Murphy: Organic About-Face

Do consumers understand what "organic" means? The government thinks so. ( Farm Journal )

In marketing, ad agencies consider their branding efforts to be successful when a product or organization’s positioning can be captured in a single word or phrase.

Classically, this is best demonstrated with automobiles. After decades of repetition and multi-millions in advertising, most consumers clearly understand the imagery carmakers are selling.

Mercedes = luxury. Corvette = power. Volvo = safety.

Of course, those positions can evolve, even transition to something entirely different, but I’ve tried the experiment with the car brands noted above with numerous audiences over the years, and it’s amazing how uniformly people respond.

It’s all in the positioning: Pick-ups trucks are for real men (and women) who’re tough and rugged; sports cars dominate those deserted highways along a stretch of coastline (as if there are any roads like that in America); and SUVs are perfect for happy suburban families with 2.2 kids and a frisky Golden Retriever.

I would argue that the term “organic” has likewise achieved an enviable level of branding success, even among consumers who aren’t normally willing to shell out the premium prices such foods command in the marketplace.

You say “organic,” most consumers think, “healthier.”

That’s because the organic industry has invested decades in messaging to convince the public that organic foods are free from the deadly chemical residues found in “conventional” foods, and that the produce and other products labeled under USDA’s Organic Certification program are raised by conscientious farmers on idyllic homesteads that could serve as the backdrop for Little House on the Prairie.

There’s always some truth in successful advertising; I mean, Mercedes is a luxurious vehicle, and no one doubts that a Corvette is gonna blow away most four-door sedans when the light turns green.

“If it ain’t broke “
To that point, the effectiveness of the organic industry’s branding and positioning was offered as the key to why USDA abruptly scuttled proposed rules that would have codified housing and handling standards for organically raised livestock.

A few weeks back in March, USDA withdrew the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule, which of course angered the animal welfare groups who’d lobbied heavily for its implementation.

The question is why? Why kill a final rule that has completed the rulemaking and public comment process?

After some blah-blah-blah about “exceeding the agency’s statutory authority,” the bottom line was spelled out by USDA: The organic industry’s marketing has been so successful, there’s no need to ramp up the rules.

“The existing robust organic livestock and poultry regulations are effective,” Greg Ibach, USDA Marketing and Regulatory Program undersecretary, stated in a news release. “The organic industry’s continued growth domestically and globally shows that consumers trust the current approach that balances consumer expectations and the needs of organic producers and handlers.”

Cut through the bureaucrat-ese, and basically USDA is saying that people get it when they see a food product labeled “organic,” so why screw around fixing a bunch of regulations that aren’t broken?

As evidence, Ibach noted that 2017 departmental data show that the number of certified organic operations increased domestically by 7% and globally by 11%. More importantly, organic sales in the United States reached almost $47 billion in 2016, reflecting an increase of $3.7 billion since 2015.

However, Ibach also noted that changes to the existing organic regulations “could have a negative effect on real costs” for both producers and consumers.

So which is it? Is the organic industry so healthy there’s no need for changes, or is it potentially under threat in the marketplace, such that changing the cost structure could damage its participants?

Personally, I’m opting for the former reason, at least as a cover for the lobbying that went on under the radar. This current administration is staunchly pro-business, so why would anyone expect that top USDA officials would willingly add additional regulatory burdens on successful organic producers and marketers?

Besides, instead of filing a lawsuit challenging the withdrawal of the proposed rules, as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Organic Trade Association just did, there’s another way that organic producers who want the public to know that they raise their livestock in a humane manner can communicate that message.

It’s called marketing, and by all accounts it works really well.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

 
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