See the French translation
For almost two decades, the Risk-Monger and others have held the belief that scientific facts, data and evidence were sufficient for rational decision-making. In the case of the rise in public demand for organic food, he was foolishly wrong and quite tragically Stupid. Facts don’t matter in our decision-making process (although we all agree they should), emotions do. And when we come to emotions, we are in the domain of marketing, not scientific facts.
Using scientific data to address the emotional messages crafted by the marketing geniuses from the organic lobby is like bringing a knife to a gun-fight. The organic lobby has slaughtered science and common sense on agri-tech with their marketing machine, expensive campaigns and networks of special interests filling the well-funded troughs with their brands, referral fees and sponsorship deals.
Definition note. I use the term: “organic industry lobby” to include interest groups dictating and defining organic. Lobby groups like IFOAM and OCA (which funds USRTK and many anti-industry campaigners), NGOs like PAN, FoE or CFS, Internet generators like SumOfUs, label bodies like Non-GMO Project, Trojan Horse organisations like Moms Across America or GM Watch, funding foundations like Rodale or Cliff Family, internet gurus, activist scientists, retailers and organic brands (most usually led by outspoken “philanthropists”). Often I hear organic farmers and advocates correct me that these groups do not represent “organic”, but rarely do they stand up and speak out against their lobby’s unethical marketing practices.
This week I released a summer series of memes on twitter to illustrate how the organic industry is built on a number of basic marketing concepts. People on social media often talk about “organic” merely being a marketing label, but I have never read an analysis of which marketing tools they use. These six concepts are by no means the only tools used by organic industry marketing experts, but they are standard tools taught in schools. As you read through the sections, ask yourself if there is anything to organic food other than a series of slick marketing tricks. I asked myself that and have drawn a blank.
As you read through the sections, ask yourself if there is anything to organic food other than a series of slick marketing tricks.
1. Marketers use fear to sell
Hands up: Who wants to eat toxic chemicals?
Most people will spend more on organic food to avoid pesticides or chemicals. A UK survey stated that 95% of consumers choose organic to avoid exposure to (conventional) pesticides. This was the motive behind the Swedish retailer, the Coop, with their chemical-free “Organic Effect” campaign (since ruled by a Swedish court to be false advertising forbidding the Coop to continue to make such claims). Marketers merely have to mutter: “chemicals in your body” and frightened consumers run to their wallets.
Marketing organic is overly built on fears and doomsday scenarios. In the last month, like most of the months before, we have been told the following:
- that biodiversity and the agricultural system is on the verge of collapse,
- that humanity will go extinct from pesticide influence on the endocrine system,
- that autism will soon affect half of our children.
There is no reasonable evidence provided for any of these claims; the mass repetition on social media is justification enough. Other daily doses of fears on the threat from conventional farming include: bees, water, biodiversity, cancer, obesity … and, of course, climate change. Need I also add corporate domination of the food chain, particularly by a company that begins with an M (which apparently I troll for!)?
Few people ask whether organic (non-GM) farming actually is better for health, biodiversity, bees, pesticide reduction… Why? Well the scientists with the evidence are not marketing alternative products; the companies with the data have ethical codes of conduct that restrict them from openly assaulting competitors’ products; and people want to believe organic is better (a fear is only effective if there is an antidote). Whenever the Risk-Monger tries to show these marketing experts are full of shit, he gets a load dumped on him!
2. Marketers create a false perception of luxury
Whether it is a designer label, a technology trinket, a gourmet burger or a sleek logo, the marketing sweet spot has always been associating your brand or product with a perception of quality or luxury.
Organic food carries a cachet of being better: better taste, better nutrients, better quality, better for you, for the environment and for biodiversity. None of these perceptions are true by the way (see links) but this perception of being better implies that the consumer who buys organic is better. The price for organic food is mostly not justified (any more than an iPhone or Burberry trench coat price is justified), but is often a luxury levy for the organic label. Chains like Whole Foods do well with the increased margins, but their price gouging does hurt the overall image of organic food.
Organic’s marketing message is clear: conventional food is cheap, unhealthy and toxic. You and your family are worth more; the planet is worth more. The message is clear: organic is smug. It doesn’t help that the organic lobby has embraced elites and celebrities to speak on their behalf.
3. Get your product star-struck
Of course any luxury brand gets its cachet from the star power it generates. Marketers have known this simple equation since the early James Bond films. Not since the glory days of tobacco advertising has the marketing world seen anything like the golden carpet the organic lobby has laid out for celebrities having grown tired of remembering their lines. The rush for pixie dust has allowed B-listers like Paltrow, Alba, Cox and Hurley to profit handsomely from putting their names on organic operations. It is a win-win. Today a celebrity needs a “cause”, and standing up for the organic lobby is righteous enough without the need to get your hands dirty. All it takes is a few lines in front of a camera!
