Mass Marketing the Message of Organic:
OTA’s New Campaign to Create Conscious Consumers
An Interview with the Organic Trade Association’s New Executive Director, Christine Bushway, and Marketing Director, Laura Batcha.
One of the biggest challenges in the organic industry is communicating three words to the consumer: “What is organic?” Although organic has had double-digit growth for the past 10 years, and consumers know of some of the benefits, many consumers still don’t fully grasp what “organic” encompasses.
But the organic industry has a great story to tell—and it’s time to get that story out to mainstream America and bring about a new era of conscious consumerism. To do this, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) is launching the most aggressive marketing campaign in its history. Leading this launch is OTA’s new executive director, Christine Bushway, hired in September 2008 and marketing director, Laura Batcha, also brought on this past year.
This dynamic duo brings together many strengths. Bushway has over three decades of experience in the food industry, with a leadership background that includes serving as the CEO of an agricultural trade association, working as a chief Washington lobbyist for the egg industry, and most recently helping launch the “Incredible, Edible Egg” campaign as the director of state programs for the American Egg Board. She has also owned her own advertising, public relations and marketing agency and served as a spokesperson on television, radio and in print on issues ranging from nutrition and food contamination to production. Batcha’s background is similarly impressive, including seven years working with Tom’s of Maine, most recently as the company’s director of grass roots strategy and development. She has also owned and operated an organic herbal product business.
Now the two are working together to bring the organic message to the masses. Bushway and Batcha took some time to chat with Organic Processing about their marketing strategy and more.
OP: You mentioned that there is a lot of confusion among consumers today about organic and that the role of this campaign is to set the record straight and help consumers make the educated choice. What specific things do you plan to address?
Bushway: Well, there’s an upside and a downside to the confusion. We wouldn’t have consumer confusion if we didn’t have so much interest in organic. Two-thirds of American consumers buy organic products at least occasionally and they are demanding more from their product choices. We have a much more educated consumer who really wants information and we in the organic industry need to provide it.
The fact is that there are still many consumers who don’t know what “organic” really means. In the 2008 Hartman Group study, The Many Faces of Organic, consumers were asked: “When selecting foods and beverages to purchase, how important are the following labels and phrases to you?” In the ranking, USDA Organic comes in ninth in terms of importance, but six out of the eight attributes that were ranked higher—such as no hormones, no harmful pesticides, processed naturally and no synthetic fertilizers—are all part of the foundation of the organic regulation. Clearly, there is still much more education that needs to be done.
Another message consumers need to hear more about is the integrity of the organic standards. We need to make sure that the consumer understands the standards and how they’re applied in the production of the food. Organic is the most regulated food supply out there. These regulations ensure the integrity of our products and consumers need to be aware of this.
Batcha: As Christine said, the primary purpose of this campaign is to address the question, “What is organic?” What does it mean and why can I trust it? So it’s about building consumer confidence in organic products. That’s the primary communication objective, and then we have secondary objectives that focus on the environmental benefits of organic. Specifically, we’re focusing on communicating those environmental benefits in a way that is compelling on a personal level, so that our communication isn’t academic in nature or too theoretical, but instead is motivating to the individual.
OP: Christine, you were key in the Incredible, Edible Egg campaign which helped reposition eggs as part of a healthy diet. Are there lessons that you learned during that campaign that you can use to help make this campaign successful?
Bushway: The biggest message I can pass on is that you absolutely must educate the consumer. I was brought on at the very beginning of the egg campaign and at that point in time, the product had been really battered in the media and consumption had been consistently dropping. It was a basic commodity and producers felt the demand would always be there, but then the cholesterol issue raised its head. For a long time, there was a very simple—but decidedly flawed—preception that if you simply eliminated eggs from your diet, you eliminated heart disease.
So the industry had to fund research and educate the consumer about its findings. And over time, just as organic is evolving, the message evolved, the consumer became more educated and the message was fundamentally cleared up. The biggest impact for coronary artery disease was saturated fat in the diet, not cholesterol from eggs. We even saw the American Heart Association come around on that. Now you have an egg industry where consumption has been rising and people have a much better understanding. This fits very nicely with organic because as the consumer becomes better educated and understands the benefits of organic products, they will be a better consumer.
OP: You’ve said this is going to be a fully integrated advertising and marketing campaign. Can you tell us about what this entails?
Batcha: We have multiple components of the campaign. Consistent across all the components would be the communication objectives—focusing on the meaning of organic, why consumers can trust it and making the benefits compelling to each individual. We’ll have a focused consumer public relations and advertising campaign around these objectives. We also have cooperatively branded marketing programs. As an extension of our “Go Organic for Earth Day” retail campaign in the spring, we’ll be launching a fall back-to-school campaign.
The advertising campaign is going to be primarily internet-based and there are a few reasons behind that. Number one is that the internet is a medium well-suited for our consumer. Christine talked about how information-hungry our consumer is and with the internet format, you have the opportunity to create an impression which is compelling through the brand-style advertisements, then you can link through micro-websites that provide the full story for the consumer. It’s a really good medium for our industry. We’re looking at working with major online newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times in key markets across the country.
We are also looking at a radio component to the back-to-school program in the fall. However, the internet is really the best in terms of “bang for the buck.” It has the highest reach and we can deliver the full message targeted to our audience. And, because organic consumers are information-intensive, they are more likely to get their information online than the general population.
OP: What major changes will OTA be making on the consumer website during this campaign? You also have big plans for taking advantage of the Web 2.0 tools including blogging, correct?
