In recent shop-along research, consumers were asked about their perception of the term “regenerative agriculture.” Unsurprisingly, some reactions were, “that sounds nice, but I have no idea what that means.” When they were asked what they thought the term meant, they responded with guesswork, such as, “making the land more efficient,” “making farming more sustainable” and “making an old, overused piece of land flourish again.”
While these are not the best responses, and certainly not what most regenerative farmers want to hear, it could be worse. The reality is, even educated consumers have a hard time grasping what regenerative agriculture means. It’s difficult for non-farmers to understand topics such as soil health, habitat recovery, nutrient density, crop rotation and carbon sequestration.
At its core, the term “regenerate” means to restore to a better state. Those who practice the regenerative approach say regenerative agriculture applies to soil, the farm, the farmers and the communities around the farm. Now, every farm is different, and that means that each farm’s practices of regenerative agriculture are going to vary depending on what crop they grow, what livestock they raise, what type of environment they’re in, the weather, etc.
Farms and brands that produce products using a regenerative model do not necessarily need consumers to understand all the details, but consumers do need to value the process enough to pay more for it. Until consumers value regenerative agriculture, it’s not a sustainable business model. And if people are not willing to pay for it, no one will adopt the regenerative approach.
The current conventional, monoculture farming system is breaking. It is fighting against nature instead of trying to coexist with nature. It’s not healthy, it’s not sustainable and farmers are not profiting from it. At the same time, shoppers are already conditioned to expect low prices; they expect products to come fast, cheap and easy. It’s sad, but most consumers simply don't know better.
The Global Animal Partnership, a labeling program for higher animal welfare, is certifying many meat products, such as Atkins Ranch lamb, in stores such as Whole Foods Market. Even though most shoppers (meat eating shoppers, that is) claim to care about animals, it’s still a challenge to get them to care enough to spend more on meat products that come from animals who lived a better life. The same applies for other labels and product attributes as well. The food industry is gradually trying to train consumers that the best-quality, healthiest foods are worth paying more for.
Currently, some of the companies leading the charge in terms of the transition to a regenerative, holistic, polyculture model include: Hormel’s Applegate brand, White Oak Pastures, Epic Provisions, Organic Valley and General Mills’ Annie’s brand. Epic Provisions is a mission-based snack brand that debuted the first product to feature the science-based Land to Market™ Ecological Outcome Verification™(EOV™) seal from The Savory Institute. The Land to Market program is the first verified regenerative sourcing solution for the food and fiber industries. The program was developed by The Savory Institute, an organization dedicated to the regeneration of the world's grasslands through holistic management.
Get consumers to care
Brands should use a public relations approach that includes a heavy focus on working with influencers coupled with traditional editorial coverage with top-tier media.
Manuka honey from New Zealand offers a good example of such an effort. Manuka honey is in a completely different league than typical table honey. Education is needed before people are willing to pay US$40 for a Manuka honey product over a $5 honey bear product. Consumers need to understand that Manuka is a super food, and that it can be applied topically to treat skin issues like burns, as well as taken by the spoonful as a health supplement. Manuka honey is currently seeing a surge in popularity that has built up in the past few months.
Many shoppers will say they first learned about Manuka honey from seeing an influencer on Instagram promote it, or from news media like mindbodygreen.com, goop.com or in the New York Times. Few shoppers are extremely knowledgeable about Manuka, but they have learned just enough information from the influencers or media to value the product enough to buy it.
Consumers will spend more on premium products, despite not knowing a great deal about what makes them better. It’s as though seeing an influencer promote something means it must be good enough for them. Similarly, this level of trust is common with some grocery retailers in the natural channel. I often have shoppers tell me that they inherently trust the store where they shop (like ThriveMarket.com, Sprouts or Fresh Thyme), leaving them to generally feel good about the products on their shelves because they perceive it to have met the given retailer’s high standards.
Fair enough–people are busy. Usually, they aren’t willing to invest much time into learning about different product categories. In fact, most tend to pick a top three causes about which they are most passionate. They may still want to buy the best or healthiest in the other product categories too, but are just not willing to take the time to learn all the details about everything they buy.
The right influencers, though, can get consumers to care. For regenerative agriculture, brands should start with consumer communities that are already primed to understand and appreciate the concept. They should partner with influencers who cover topics related to caring for the planet, such as:
- Climate change
- Zero waste
- Land degradation
- Healing the planet
- Sustainable agriculture
- Eliminating landfills
- Natural and organic lifestyle
- Healthy pregnancy and new mothers
- New parents
If companies can show influencers–preferably first-hand, in-person on the farm–how they are taking steps toward regenerative practices and trigger a sense of urgency as to why it’s so important to start doing this now, they can serve as echo chambers to reach the type of consumers who are most likely to care.
Lisa Mabe is CEO of Green Purse PR, a boutique research and public relations (PR) consultancy based Washington. She is an award-winning expert with recognized expertise in marketing to women, shopper research and social communications. Mabe conducts research and directs marketing communications for companies keen to understand and connect with health-conscious female consumers. She has more than 14 years of experience working with companies around the world, such as KeHE Distributors, Saffron Road, OBE Organic and Edible Arrangements. Follow Mabe on Twitter at @LisaMabe and follow her blog, #GetInHerCart, for more marketing to women insight.