Let’s get down to details

When the big four supermarkets pulled swathes of organic lines from their shelves in the early stages of the 2008 recession they set in train a self-fulfilling prophesy. As organic food sales duly fell away the retail giants could claim that their prediction that shoppers would abandon premium-priced ‘discretionary’ items like organic had been right.

But as the reliably quotable retail analyst Ed Garner noted “it was the supermarkets who panicked, not consumers”. Tellingly, the one supermarket that didn’t slash its organic offer, Waitrose, stole valuable market share from its bigger competitors.

It didn’t seem to matter that many core organic brands also held steady through the recession, all we heard was that ‘shoppers are falling out of love with organic’ or the ‘organic bubble has burst’.

“People like Riverford, Ocado and Planet Organic were actually doing bloody well,” the Soil Association’s director of policy Peter Melchett told me last week, revealing some of the frustration felt inside the organic movement at the time. “We undoubtedly went down too far, and it felt unfair,” he added.

Now organic sales are returning to growth and the whole industry seems buoyed up. At last week’s Soil Association Annual Trade Briefing new data from Nielsen showed that sales of organic food were up 0.6% (year on year to August). But Soil Association licensees saw sales grow by 3.4%, rising to 7.3% in the last three months, and recent data from Kantar showed that some leading organic brands have seen double digit growth.

So last week’s unveiling of a comprehensive set of evidence-based statements about the benefits of organic – all cleared by the ASA’s Copy Advice team – couldn’t have come at a better time. In the past, claims made about organic food have been challenged every step of the way leaving advertisers stuck with a few restrictive statements. The newly agreed statements allow organic businesses to talk confidently about a much wider range of benefits – from avoiding pesticides, to high animal welfare standards; from being environment-friendly to prohibiting routine antibiotics use.

“In recent years, he says, the organic industry has been persuaded to simplify organic benefits to short ‘understandable’ messages. But this reductionist approach denies the complexity – and richness – of organic methods”

Peter Melchett says it’s time to begin a more detailed conversation on organic. In recent years, he says, the organic industry has been persuaded to simplify organic benefits to short ‘understandable’ messages. But this can lead to a reductionist approach that denies the complexity – and richness – of organic methods. “Marketers are always asking ‘what’s the killer blow?’. With organic everything is the killer blow,” says Melchett. And the point is not just a theoretical one. As Riverford founder Guy Watson recently commented “what we’ve found over the years is that the best marketing message is not some slick message, it’s communicating the detail”.

By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.