Batcha: One thing we’re looking at is making the website more appealing to a broader audience, beyond just the core organic consumer. We want to use technology to make the website more visible, but we also want to bring in more interactive tools onto the website. This includes Web 2.0 tools that will allow us to poll consumers about their opinions of the organic system.
One of the first things we’ve done is create a bi-monthly blog watch. We’re tracking and monitoring all of the online conversation regarding organic and we’re digesting that data and sharing it with our membership so they can see where the conversation is happening, what consumers are interested in and what blogs are discussing organic most often. Also, as we monitor these blogs, if we come across instances where there is misinformation, we post clarifications. We do this multiple times a week.
In the first quarter of the year, we’ll be launching an industry-oriented blog from OTA. There’ll also be a blog on the consumer website, which will give another opportunity for interactivity. We already host a blog for college students called “Organic in the Green,” which looks at bringing organic products onto college campuses. It’s become quite popular. An OTA intern, who’s a student at Colgate University, facilitates the blog. There’s been great coverage of the blog from other publications. It’s emerging as a real place for discussion on college campuses about sustainable choices, with representatives from at least 25 different universities that regularly post comments and articles onto the blog about efforts that they’re undertaking on their campuses.
One of the neat things about blogs and having this kind of ongoing stream of conversation is that they’re focusing on creating change on their campuses. They highlight what works and what doesn’t work in terms of getting support for the introduction of organic products into the cafeterias, or in the form of organic t-shirts and sweatshirts for the university stores. The blog is going to spin off into a guide for how to go organic on college campuses, which is going to be published very soon.
Bushway: College students, of course, are our future, long-term consumers. They’re young and many of them will have children. We know their interest is key for us, so it’s great to be reaching them this way. It also gives organic another voice of authenticity.
OP: You plan on reaching 25 million consumers in 2009 alone; how do you plan to maintain this momentum?
Bushway: One of the things I said when I was being considered for this position is that marketing is not an option; marketing is a line item in your budget. Coming from an advertising and marketing background, I have seen how campaigns like this can dramatically help the agricultural and food industries. Plus, our membership has told us this is a huge issue for them. I think the important message here is that this marketing effort isn’t a one-time thing, this is just getting our toe in the water.
OTA is looking at marketing as a strategic priority going forward. It needs to be a part of the way we do business as a trade association.
OP: OTA is also planning to reach out through in-home consumer parties and large-scale demonstration events. Can you talk about this more?
Batcha: We’re looking at ways to create an opportunity for organic products and the organic message to be experienced in a more intimate environment and to take advantage of the power of the word-of-mouth.
For example, with the back-to-school program, we’re looking at working with parent groups and providing information packets or guides to get them engaged in authentic choices in their children’s schools. We want to provide that information to small groups of people with a high level of interest and give them an opportunity to take action.
On the other end of the spectrum, we are also planning large-scale demonstration events in Chicago in conjunction with the All Things Organic trade show this June. Before the trade show, we will be doing consumer events and sampling in the Chicago market.
There are three potential elements to the program. One is a standalone event that is fully focused on organic. Families can experience organic products and kids can learn about organic production in an interactive, fun agricultural area.
The second option is to provide organic sampling and education at existing attractions in Chicago like the zoo or other places where families gather. The third component would be guerilla sampling, which would be mobile and targeted, featuring street teams with backpacks and such.
OP: You’ve also mentioned something called an “input almanac.” Can you please tell us about this?
Batcha: This is a tool the industry can use to educate consumers. The almanac is a compilation of data regarding the chemical inputs that have not been released into the environment as a result of organic production and product sales.
For example, it might say something like, “As a result of the sale of X organic products in the U.S., X number of tons of pesticides and fertilizers have not been released into the environment in 2008.”
Because it’s going to be linked to our Manufacturer Survey, it can be broken up by category. It can also be forecasted into the future. We’re starting with basic inputs, focusing the first year around pesticides, and then we can expand that to include other practices related to organic that people care about, like carbon sequestration or animal welfare.
OP: Do you have any advice for what organic companies can do to help with this campaign and spread the message?
Bushway: My advice, even during these unprecedented economic times, is to focus more efforts on marketing and consumer education. With all of the new products on the grocery store shelves each year, an informed consumer is the best insurance for the well-being of the organic industry.
Also, by joining OTA you get the most current updates and have the chance to be more actively involved in events. Other than that, my best advice for our membership and the organic community as a whole is to make sure directory listings with OTA’s organic pages online and export directory are up-to-date. We will be focusing on driving more traffic to these websites. The export website is maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so it’s open to non-members and members alike. We encourage everybody to make sure that their listing is current.
OP: Christine, as the new executive director of OTA, what other goals do you have for the organic industry?
Bushway: Well, being involved in policy has always been very important to OTA and we see that continuing to grow. This includes government relations work, dealing with the regulatory agencies and members of Congress. We have a policy conference here in Washington every year, when our members come and visit their representatives as constituents.
Policy continues to be a huge issue because so much of it impacts our industry. We’re hearing about changes such as a new food safety regulatory agency. Being involved in things like this is going to take on even greater importance in the future.
I also want to stress that OTA is not just food and agriculture, we represent the organic personal care industry and the organic fiber industry as well. We will be expanding our efforts to work with those groups and continue to look for ways to assist them in standards development by providing forums to bring them together on issues that impact their business growth and well-being.
Lastly, I’d like to add that it has been really great that so many people in the industry—not just board members, but even non-members—have taken time to call or send me an email and share their thoughts and input. I want to encourage that. I want people to realize I have an open door and I’m always happy to hear from them.