If the term ’organic food’ makes you think of pony-tailed, tie-dye-wearing hippies living on communes, think again. Organic foods have become a dollars 6-billion market in the United States, with annual sales growing at a 20% annual clip in recent years.
If the term ’organic food’ makes you think of pony-tailed,
tie-dye-wearing hippies living on communes, think again. Organic foods
have become a dollars 6-billion market in the United States, with annual
sales growing at a 20% annual clip in recent years.
With the US Department of Agriculture about to finalize rules for
labeling products ’organic,’ US sales are expected to double in the next
PR has played a major role in moving organics from a ’60s hippie niche
to an upscale market. Major organic brands have evolved from farmers or
farmer co-ops selling their products to natural food stores -
essentially taking their foods from field to store shelf - and using PR
in the process.
Such operations, many today doing between dollars 10 million and dollars
70 million in annual sales, never had the budgets for big advertising
Fortunately, they found that the type of upscale, health-conscious
consumer they were trying to reach was often turned off by hard-sell
PR, and the educational opportunities it presented for telling consumers
how organics are grown, proved a highly effective communications tool
for getting their messages out.
As a result, these businesses have built the fundamentals of their brand
identities through PR techniques - using consumer education pamphlets,
Web sites, media placements for stories in gourmet publications and
techniques like recipe contests and other giveaways. They’ve included
message points about the environmental benefits of organic farming and
the lack of pesticides and growth hormones in their products.
PR is a very significant portion of the communications program for
organic companies today, says Jed Buffee, VP of strategic planning with
Gauger & Silva, a San Francisco agency that has done extensive PR and
advertising work for organic companies.
Now, with the USDA offering the first national standards for what can be
called organic, PR is likely to play an even larger roll in expanding
the market, industry players agree.
Buffee’s firm estimates today’s core market of organic consumers to be
between 10 million and 15 million Americans. But it has also identified
another group of 25 million to 30 million consumers who would be likely
to try organic products if they had more information about the
’This group is very information hungry,’ Buffee says. They’re going to
be the major PR battleground for organic farmers and processors.
Invasion of the industry giants
The organic farm crowd won’t be going after that market alone. Major
food industry players such as General Mills, Heinz, Kellogg and others
are buying up established organic companies. But rather than fold those
companies’ brands into some mega-corporate brand, they’re preserving the
organic names and trying to broaden their appeal to mainstream
’It would be silly to change names,’ notes Lisa Bell, a partner in The
Fresh Ideas Group, a three-year-old PR firm in Boulder, CO that’s doing
PR for several organic companies gobbled up by General Mills.
As more organic farmers and processors get bought up by food giants,
remaining independents won’t be able to match their expected major ad
spending. They’ll turn instead to PR as a more cost-effective method to
reach their target audiences, PR and organic farm sources agree. ’We
can’t match their advertising budgets, we won’t even try,’ says Luise
Light, VP of consumer marketing with the New Organic Company in Boston.
But, Light adds, ’there are ways of finding a market and serving a
market’ using PR.
Just ask Amy Barr, VP of communications with Horizon Organic Dairy in
Boulder. With sales of dollars 85 million last year, Horizon has become
one of the major organic brands in the country. Its milk is available
nationally in such chains as Whole Foods, but what helped it get started
in the early ’90s was acceptance in such mainstream California
supermarket chains as Ralph’s and Von’s. Horizon gained that acceptance
by first targeting gourmet publications with its PR efforts. It tried to
appeal to groups turned off by things like growth hormones used to
increase cow milk production.
Horizon, which has a 7,000-head dairy herd in Idaho, doesn’t use such
It’s also been stressing social responsibility, a theme that plays well
with consumers interested in organic products. Horizon has become a
supporter of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland, for example, and
recently took over the former US Naval Academy dairy in Maryland to use
as a PR showplace. It’s set up a visitors’ center there, where it
maintains a 500-head dairy herd on 500 acres of farmland. The company
also uses its Web site extensively to inform consumers about itself and
its milk-producing techniques. ’We truly believe in branding, branding,
branding,’ Barr says.
So does David McCarthy, VP of sales and marketing with Lucille Farms in
Montville, NJ. Lucille Farms makes organic cheeses at its Utah plant,
securing milk from organic dairy farmers. The company is planning a
major PR initiative for its organic cheese. ’The biggest issue has been
the USDA proposal,’ McCarthy says. Many consumers, he believes, ’were
waiting for those rules.’
McCarthy sees his PR efforts starting with food industry trade
Coverage in such media will help the company develop a distribution
network among mainstream supermarkets. Then McCarthy can turn his PR
efforts toward consumers. He expects to not only do media relations but
also work with retailers for event PR tied to in-store promotions and
While farm brands likely won’t matter in processed organic products like
cereals, they probably will in the fresh fruit and produce sections;
organic growers have long branded those products. Indeed, fruit and
produce may be the largest-selling category of organic foods today.
’Fruit and vegetables still are the gateway to organic,’ says Katherine
DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.
Earthbound Farms in San Juan Bautista, CA claims to be the largest
organic lettuce producer in the country and has long branded its
products, notes Fresh Ideas’ Bell, who handles Earthbound’s PR.
Earthbound has used traditional media relations but has also promoted
children’s programming and made children’s CDs available as part of its
PR efforts, she says.
Another California producer, Muir Glen, markets organic tomatoes and
tomato products under its brand name, targeting the gourmet market, says
Bell, who also handles PR for that firm.
Growing into the mainstream
Muir Glen has been bought by General Mills along with Cascadian Farm,
another major organic brand that sells more than 150 items in seven
categories ranging from fruit spread to frozen entrees. (General Mills
actually bought Small Planet Foods, the parent company for those two
brands. Branding work continues to focus on the Cascadian and Muir Glen
When organic producers do use PR, they likely won’t be making health
claims for their products. The USDA rules don’t carry any statements
about organic foods being healthier or more nutritious than non-organic.
Yet consumers often associate organic with healthy. ’That’s when luck is
on your side,’ jokes Jill Adams McDonough, an SVP and deputy general
manager of consumer products at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide.
Edelman isn’t working in the organic area now but is keeping watch,
expecting PR work there to increase as USDA guidelines are
’I certainly think there is opportunity there’ for organic producers to
use more PR as they expand their distribution into mainstream stores,
And while some think it could be as long as two years before organic
producers do more marketing, McDonough and others say they expect to see
things happening long before that. With the USDA’s actions keeping
organic foods in the news, ’you want to seize the opportunity’ to roll
out campaigns, she says. That’s exactly what many organic producers are
hoping to do. Branded bean sprouts anyone?
WHO ARE ORGANIC FARMERS?
If you’re interested in going after PR business from the organic trade,
you first need to know the market.
Organic farming’s first tier is made up of producers who sell directly
to consumer co-ops of 50 to 200 families, says Bob Scowcroft, executive
director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz,
The second tier is composed of larger farms selling their products to
processors and other wholesalers. This level does little branding.
At the highest level of the organic farming food chain are growers
earning between dollars 10 million and dollars 70 million selling
branded products across the country. ’They are very brand conscious,’
According to the Organic Trade Association, California has the highest
number of organic farmers and organic processors. But Texas grows the
most organic fruits and vegetables and the Midwest accounts for the most
organic acreage in the country.
Roughly 6,600 farms across the country have been certified as organic by
one group or another. As many as an additional 15,000 may be doing
organic farming as well.
Promar International, a market research firm in Alexandria, VA,
estimates the retail value of organic sales today at between dollars 5.5
billion and dollars 6 billion and predicts sales will reach dollars 12
billion to dollars 13 billion by 2010.