Shout don’t whisper – organic’s opportunity for continued growth

Shout don’t whisper – organic’s opportunity for continued growth

David Preston is the founder of The Crow Flies - a market research and brand building agency. With almost 30 years of experience in strategy, brand management, research and innovation, we asked for his take on how the COVID-19 pandemic might impact consumer behaviour, and what that might mean for organic businesses. 

Predicting the future 

It’s very tempting during times of hardship and crisis to ask for insight on future consumer behaviour. In truth, it’s a fool’s errand. For many reasons, we put disproportionate emphasis on current events and extrapolate those forward. That’s why we’re seeing all the commentary in the media about how "after the pandemic, everything will change."

No, no, no. It’s virtually certain - based on years of data gathered after recessions going back to the 1920s, and crises such as BSE and Horse Meat - that we will largely revert back to what we were doing before. Our behavioural habits are forged deep into the neural pathways of our brains. We behave the way we do because we’ve found that these behaviours are successful strategies for surviving and prospering. Why change?

If you’re wise, don’t look at what’s going to change; concentrate on what’s going to stay the same.

Take organic: if we look at its market performance we see long term, stable growth. In 12 out of the last 15 years, organic grew, typically by mid-single digits. This is a trend, and I don’t mean this lightly. Too often in business, words are misused. A ‘trend’ isn’t a ‘fad’. Fads are, relatively speaking, fly-by-night. They’re smash-and-grab raids that deliver growth that's rarely sustainable. As people, we support the fad, but its interest quickly wains. Trends are different; they are responses to the changing interactions between people, and also between people and the environment they live and work in. They are ‘stickier’.

For all sorts of reasons, organic is responding to the trends in our society that aren’t going to disappear post COVID-19 lockdown, or post the recession to follow. Compared with 12 years ago, there's a much deeper appreciation of human impact on our climate and our environment. There's a growing awareness of the impact of our food production on our health, on ecosystems, and on the planet, in general. It is, in case we get too excited, still an emerging trend, but it's there, nonetheless; it’s also going to grow – there are plenty of indications that it's accelerating towards a tipping point of broader take up.

You’ll note that were three years of decline and that they followed the last financial recession from 2009 – 2011. Therefore, the question really is: "how does organic ensure that it doesn’t have another interruption in its long period of growth?"

Cut through - don’t be screened out

Research has shown that every single day, we encounter hundreds of pieces of advertising. If we were to consider them all, on top of everything else we have to do in a day, we’d just grind to a stop. Luckily, our brains have a coping mechanism: they screen stuff out.

In order to even be registered, organic brands need to remove complexity and have a very simple, single-minded meaning (what marketeers call ‘positioning’). They need to have a consistent look and feel, and to be consistent with their advertising taglines or communication campaigns. It applies to big brands with big budgets, and even more so to smaller brands with small budgets.

Don’t bamboozle your potential customer with loads of messages; work out which is the most powerful, then go hard on that one. Work out which bits of your brand’s design and communications get noticed and ramp them up.

It’s called ‘reducing cognitive load’. To you and me, that means making seeing and buying your brand or service as simple, easy, and as consistent as it can be. If you want to know how you can help your brand during lockdown, start here.

Don’t box yourself in to smallness, think big and act big

Because a lot of organic brands are small, there’s a tendency to justify the smallness by calling it ‘niche’. "Ah, we’re focused on this sort of consumer, so we only want to be available in farm shops on a Thursday." Well, even if you are successful with this strategy, you’ll soon find that loyal customers are only loyal until they find another brand to switch to. Loyalty exists, but it’s not passionate; it’s quite mundane and habitual; it’s a coping strategy to make decisions easier.

Here’s the thing: no brand is built by having just a few fanatics. You need broad reach. To win, you need more customers, and you need to focus on that task relentlessly - year in, year out.

The pandemic is giving people a great opportunity to try new things. Assuming – and I appreciate that this a big assumption – that you’re not impacted too badly by the supply-side of this pandemic, you’ve got to focus on reaching more customers as soon as we emerge.

  • Broaden your distribution
  • Make sure your business and brand are in shape for online channels
  • Participate in box schemes
  • And get into more shops

Wherever your brand shows up, get creative with trial activity. Then repeat, repeat, repeat. 

Don’t whisper ‘organic’, SHOUT it

After the last recession, retailers cut back on ranges – in some cases, very deeply. Organic came out poorly because back then, it seemed more like a fad; that is to say, many in the organic movement - and indeed some retailers - struggled to articulate what it was about and why it was better. Compare this with ‘Free From’, ‘Healthy Living’, ‘Finest’ or ‘Taste the Difference.' Retailers could grab onto these, confidently knowing that their shoppers would understand them too. Fortunately, ‘organic’ is more clearly articulated and better understood than it was in 2009.

Back then, there was no clear sense of what organic is or what the benefits are - it was loose and general. Unfairly, it was labelled by some as a middle-class indulgence; by others, as something for hessian-wearing hippies.

Now, there’s a simpler architecture of benefits, and there’s a clear link to a shared, bigger picture. Organic is a response you can make to a broken food supply chain. It’s better for you, for animals, for producers and ultimately for the planet.

But the job isn’t done. I still hear some in the organic movement ask for justification or a rationale for why they should put ‘organic’ on the front of pack, or that a certification symbol needs to make way for a benefit claim.

Marketing studies over many years show that usage shapes attitudes, not the other way around. To attract more people to organic, consumers need to see it, consider it, and buy it more often. In the absence of a multi-million pound communication campaign, that can only happen through a concerted effort by everyone in the movement. Don’t whisper organic: SHOUT it.

Read more about the impact COVID-19 is having on the organic market in this Q&A with organic experts; Finn Cottle and Simon Wright