Organics Made Easy
By Pauline Tingas
Convenience packaging broadens the audience potential for organic brands.
It’s no secret the organic and natural food industries have reached their tipping point in recent years.
It used to be that consumers were buying such products at out-of-the-way food co-ops and farmer’s markets, making trade-offs in price and convenience to support their environmental ideals.
No more. These days, shoppers are buying organics less as a political statement and more for the perceived health benefits of such foods. And they’re snapping them up in an increasingly diverse mix of retail environments: health food markets, traditional groceries, club stores and even convenience stores.
What we’re witnessing is the mainstreaming of organic foods and the consumers who buy them, say experts like Steve French, managing partner of the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), a health-and-wellness-focused market research and consulting firm.
According to NMI’s 2005 Organic Consumer Trends Report, sales of organic food and beverages topped $10.9 billion in 2004, an 18 percent increase over 2003.
Bigger farms, better distribution and an influx of larger, conventional food manufacturers like General Mills can be credited with the significant increase in organic and natural food sales. But they’ve also created an increasingly competitive environment at the store shelf.
To differentiate their brands, organic marketers are beginning to take cues from their conventional counterparts by resizing their packaging, offering new packaging formats and incorporating new materials to offer consumers portability, efficiency and ease of use.
It’s a good strategy, French says, because they have largely been marketing on the absence of negatives—no pesticides, no GMOs, etc. “It [convenience] is a positive benefit that links back to consumer understanding, and it expands the potential audience for a brand,” he says.
That’s what happened with Earthbound Farm, which, back in 1986, became the first to successfully market pre-washed, bagged salads for retail. The company followed that convenience offer with the country’s first organic salad kits, recloseable plastic clamshell packaging, organic apple slices in two-ounce poly bags, carrot snack-packs with dip and, most recently, a line of single-serve salad kits packed with dressing, toppings and a fork in clamshells that double as serving bowls.
Earthbound Farm has clearly been ahead of its time with its convenience packaging introductions. Other organic brands are only now starting to follow suit.
“If you were to look back five years ago in natural and organics, the notion of convenience was not a prime driver in the marketing mix,” says NMI’s French.
But, he adds, the recent rise in consumer demand for health and convenience has created not only a greater interest in organic foods but in those that are packaged for convenience.
Take Sweet Leaf Tea. The company was responding to mounting requests when it launched a 64-ounce PET bottle for its organic and all-natural teas.
“We received significant demand from consumers and retailers who are looking for a more convenient take-home package,” says David Smith, vice president of sales for the Austin, Texas-based company.
Sweet Leaf Tea’s PET bottle is the first of its kind in the RTD tea category; the logic for it being that on-the-go consumers can take it places where glass is typically not allowed: concerts, athletic events, campgrounds and other venues. The company says it considered other materials, but that it decided to go with plastic for the package because it would be more affordable for its customers.
Though, price sensitivity isn’t typically an issue with organic consumers. Many are willing to pay a little more for what they perceive as a healthier product, especially if it’s convenient.
One such offer is the Healthy Handfuls line of organic children’s snacks, a new brand that hits convenience cues with three kid-sized containers: single-serve pouches, single-serve handled paperboard boxes and reusable, re-sealable plastic cups. The pouches and boxes are designed to fit in lunchboxes, while the cups are made to fit the cupholders of cars or movie theater seats.
Children’s foods are often the organic points of entry for consumers, which is the reason why so many organic food marketers promoting convenience are doing so with kids in mind. It’s sensible, since lots of moms want the same things: convenient and healthy foods for their kids.
Horizon Organic, one of the largest in the organic dairy industry, offers a range of single-serve products that fit the bill. There are individual sticks of organic mozzarella and Colby cheeses, wrapped in two-layer polyethylene plastic bags; organic smoothies with four six-ounce bottles per package; and Yo-Yos, a line of four-ounce, four-cup flavored yogurt multi-packs in recyclable paperboard sleeves.
