MARKET FOCUS AGRICULTURE: PR serves up organic food - Organic food, once a hippie domain, is now a dollars 6-billion industry, and the food giants have noticed. As John Frank discovers, PR plays a big role in that growth

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.

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,

McDonough notes.

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?


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,’

Scowcroft says.

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.

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