A New Tack for 'Natural'

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Whose advice would you take when looking for a multivitamin supplement: an advertiser's, your doctor's, or your mother's? For most consumers, the doc wins out, according to a new study conducted by Bellevue, Washington-based marketing consultancy group Hartman & New Hope. Mom comes in a close second, but advertising scores lowest. This and other findings in Hartman's three new surveys, which elicited responses from more than 40,000 consumers, suggest that brand recognition of "natural products" should be handled differently than in most marketing campaigns.

Natural products-a phrase encompassing vitamins, minerals, herbal supplements, household products, and health and beauty aids-are bought by 68 percent of American consumers, many of whom see themselves as being involved in an alternative lifestyle, the survey says. But the wedding between lifestyle and brand hasn't happened for most consumers: brand recognition among natural-products consumers is very low. In the vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements category, only two companies rated high recognition and trust: Centrum, with 18 percent recognition, and Bayer, with 11 percent. All other brands, such as GNC and Walgreen's, rated less than 7 percent recognition.

Forty-six percent of consumers who buy in this category switch products frequently, and are more likely to purchase a product based on the way it is displayed or on its price. "Consumers of natural products are participating in an entire lifestyle. In some cases, they're not even sure what the product will do, but they say, 'I want this as part of my lifestyle,'" says Hartman & New Hope president Harvey Hartman. "The job for marketers is to create that lifestyle." That is, if they hope to increase their share in what Hartman estimates to be a $14.8 billion market.

From in-depth interviews with 50 respondents in four cities who already buy natural products, Hartman arrived at three key elements that comprise the naturalist lifestyle: wellness, authenticity, and a search for differentiation. "From a brand standpoint," says Hartman, "authenticity is the trust I have in that brand. I know that it's going to do what it says it's going to do." But since many respondents base their purchases on what is available in their preferred place to shop, Hartman says retailing is ultimately more important than branding. "When you go into a store, the experience is visual," he says. "It creates an entire environment. What this means for brand managers is that where their product is sold is extremely important."

The study found that consumers often started shopping at alternative stores like Wild Oats or Whole Foods, and then began to buy more and more natural products. As one female respondent in her 40s explained, "If I didn't have that grocery store, I think I'd be a bit more hard-pressed to buy all this stuff and buy as much of it. It's all right there. It's like a regular grocery-store experience."

One of the few brands that doesn't depend on the store experience for recognition is Tom's of Maine, which falls into the health-and-beauty-aids category. Respondents remember Tom's toothpaste because of its "curious" flavor. The packaging also sets Tom's products apart from its mainstream competitors. The cartons are made of recycled paper, printed in pastel colors, and no glitter is used. These qualities differentiate the product line from its non-natural counterparts, endowing the brand with a "differentness" prized by natural-products consumers.

Melissa Skelton, officer of consumer and brand development at Tom's, attributes the company's success to its mixed product-and-values message, which is targeted at the "cultural creative": someone in an urban area with a higher income and better education than the average consumer. "It's not so much a group with a particular demographic skew as one with particular attitudes, a particular outlook on the world. And we offer them contact with an entire community." For example, some toothpaste packages contain a pamphlet on the Jane Goodall Institute, to which Tom's contributes a dollar if the buyer returns a response card. A recent print campaign also tapped into the values message: In it, the earth is drawn in toothpaste, with the tag line: "Tom's protects more than just your teeth."

Skelton agrees that the success of marketing natural products lies in tapping into consumers' desire for an alternative, but she does point out that Tom's recognition has a lot to do with the fact that it's been around for 28 years, and that it has a larger ad budget-$4 million a year-than most other natural product companies.

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