How to market organic

How to market organic

Darren Mahaffy is the vice president of marketing for Nature’s Path, a leading manufacturer of organic foods. The company is family owned and operated, successful in both natural and mass channels, and a visible advocate for sustainability across any number of controversial issues, including GMO labeling. NBJ spoke with Mahaffy from his offices in Richmond, British Columbia, just outside of Vancouver.

nbj: Tell us a little bit about your career before Nature’s Path.

Darren Mahaffy: I started off at Procter & Gamble, and have since worked for Tropicana, Campbell Soup and Gillette. I ended up back at P&G when Gillette was reacquired by P&G, and then I worked at Weston Bakeries, Canada’s largest mass bakery business. So, entirely in packaged goods and also entirely in Canada.

nbj: What drew you to Nature’s Path?

DM: If I look back on my career, it includes personal care and beauty products along with food. That health and food combination, that nexus, is right where Nature’s Path sits. You meet Arran, Ratana, Arjan and Jyoti, and the family has such a clear vision of where they want to take the company. Being the person responsible for telling the myriad of stories here is a pretty intriguing job.

nbj: You mentioned Arran Stephens’s vision. How important is that authenticity to your marketing strategy?

DM: It makes a lot of marketing decisions really easy. You can go back to that authenticity and say, ‘Does this fit with what we believe in? Yes it does, or no, it does not.’ Okay, there’s your answer. True authenticity eliminates a lot of gray area.

nbj: Does smart marketing still tell a story around the brand, or does it let the brand be that story. Is it that simple?

DM: It’s not enough to say that you’re doing good. You have to show people, because if you don’t, they will call you out. But there are so many messages out there that if you don’t develop a way in which you can communicate the things you are doing, you may be the only one who knows. I think GMOs are a good example of what we want people to know. What we are doing, along with a number of other committed and forward-thinking companies, is creating a message that consumers see from multiple touch points so that it sinks in deeper than it would if we were just doing it on our own.

nbj: When you first landed in the organic industry, what did you think of the quality of its marketing?

DM: The first thing that you notice is, with the exception of some brands that have been acquired by some big companies, the market­ing budgets are small. That’s because, in general, the brands are still small too. You see a lot more people being smart with their money. The first default in traditional packaged goods is still TV. TV still has the easiest, best, least expensive reach for any medium, but it’s still a very expensive medium for a given message. Organic, by necessity, relies more on things like PR and social media.

nbj: Is the marketing talent migrating from conventional industry to natural & organic?

DM: You certainly see lots of people in senior marketing roles in the industry whose background isn’t in natural & organic. It’s New York City, or it’s P&G or Kraft or Nabisco. The tools that those companies use are valid and valuable, and natural & organic players realize they can use those skill sets in a way that is still consistent with the ethos of their business. PR may work great for a company that has a great story to tell in a way that would never work on a brand in a big com­pany that doesn’t have a good story to tell. The tactics and the execu­tion may vary, but the understanding of how to build the business in a meaningful way—that translates very easily from one industry to the next.

nbj: Where are all the pro-organic commercials?

DM: I think what keeps natural & organic brands from being able to use TV, particularly in the U.S., is cost. It costs a lot of money to put a TV ad together. It costs a lot of money to buy a media plan that is meaningful. We have a lot of social and environmental stories to tell but TV, for me, is about driving new people to my brand. Nature’s Path does do TV but the focus of my message in those ads is taste. How great does my product taste?

nbj: So how do you deliver the mission message?

DM: That story may be better told in social media, digital media or on the web, or in a book from your founder, or in other places where the consumer can find the message in more detail and on their own time. So, you make a video for Youtube that expounds on your cor­porate social responsibility message for three minutes, rather than for a 30 second TV ad. I think the messages are just as relevant and the consumer will find them just as compelling, but you have to match the media to the depth of the story that you need to tell. TV doesn’t generally work for a story that is deeper than “it tastes great because it has these great ingredients.”

nbj: How effective is the social message when it gets through?

DM: If people weren’t interested in the benefits that a product brings, beyond the … let’s call it functional benefits—taste for food, style for clothing—they wouldn’t return to that product again because, in gen­eral, our industry’s products trade at a higher dollar amount. So, the consumer has to be interested or we wouldn’t be growing as we are.

nbj: Can companies like Gillette or Pepsi or General Mills create a social responsibility message that resonates?

DM: We can always find examples. I worked on the Pur water fil­tration system. That’s a big North American brand, but they real­ized that the technology behind the product could do great things for water in third world countries. But no one was ever going to be able to pay for it. Rather than try and figure out how to make money in third world countries, they figured out how to take money out of the North American business and give people the technology in third world countries to make their lives better. But that’s not the norm. That’s the outlier, whereas within our industry, I think that is much closer to the norm.

nbj: How concerned are you over bastardization of the label ‘natural’?

DM: There is no official definition for ‘natural’. A company that claims its products are natural has a couple of very mi­nor restrictions around additives and pre­servatives but beyond that, anything goes, whereas organic has many defined restric­tions and requirements. The challenge is, of course, that the consumer doesn’t see it that way. Our biggest opportunity is to help the consumer understand that only organic pro­vides those benefits. The burden for that, to get that done, is both a company burden and an industry burden. If you hear a consistent message over and over again, from a variety of sources, it is more likely to be understood and valued.

nbj: Nature’s Path has been a very vocal critic of GMOs. Has there been fallout from that?

DM: There certainly was when he started. Retailers would push back. They would say ‘This label that says non-GMO? Get it off your packaging.’ We ended up winning. Frankly, most of those customers have come around to see the value of the Non-GMO Project label.

nbj: Is fear a smart way to market against GMOs?

DM: I think there is a nuanced answer here. For brands, you don’t generally lead with fear. There are certainly products out there that can do that successfully, but they tend to be safety products. I don’t think you lead with fear as a brand in food, but you can, and perhaps should, lead with fear as an industry. The more you get into fear, the less the consumer remembers that your product tastes good and that’s still the thing that they care about.

nbj: How about another industry threat—consolidation in the hands of larger CPGs.

DM: The critical thing is that the acquiring company keeps the ethos of that smaller brand. That’s what made it successful in the first place. If you change that, with social media being what it is, the consumers who were loyal to that brand will punish you. If I were advising some of the large CPGs, I would say, ‘Look, those smaller brands are great brands, but you have to let them run the way they run, not the way you run everything else. I think Stonyfield sets a good example here.

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