Tailoring Sustainability Messaging to Win Over Skeptical Consumers

Natural Products Expo East's “From Labels to Loyalty” session counseled organic retailers on how best to educate consumers
Bridget Goldschmidt
Managing Editor
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NielsenIQ Sherry Frey Expo East Session Main Image
NIQ's Sherry Frey presented data during the "From Labels to Loyalty" session at Natural Products Expo East on Sept. 21.

For every retailer of natural and organic products that has ever wondered how best to educate consumers as to the advantages of such items, Natural Products Expo East’s “From Labels to Loyalty: How and Where to Message Your Sustainability Efforts” session, held Sept. 21 from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., offered some constructive solutions.

Moderated by New Hope Network’s Amanda Hartt, the session, which consisted of presentations and a panel, featured Sherry Frey, VP Total Wellness at NielsenIQ (NIQ); Michael Recco, marketing director at organic certifying agency and trade association California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and an organic farmer himself; Errol Schweizer, a one-time VP of grocery at Whole Foods Market who now runs his own consultancy, Errol Schweizer LLC; and Pat Sheridan, president and CEO of INFRA, a cooperative of 300-plus independent natural food retailers in 45 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

[Read more: “Natural Products Expo East to Be Succeeded by New Event”]

Frey started things off with NIQ research indicating elements of tension and confusion in the marketplace. Faced with a veritable “explosion of claims across the store” and harboring differing definitions of sustainability as a concept, with many linking it to their personal health as well as to the health of the planet, consumers have responded in various ways – from those NIQ  dubs “Skeptics,” who pay little attention to sustainability and account for 34% of U.S. shoppers, all the way up to “Evangelists,” the 19% of U.S. consumers who “walk the talk” when it comes to taking action for a more sustainable future. Evangelists and the slightly less committed “Healthy ‘me’ & ‘planet’ group, which makes up 11% of American shoppers, index highest for the natural channel, Frey observed.

She noted that as demand for transparency rises, it will be critical to get claims right and provide access to verification for such consumers. Cost, access and lack of clarity were identified as the biggest barriers to purchase of sustainable products, but Frey counseled that retailers could drive store choice through incentives for price sensitive shoppers and a greater item assortment for more engaged groups.

Hartt then presented learnings from a recent New Hope Network report that found that retailers should adopt a multichannel messaging strategy to help move customers along the path purchase, use social media as a platform to share their sustainability activities and bear in mind that sustainability is a journey, so it makes sense for grocers to share where they currently are, rather than their ultimate destination.

During the panel segment of the session, Recco pointed out that where there’s a lack of understanding on the part of consumers, there’s a lack of trust, and recommended that retailers and brands tailor their messaging to meet consumers where they are, as a way to help them realize that organic farming methods are a solution to climate change. Schweitzer similarly noted that retailers and brands should “double down” on organic, which he referred to as the “gold standard.” Sheridan observed that INFRA works with co-op members on crafting messages highlighting what’s important about organic, and that the organization was working on elevating its digital marketing platform. He also acknowledged that storytelling has to be different for different audiences, while Frey stressed the importance of empathy in messaging as it extends across the political spectrum.

Schweizer spotlighted the rising importance of retail media platforms, discussing his work with Merryfield’s Learn & Earn program, which enables organic and natural brands to develop their own content to reach consumers and allows independent retailers to better compete with major retailers such as Albertsons and Kroger, which have their own massive retail media networks.

The session ended with a portion of a promotional video from CCOF of an organic farmer grantee in Hawaii, through which the organization is striving to show the makers behind the products and the importance of what they do.

Natural Products Expo East runs through Sept. 23 in Philadelphia.

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