Horizon’s sister company Silk Soymilk markets, among other things, an aseptic 6.5-ounce carton of soy milk in three flavors, with animal illustrations on the pack to enhance the kid appeal. The idea is that an aseptic, shelf-stable item fares nicely at room temperature in the hours before a child pulls it out of his lunchbox.
Sometimes there’s a secondary appeal in a convenience package. While parents like the portability of Stonyfield Farm’s Squeezers yogurt (the first organic yogurt in a tube), kids are drawn to the novelty of the two-ounce flexible package and the idea of dispensing a shot of yogurt straight into their mouths.
Packaging can also add value when it makes the preparation of organic foods easier. Mann’s Packing was a pioneer in offering fresh-cut, washed vegetables at retail, eliminating the mundane tasks of washing and cutting veggies for consumers.
But the packaging goes a step further. Under the brand name Mann’s Sunny Shores, the company markets a line of four organic SKUs packed in a microwaveable bag by Cryovac. According to Lorri Kloster, a Mann’s spokesperson, the 12-ounce bag is self-venting, which means consumers can pop the package in the microwave and cook the contents right in the bag. “It’s just like a vegetable steamer,” she says.
Though, she admits, there’s been somewhat of an education process to convince consumers of that. Kloster says they called out the “microwaveability” message a bit more on the package and even held a “microwave sweepstakes” to help create a comfort level for consumers.
“We had people calling to ask ‘Will the ink melt in the microwave?’,” she says. It doesn’t. But consumers feel better anyway when they learn that Mann’s uses a USDA-approved food-based ink.
Convenience is such a boon for the natural products industry that even 7-Eleven, the largest chain in convenience retailing, is now marketing snack-sized packaging from organic and natural products manufacturers like The Hain Celestrial Group, Snyder’s and Rexall/Sundown, who have resized their packaging in convenient single-serve dimensions to compete with conventional snacks.
The issue of single-serve and other convenience packages can be a tricky one for organic brands, many of which offer “environmentalism” as one of their core values.
“It’s a conundrum,” says NMI’s French. “There’s a ‘disconnect’ that manufacturers need to be careful of when they cross over into more convenience packaging.”
Dan Mishkind of Pure Design Co., a natural products packaging design firm, agrees. “The sensitivity to the appearance of overpackaging is definitely there,” he says, “and those things affect core natural products consumers.”
But, Mishkind says, some organic consumer segments have come to realize that there’s a limit to their watchfulness. “When it comes to convenience, people might be willing to trade off earth friendliness,” he says, “as long as it’s not overkill.” BP
The author, Pauline Tingas, is the Senior Editor of BRANDPACKAGING magazine.
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Long regarded for their sensitivity with packaging, organic brands are increasingly demonstrating that they can offer consumers convenience without jeopardizing their environmental ideals.
Take Annie Chun’s. In the fall of 2003, the company became the first U.S. packaged food brand to launch a revolutionary bio bowl, doing so for its line of all-natural FreshPak noodle meals. Sourced from Asia, the bowls and their lids are microwaveable and made primarily of cornstarch (said to be 95 percent corn starch with small amounts of talc and ethylene vinyl acetate) so they decompose into the soil. The company also recently introduced trays made of the same material for its Noodle Express line.
According to Annie Chun’s, the earth-friendly bowls and trays are more expensive than plastic but, worth it, because they are well-received by consumers. “It’s appreciated by our constituencies,” says Steve Broad, president of the northern-California based company. “There’s a little bit of an added cost, but this is a premium product in the natural foods industry.”
And while some packaging elements of both product lines are not biodegradable (like the foil pouch for the sauce) the company says it simply tries its best.
“That’s the thing about convenience. It’s challenging to have the perfect packaging,” says Broad, who is also Annie Chun’s husband. “We’re a small family company. But we’re just trying to do our part, to create something circular.”
In 2004, the bio bowls earned Annie Chun’s an award from the Environmental Protection Agency.