Word association: I say organic and you say..

04/09/2013 01:15:00 PM
Tom Karst

National Editor Tom KarstAll of marketing and consumer perception is little more than a word association game. I say Oreos. You say guilty pleasure.

Boosted by social media accelerants, the ebb and flow of favorable and unfavorable associations is fascinating and challenging for all food marketers. It is the razor’s edge of public opinion.

When organic is on a food label, what do consumers think?

Recently I’ve stumbled upon several articles that point both to the favorable and unfavorable popular reference to organic.

Firstly, the Organic Trade Association issued a news release that proclaimed “Eight in ten U.S. parents report they purchase organic products” with the subhead “Trust in the USDA organic seal reaches an all-time high.”

From this release, we associate organic food with rising consumer popularity. The survey found that produce continues to be the leading category of organic purchases, with 97% of organic buyers saying they had purchased organic fruits or vegetables in the past six months.

Importantly, the survey attempts to answer the question of “why organic?” The OTA survey found that 48% of those who purchase organic food do so because they are “healthier for me and my children. Other reasons were to avoid pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, antibiotics and growth hormones.

A Cornell University study talked about the “halo effect,” or the power of the “organic” label to lead consumers to think the food is healthier even if it is not. The study found that an organic label can also influence perceptions of taste, calories and value, to the good effect for organic marketers. From the Cornell summary:

Even though these foods were all the same, the “organic” label greatly influenced people’s perceptions. The cookies and yogurt were estimated to have significantly fewer calories when labeled “organic” and people were willing to pay up to 23.4% more for them. The nutritional aspects of these foods were also greatly biased by the health halo effect.

The “organic” cookies and yogurt were said to taste ‘lower in fat’ than the “regular” variety, and the “organic” cookies and chips were thought to be more nutritious! The label even tricked people’s taste buds: when perceived as “organic”, chips seemed more appetizing and yogurt was judged to be more flavorful. “Regular” cookies were reported to taste better--possibly because people often believe healthy foods are not tasty. All of these foods were exactly the same, but a simple organic label made all the difference!


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