We all aspire to be like the famous, to be “Like Mike”, and we are willing to pay for it. Given the number of small, emerging organic food brands, a simple endorsement from a celebrity is enough to bring a hitherto unknown brand into the mainstream with shelf-space. It is not uncommon for these small brands to pay celebrities in part-ownership of the companies: more product placements, more shareholder profits.
If you are a typical celebrity, with all the personal quirks, then promoting organic brands is a lot safer than identifying yourself with other environmental causes. You can still fly on private jets, check into rehab (Hey! That even offers more marketing opportunities with a new ‘detox’ line!) – hell, you can even wear fur! And once the organic lobby sniffs that a star may drift towards the foodie side, they handle all the coms … and they never impose ethical expectations or codes of conduct!
The organic lobby has also created their own home-grown star power (Vani, Dr Merc, Zen, Ranger Mike and the Avocado can move millions and product referral fees pay handsomely. Mamavation even organises an event called Shiftcon which helps emerging bloggers to network and find organic industry reps who will support them (a mutual “wellness” exchange!).
4. It’s all about feeling good
Consumption is based on our need to feel good about ourselves, and those choosing organic (more natural, fewer inputs) are told to feel wonderful about themselves. The organic lobby has presented an image of benign consumption with clear simple messages: Buy local, from small farmers, chemical-free, all-natural, less waste, sustainable …
Activists who engage with me on social media want to let me know how they are solving all of the world’s problems with simple solutions: organic roof gardens, getting homeless people to work in urban gardens, saving seeds, organic food banks, school lunch contributions, fighting industry domination … These are little solutions, however, to big problems. They are promoted with a religious zeal by opportunists who understand that complex debates have no marketing value. Of course we can feed the world with organic, we just need to stop food waste and build more roof gardens! Stupid Risk-Monger!!!
Scientists addressing these problems with agri-tech solutions are attacked as being the source of the problem. GMOs don’t work! Get industry out and let the little farmers feed the world. Stop pumping poisons into the soil and these farms will flourish. Stupid Risk-Monger!!!
Science looks at all possible solutions and decides on the best approach to take. If organic or agroecology provided a better solution, it will be accepted. Agroecology does not consider all solutions … only the organic ones (sorry, but in my books, that is the definition of a religion, not a science). That makes the message simple and clear – exactly what organic lobby marketers want. And if a pro-organic scientist cannot find the facts or data to back up what he wants to say, no problem. Just say: “I guess we just have to trust our intuition at times. I’ve met many people who say they just feel better eating organic foods — or foods that are sprayed less often.”
Science looks at all possible solutions and decides on the best approach to take. If organic or agroecology provided a better solution, it will be accepted. Agroecology does not consider all solutions … only the organic ones (sorry, but in my books, that is the definition of a religion, not a science).
5. Follow the Cultural Narrative
Our cultural and social narratives define how we perceive the world, order the stories we tell and structure our values. Narratives don’t have to be true or factual but simply trusted (and trust is emotion-based). A dominant cultural narrative in many affluent countries is that products coming from nature are good (and that which is man-made is suspect). Recently this has led to a growing negative public perception of conventionally grown produce, biotechnology, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and vaccines. The more Western societies are relying on technological advances, the less consumers understand or trust them.
Marketers are not in the business of educating consumers with science and data. Their goal is to sell more and satisfy consumer wants. If the narrative defines these wants as being nature-based then the marketing gurus will put some ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ label on the product.
Brands do not have a moral imperative to do what is right; they have a fiduciary imperative to their shareholders to do what is profitable. Marketers simply take whatever narrative is widely accepted, and fashion a campaign around it. So if your society’s narrative convinces you that invisible pink unicorns grow organic salt, brand marketing experts will put a picture of a cute unicorn on the package. More than that, they will develop a religious fervour around unicorns to ensure you keep buying their salt.
Intensive marketing of products around an illogical narrative will reinforce it and insulate consumers from rational discourse. It took several generations to get mothers to return to breastfeeding and today the stigma still resonates. The more companies, brands and retailers promote high-margin organic food brands as attainable luxuries, the more the stigma of conventional farming will spread. I fear this marketing episode will take more than a generation to return the narrative to a rational balance, and with a growing global population, I am not sure the food chain can survive such a prolonged stretch of Stupid. Lives will be lost (… but not those involved in the market research studies!).
While the narrative shift towards organic and natural has created enormous marketing opportunities, without any scientific guidance, it has also led to significant societal risk. Some examples: Pepsi has started promoting soft-drinks with traditional (natural or real) sugars; Chipotle has grown beyond the capacity of a safe, organic supply chain. I cannot fathom the depth of depravity of snake-oil supplements salesmen like Joseph Mercola or Wayne Parent who invest heavily in spreading the narrative mischief that underlines their bottom line. The most blatant marketing offender though has been Cargill, who recognise that the anti-GMO science is wrong, but, with zero integrity, spot the market opportunity of the growing cultural narrative and are working with the activists to take over the organic supply chain. Pepsi is not responsible for the rise in obesity levels (or the environmental damage of increased sugar cane production), nor is Chipotle responsible for growing public distrust in the food chain, and it seems Cargill will not be accountable for serious stresses in global food security and potential famines.
