Thursday, July 16, 2009

Organic Adjustments: Cultivating the Consumer

Everybody adjusts to economic change in different ways. Public advocates from Oprah and Mommy Bloggers to Kraft and your favorite insurance company has suggestions about what you can do to make it through tough times, whether you're just being cautious or facing serious financial cutbacks. One thing that hasn't changed with the economy is the glut of willing advice-givers who'd like to take the place of your local community sage, your grandmother, your priest or rabbi, or your best friend. The diffusions of a global marketplace bring all sorts of goodies to your doorstep (getting tired of pomegranate juice? Get ready for at least a few of the 1,000 varieties of Indian mangoes coming to the American market). At the same time, we're not sure who to trust anymore -- especially when it comes to the food system. Indeed, the growing green and organic movements have always been partly motivated by failures of government and industry safety protocols -- and that certainly hasn't changed. But how to hold onto that steady market and establish your company as a positive force?

According to the Organic Trade Association, "Organic products represent a value to consumers who have shown continued resilience in seeking out these products... This marks another milestone for the organic food market." The spread of organics to private label brands, megastores, and your neighborhood supermarket has meant that consumers can shop around -- and according to new research by JD Power and Associates, they are doing just that. So where are they getting their information? (and, the question that's hard to answer: how are they deciding what's reliable?). Some key possibilities:
  • Blog, blog, blog: it seems like a truism that women in particular are drawn to blogs and other social media as sources of information. There's no shortage of advice about organics on these sites and many of them incorporate a message about the true costs of non-organic foods, the budget-saving aspects of cooking with natural foods (despite, of course, the reality that organics are still priced premium), and savvy shopping and cooking techniques (which, in fact, are the best way to "work around" the pricing issue). The Big Green Purse and other mom-friendly websites do eco-friendly product evaluations in a chatty but knowledgeable style.
  • Corporate websites that give good basic information along with marketing promotions. Stonyfield Farms Yogurt is my favorite example of this: people go to their site for facts as much as they go for the coupons (I'm not the only one, I discovered!). Other websites are repositories of information, especially if the product is marketed entirely on its organic pedigree. Swanson vitamins sells only through a catalogue and online, but has weekly health research articles, an informational blog, and indexical information about supplements and natural ingredients.
  • Your friendly neighborhood university or academic publication. The internet has opened up all sorts of information to the public access. People are as likely to check out first hand sources as they are to repeat what they heard on the news. Institute websites, press releases, public lectures, and even alumni publications are hot to capture the knowledge market. And even better if your audience is women: Vassar's Alumni magazine had a recent feature on avoiding unseen toxins; Smith and Mt Holyoke have featured "food issues" of their quarterly publications.
  • In-store media is a successful, but often under (or badly) utilized source of information. Supermarkets are a mixed bag for consumers, often providing a glut of advertisements and enticements without critical distinction, but they do offer the most direct place where consumers make decisions. In-store media -- especially cooking demos and tailored local content -- still stands somewhat apart from endless coupons, circulars, and print media that swallow the shopper.
According to a Packaged Facts market research report from last fall, "one lesson to be learned, that is both obvious and elusive, is that innovation and integrity are both critical to this market. This report shows how successful companies have created a mirror representing the values and demands of natural/organic consumers."

image: Vassar Alumni Quarterly (click here for more info on the toxins numbered)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Learning to Live with Frugality

We’re far enough along in the economic downturn for there to be a glut of ad campaigns aimed at the thrifty consumer. From Wal-Mart and Target to Virgin Mobile and Kraft, creative copy is being funneled into the contradictory practice of getting conserving consumers to, well, consume. Most approach it as a "trust me, we’ve got bargains" line of reasoning. Some, like the recent "don’t feed the pig" campaign for tourism in Finland, have a screw-the-recession ethos that may be appealing but ultimately no more or less effective (because, after all, if you haven’t got it to spend, you haven’t got it). Although very few companies follow it, the basic principle during downturns is that steady or increased advertising (no matter what kind) almost always works.

Since as early as last fall, market analysts and consumer behavior specialists have been tearing up the population segments, scrutinizing up and down to make prognostications (is "the new frugality" temporary? Widespread? A long term trend?) designed to keep companies afloat and ahead of the game. As Tessa Wegert of ClickZ put it,

According to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive and commissioned by online coupon site RetailMeNot, consumers are likely to cut their budgets during an economic recession but will continue to spend if provided with discounts. They're also just as likely to look to the Web for deals as they are to stores. In response, consumer marketers are focusing their most recent ad campaigns not just on the bargains they're able to offer but also on the economic value they can deliver at a time when the country's acutely aware of what it's spending and where. Ads that take a decidedly cash-conscious spin are cropping up on television, in print, and of course, online. While a drop in sales is certainly cause for worry for many consumer good producers, a quick glance at the history of our culture says we’re a long way away from the death of consumerism.
Journalist Lauren Weber takes a more nuanced approach in her forthcoming book, In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood Virtue. Looking back through American history, Weber finds a deep ambivalence about spending and saving running through our culture, from Ben Franklin to John Maynard Keynes, Booker T. Washington to freegans and eco-conscious conservationists. While advertising, object obsolescence, and status issues certainly contribute to American’s lack of frugality, Weber reminds us that there are plenty of other factors at work here (deregulated markets, stagnating wages, inequality, and financial illiteracy among them). The key point here is that thrifty impulses wax and wane and co-exist with more expansive attitudes about consumption.

Many current marketing pitches have a bit of a frantic edge, hinting that the world might crumble if consumers don’t buy the new improved frugal (or anti-frugal) message. There's always some consumer disbelief when marketers are pushing virtuous spending. One of the reasons green campaigns have remained successful is the impression that there’s positive embedded in the potentially negative –the pleasure of getting something that also gives back mitigates the pain of paying. In the end, we’re still all consumers – the question for us and for marketers remains, what kind of consumers do we want to be?

pig image: Finnish ad campaign featured on NPR's Planet Money