The Trouble with Marketing Natural Foods

marketingnaturalIt’s widely recognized that consumers are seeking more “green” options, from organic produce to low-footprint proteins. Retailers are stocking more of these products, making the sector one of the fastest-growing areas of the food business for farmers, distributors, and retailers alike. It’s a good time to be selling anything perceived to be green, and companies that haven’t done so historically are getting into the game, including major multinational corporations.

In the midst of all this market growth, however, the label claim “natural” has fallen on hard times. Food Dive presents “the case against all-natural” with a list of five costly lawsuits in which food companies were penalized and forced to alter labeling for “natural” claims that the court deemed spurious. Meanwhile, Consumer Reports has begun promoting a campaign aimed at banning the term from food labels altogether. The primary concern in marketing natural foods is the absence of a federally mandated definition of “natural,” which could deceive consumers into thinking that foods are more healthy than they really are. Since every food company can define the term in its own way—and they do—it’s easy to understand why customers would be confused and why consumer trust in the term is dropping.

Natural foods companies aren’t taking this lying down. The Natural Products Association, or NPA, which has represented the trade since 1936, responded to Consumer Reports by calling for the FDA to define the term rather than ban it. For its part, the NPA provides a certification program and defines natural products as “those formulated without artificial ingredients and . . . minimally processed.” However, it’s safe to say that consumers aren’t widely aware of that definition.

This leaves producers who think their foods merit the term “natural” in a difficult marketing situation, especially if they haven’t elected to certify as organic or pursue other tangible label claims. Until such a time as the FDA defines “natural,” we think it’s wise to avoid claiming that your products are “all-natural” or “natural,” even if they meet a real but little-known definition like the NPA’s. However, you still need a way to signal to customers that your product has those sustainable, healthy qualities that consumers prize. How to do that?

You have a number of options, ranging from emphasizing the health claims you have to conducting a robust transparency campaign aimed at connecting consumers to the origins of your product. Many green brands have staked their brand on educating the consumer about the sources of their products, and that remains an effective strategy. Eco-conscious consumers feel an obligation to understand the origins of their food, so transparency can help you overcome the ineffectiveness of a once-powerful label claim like “all-natural.”

Natural products receive more scrutiny than almost any other foods, precisely because of the value they claim to offer consumers through health and sustainability. With that increased attention comes an increased burden on your marketing and a need to make sure that all your materials are based in sound strategy and knowledge of the market. Here at MarketPlace, we provide that strategy and market expertise, along with the creative skills to execute all your materials, from packaging to Web design. We’d love to help you plan a new approach to “all-natural,” so if that’s your need, get in touch today.

Image, modified to fit, courtesy of Flickr user libertygrace0.

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