How to Stand Out From the Organic Crowd

Nature's Path Commits to Systems Thinking to Drive Change

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Green marketing has become ubiquitous in our post-"Inconvenient Truth" world, and consumers aren't always buying it. Some consumers simply don't embrace the "the hippie tree-hugger thing"; these consumers aren't the ones we're talking about here -- they may never change their high-fructose corn syrupy ways. No, we're talking about the 20% to 30% of Americans who are health- and wellness-minded and who demand more from the companies they buy from.

This new "conscious consumer," as we've dubbed her here at egg brand development in Seattle, yearns for social and environmental responsibility, wants to wear her values on her organic cotton sleeve and navigates the universe of consumer packaged goods with a heightened awareness of what she's putting in her body and where her dollars are ending up (and yes, she's usually a she). The recent influx of greener options has made her happy, but she's increasingly frustrated by all the "greenwashing" out there and she's become sensitized to companies' often disingenuous attempts to win her dollars by appealing to her green leanings.

So what's a true green-leaning company to do?

Embrace sustainability from the bottom up, and choose your words carefully.

That's what our client -- Nature's Path Organic, North America's largest organic cereal brand -- did when it unleashed its first integrated North American multichannel consumer campaign to promote its flagship cereal, Flax Plus Pumpkin Granola, under the banner of sustainability. Going beyond marketing as usual, it strove for a campaign for a new brand era of authenticity and transparency -- a campaign that could only be run by a company deeply committed to sustainability.

This campaign embraced the idea that a company could and should sell the higher calling of "personal sustainability" through its product -- in this case, great-tasting organic cereal -- thereby making the brand a mouthpiece for the cause of sustainability through its products.

In a cluttered and increasingly competitive natural and organic breakfast cereal category, Nature's Path plays the role of the 100% organic, fiercely independent, sustainability-directed and family-owned David to the publicly held natural Goliaths: Kashi, owned by Kellogg Co., and Cascadian Farms, which is owned by General Mills. Spending for Kashi, with only a handful of organic products in its lineup, was $43 million this year, compared to Nature's Path's $5 million push for this campaign. Because consumers can barely discern the difference between organic and natural in the cereal aisle, an effective underdog strategy is critical.

The natural and organic cereal category is just one area where companies and brands are vying for the attention and brand loyalty of the much-sought-after conscious consumer, for whom social and environmental values have become a determining factor in purchase behavior. Originally defined as "cultural creatives" by market research group LOHAS, conscious consumers make up about one-third of the U.S. population.

Consumers in this space want to be healthier, but they're also part of a bigger, values-based movement that they aren't necessarily aware of and yet are craving. Helping them see how they are a part of something larger is a powerful idea. For this target audience --intelligent, educated, questing and inured to advertising as usual -- marketers need to offer something real if they want to actually connect. It's all about encouraging systems thinking in order to drive change.

A comprehensive brand development process carried out in 2008 by Egg, which specializes in sustainable brands and marketing to the conscious consumer, helped Nature's Path emerge with a thorough understanding of its brand, encapsulated by the tagline, "Eat well. Do good," which, along with the key pillars of taste and health, incorporates the company's fundamental values associated with sustainability. The core component of sustainability for Nature's Path is embodied in its mission to produce only 100%-organic products.

The company's independent status also allows it to extend corporate governance on social and environmental issues beyond what a public company might allow. Jyoti Stephens, the company's sustainability and stewardship manager, recently produced a comprehensive corporate sustainability report.

The highly successful 2008 Toronto test campaign used an integrated approach that activated eco-aware street sampling teams at major mass transit stops to hand out "Buy One, Give One to a Friend" sample bags of the pumpkin granola, combined with transit signs, posters at fitness centers and an interactive microsite.

In this space, when messaging around sustainability, it's important to find just the right presentation of the brand voice. In Nature's Path's case, a sense of humor helped alleviate the cloying earnestness that has become a well-recognized signpost of greenwashing for wary consumers -- with headlines such as "An organic cereal company can't solve climate change, but it can cause cereal change," and "We've found that social and environmental responsibility go particularly well with milk."

Even eight months after the end of the 12-week test campaign, sales were still elevated an astounding 33% in a recession, with the rest of the category falling behind or remaining flat.

This year's North American launch picked up where the Toronto test market campaign left off, reaching across the U.S. and Canada, and geo-targeting Boston, Portland and Vancouver.

Perhaps most important, the agency developed a mnemonic tool so that consumers could remember the brand name Nature's Path, which research had proven not memorable amongst a sea of "Nature's blank" brands -- another problem for all brands in the organic area. Converting a popular allegory heard in focus groups over and over again, which captured the idea of the personal journey and awakening one discovers when starting to become more socially and environmentally aware, the agency created a funky 1970s-revival logo using the words "Get on the Path" in the shape of a bare foot, thereby associating an individual's personal path toward sustainability with the company's mission and its organic cereals.

All advertising encourages consumers to become more sustainable by "getting on the path," no matter where they are in regards to the green movement, by directing them to a website where they can take a quiz to find out where they are on the path, then share their stories there or through Facebook and Twitter.

Vancouver experienced an overall dollar sales increase during the campaign and increased sales up to eight weeks after -- up to 22% compared to the year before. And Portland and Boston also saw sustained sales increases after the campaign -- all this during a downturn for organic and natural cereal, as well as in the midst of a recession when consumers were less likely to pay premium prices (during the same time period, Kashi sales were down 8% to 9%).

The campaign also tested extremely well in focus groups. Participants showed broad acceptance of the term "sustainability," a word that's become increasingly mainstream and would not have resonated with consumers even two years ago. And they expressed warm affinity with the company and the brand based on this approach. In a competitive category, during difficult economic times, for a company with an invisible name and no huge corporate parent, this "sustainability as challenger" strategy is proving to be a powerful one.

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Marty McDonald is founder and creative director and Hilary Bromberg is head of strategy and research for Egg brand development, Seattle.

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