame placed on the food industry for the growth of obesity and diabetes. There’s some hope that these big companies can help alleviate their health concerns by providing better quality products at a price they can afford, but consumers are really struggling to trust in that.