27 Jun 2007

Organic campaigners are not communicating effectively

Organic promotion

Organic promotion

New research shows that the independent organic food sector often uses bland and ineffective promotional language. An Open University research project (The discourse of organic food promotion: language, intentions and effects) led by Professor Guy Cook and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council says campaigners and independent retailers have become like the supermarkets when it comes to persuading people to buy organic. Both follow orthodox marketing beliefs that consumers are easily manipulated and act only in their own self interest.

‘Tastiness’ has become the main selling point for organic, followed by vague references to health. Statements about environmental benefits have been demoted, while references to the social and political benefits of smaller scale production, such as strengthening local communities and providing a fairer deal for farmers, have all but disappeared. Language used tends to be ‘poetic’, vague and emotive, with an emphasis on story-telling rather than facts.

In focus-groups, responses to promotional material revealed a critical scepticism, especially about big supermarkets, but also towards campaign organisations. The research found that whatever their buying habits, for many people food is no longer treated as a casual purchase, motivated by considerations of cost and ‘brand image’, but is an expression of personal beliefs and concerns.

“Our findings show that this is a key moment for the organic movement,” said Professor Cook. “Does it want to remain distinctive and politically committed, or go down the road of becoming just another commercial brand?”

The project analysed interviews with key players in the organic food sector; a nearly one million word database of promotional material; and focus groups from a range of age, income, ethnic and family backgrounds. It is one of a series of projects on the language of food politics led by Professor Cook. One previous research investigated baby-food labels, and two others examined the GM food debate; a current project is looking into language about school meals.

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