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Fear Drives Organic Marketing Success


I have often said that, if you want to sell a food product, just put the word “organic” or “Amish” on it. Food marketers have been doing this for decades with great success. But research now indicates that different words on food products are having a more significant impact on consumer buying decisions. Unlike the positive connotations that Amish and Organic have, the new words play to the fears and the misinformation that consumers have.  In addition, efforts are underway to mandate the use of these negative messages on all food products.


At this point, let me state I am not against organic agriculture or people who farm organically. My issue is with the way some organic products are marketed and promoted. The “Organic Marketing Report” found no scientific consensus to prove the organic marketing industry’s claims that organic food is more nutritious and safer than traditional food. The report reviewed more than 200 published studies from 1990 – 2014 as well as sales trends.


What I found to be more disturbing are the findings that indicate what messages are impacting and motivating food buyers today. The study found three reasons why consumers purchased organic foods: personal health, food safety concerns, and absence claims (i.e. pesticide free, no GMOs, hormone and antibiotic-free). It was also found that organic labels do not compel consumers to purchase organic products unless the label contains absence claims or related packing callouts that imply health or safety related concerns.  “In other words, fear sells,” says Joanna Schroeder, who presented the research findings to the Western Plant Health Association annual meeting in Palm Desert, California.


Schroeder explained, in terms of organic marketing, success has come from capitalizing on food health scares. The industry has also targeted expectant mothers with the message that the food they are eating could harm their child, but that eating organic would help ensure a healthy baby. “Once the mother moved to organics and her child grows, the fear-based marketing moves along with the growth of the child,” stated Schroeder. 

Schroeder was critical of the way the food industry has responded, “The ‘traditional’ or ‘conventional’ ag industry has spent countless hours on the defensive refuting these messages rather than being on the offensive and engaging consumers in its own, positive message communications campaign.”


She advocated a more inclusive approach for food marketing, “Ultimately, if the traditional ag industry is going to see some positive traction among consumers, they need to change their view from ‘us against them’ to ‘it will take all types of agriculture working together to provide a safe and healthy food supply for nine billion people.’ There must be a holistic discussion around sustainable agriculture, not a fragmented conversation.”


While this sounds nice, it is unrealistic when the organic and anti-GMO groups are trying to legislate mandatory negative food labels. The culture of fear that surrounds our food today is making millions for some, while confusing and misleading consumers.  I find it a bit ironic that the groups who  denigrate big food companies as being greedy and self-serving, are themselves making millions by fear mongering and misrepresenting their products’ benefits.


by Gary Truitt