What’s up with organic food?

Tom Dougherty, CEO – Stealing Share

18 May 2015

The organic food scam

Organic foods have a problem, a perception problem. Many Americans believe organic labeling is a scam, a marketing scheme that gives brands permission to charge higher prices.

That’s the finding in a new research study by Mintel that demonstrates that the organic wave is slowing down as consumers are getting more cynical about what “organic” really means.

What does organic mean?

What does organic mean?

You can see it in the bottom line. Whole Foods, the organic grocery leader, has seen its growth drop from the heydays of 20.4% growth in 2000-2008 to 9.9% last year.

The study backs up those numbers. According to Mintel, more than half of US consumers believe that labeling something organic is “an excuse to charge more” and more than a third (38%) view “organic” as simply a marketing term. Similar numbers show that consumers believe that organic-labeled products are not actually organic.

What is happening here?

There are several facets to all this. For one, as Mintel notes, the organic brands, including Whole Foods, have done a poor job in defining what organic really means. For some of us, we believe organic food is healthier, but we don’t really know nor, it seems, really care.

As sad as it may sound, lower cost trumps the need for healthier food. We are still a country in which we often choose less healthy items over better choices, even knowing that there might be health risks.

Who is the organic food shopper?

There’s another part to this, which I think is the larger issue. Even if you have defined what “organic” means, the consumer reflection of those consumers is not emotional and even seems untrustworthy.

The image of an organic food shopper is something soft and ill defined. It’s food in a hemp tote bag. The brands are too focused on the food and not on the definition of who those shoppers are when they buy organic.

Instead, the marketing is all about the foods and process: What are the good foods to eat, how to prepare them and how to shop for them. There’s very little focused on defining the emotional life of that shopper that would be an attractive aspiration to the target audience.

Organic brands are like any other failing brand, depending on product features and process, which are never enough to overcome price or the emotional brand reflections of non-organic foods.

That leaves shoppers with the idea that, “Hey, it’s just a tomato!” and choosing what they believe is the best tomato. It’s only natural that they then tell themselves that there is an organic food scam because few see themselves in the brands.

If the organic food brands continue to ignore market trends and the ability to tap into the emotional undercurrents of target audiences, “organic” will eventually be seen as nothing more than snake oil.

See more posts in the following related categories: Organic food Whole Foods


  1. David Herrick

    Besides the obvious cost (Whole Foods vs. Trader Joe’s) people want to somehow see tangible proof eating organic food truly makes a difference. Unfortunately – unless you have some hypersensitive immune system that’s been tested with a bout of toxic shock from being “poisoned” from pesticides. (I do know someone personally who has suffered from this issue) It’s a tough sell.

    The town I live in (Montclair NJ) can’t be more hipster if it tried… and it often does try. They are in the process of developing this town into one big “Church Street” (A trendy cobble stoned street that is their answer to “Thaniel Hall”) So the organic theme is perfect for this community. There are also people who are wealthy enough and committed to the cause to support Whole Foods. In fact there is a second one less than 3 miles away in a neighboring town. But this area of the county is certainly not the norm. I can’t imagine anyone in Springfield, Ohio thinking their Upper GI needs this kind of pampering. They would grow their own before they spent a single recycled dollar bill for anything labeled Organic.

  2. Tom Dougherty

    David, I heard a funny comment by Paula Poundstone on NPR. She said that she and a friend went in together on a purchase of a strawberry from Whole Foods. Made me laugh.


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