6. You Suck!
The key marketing trick is to convince the consumer that he or she sucks. Shame, (fear of) humiliation and peer inadequacy are key tricks for motivating consumption. If you don’t buy my expensive fashion label, use my high-end mobile phone, eat in this expensive gourmet hamburger joint or drive the right type of car, well, You Suck!
Nobody wants to be a bad parent, bad boyfriend, bad person so the solution is to buy an overpriced product, shop at the Organic Emporium, wear trendy clothes from Goop, get designer nappies from Honest … please spend all of your money to finally be someone. Otherwise, … You Suck! (Ironically, I developed this idea from an early piece from the head of Greenpeace America, Annie Leonard.)
Organic retailers like Whole Foods Market create an aspirational brand – a smug: “You’ve made it and can afford what is good for you and your family!”. A Belgian Bio-Planet supermarket (equivalent to Whole Foods in its elitist foodie pretentiousness) is on my running route, and each time I pass, I can’t help but count the number of Beemers and Mercs in the car-park (strangely, no bicycles). What sort of person who could afford a luxury lifestyle would not then pop a couple thousand extra a year for luxury food? Only one who sucks!
Mamavation and Moms Across America are the most unethical exploiters of this marketing trick, aiming at the marketer’s sweet spot: the guilt-prone mother. When Mamavation published its smug Top 10 Reasons to Feed Your Family Organic (let’s face it, only a bad mother would not!), I lost it and wrote my Top 20 reasons not to feed your family organic. I was not prepared for the positive reaction that blog received from people who were fed up with the condescending nature of these marketing experts.
What the organic lobby has done so brilliantly is turn the “You Suck!” nuclear option back on the brands and retailers themselves. Just Label It and USRTK tell brands that if they use GMOs or don’t put GMO-free on the label, then their consumer movement will reject the brand or company. Vani Hari, The Food-Babe, used “You Suck!” to cower chains like Subway and McDonald’s to fall in line to her organic simplicity. Recently, the Organic Consumer Association used their patsy in the New York Times to try to “greenmail” Ben & Jerry’s to go all organic. Until now, Unilever are resisting the “You Suck!” pressure tactics.
Even more interesting is how the organic lobby has made divisiveness core to their campaigns. Without any ethical codes of conduct, organic lobbyists are fighting dirty, attacking anyone who disagrees with them, labeling them Monsanto shills (the ultimate sucking!) and portraying conventional farmers as evil capitalists poisoning the planet. If you don’t farm organic, then You Suck! If you support science and agri-tech, then you’re a shill and … yes, … You Suck!
Apparently I suck so bad that quite regularly some pro-organic actor wishes me dead on twitter. I suppose this blog isn’t going to make that go away.
I had mentioned at the start that there were other marketing tools that the organic lobby uses. For example, our yearning for the good ol’ days (nostalgia) is very effective. How often do you see superficial memes reminding us that all agriculture used to be organic? The organic farmer is often portrayed as an old, friendly man with a straw-hat (as opposed to the conventional farmer in a hazmat suit).
Every marketing textbook will tell you that sex sells and a goal in making your product attractive. Sex is used as a marketing tool by the organic lobby (but not as much as one would anticipate). Besides the obvious efforts of Vani Hari’s Food Babe character, Rodale and Cliff have been trying to show how an organic life leads to better sex.
The Risk-Monger has Hope
I know, I know, … “hope” is a pathetic straw clutched by losers still in the game … but I need something to fuel these lonely, late night writing sessions!
I cannot see any intrinsic value to promoting organic food (note this blog did not get into the negative consequences, of which there are many), which implies that the organic lobby has used superficial marketing tricks alone to grow their business. Ironically, this is good news long term (although history will judge the present period as pathetically stupid).
Building your house on the marketing concepts discussed above is not a sound business decision. While scientific facts, evidence and data are reliable for long-term planning, fear and emotion are not. People may wake up tomorrow and realise that the arguments and tricks these marketers built up are quite hollow, ethically-challenged or, simply put, scams. Consumers may see the elitist privilege behind the labels and look for other meaningful brand identification. Or the supply chain may struggle under the weight of such marketing success, leaving retailers and manufactures to race to find alternative marketing tools (remember “organic cotton”?).
The rise of Big Organic, its marketing muscle and its regulatory influence has been impressive. Social media in the Age of Stupid, combined with the affluence of western societies persuading people to fear commerce and industry, has allowed this new consumer sector to flourish. Such a tower built on sand can, however, collapse in a heart-beat … and then what?
In the autumn, I will publish a series of blogs providing an alternative to the mess these marketers have forced upon us. The solution will not be more science and facts however … but more clever marketing tricks.
Yes, indeed, The Risk-Monger sucks!