Who Buys Organic Food: Different Types of Consumers

Though it's tough to market to everyone all at once, it's still smart to know exactly who is buying organics and what pitches may convince them to buy more.

There are many different types of organic customers, ranging from the die-hard advocates to skeptical consumers who sometimes switch gears. Keep reading to learn more about all of the varied organic customer groups.

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The Varied Levels of Organic Consumers

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The general landscape of the organic consumer is hard to visualize because they're a varied and often finicky group. Luckily a few different organizations have looked into organic customers in general and have some insight you may find helpful.

A 2009 study by the Hartman Group found that there are three key organic consumer demographics. They include:

  • Periphery consumers (14% of organic consumers). These are folks who are starting to lean towards organics, but they don't make any significant behavioral changes, meaning they're still not purchasing organic products.
  • Mid-level organic consumers. These make up the bulk of organic consumers (65%). They are individuals who are not only changing their attitudes but who are also changing their habits and buying organic products.
  • Core consumers. This is a small group (21%) of people who are very invested in organics. They showcase this investment via both attitude and behavior. These folks talk about organics and purchase organic products often.

Beyond these basic subcategories, there are studies showing that education, health, finances, culture, advocacy, environmental issues, and much more shape organic consumers. In general, there are many different reasons why consumers do or don't purchase organic products, as highlighted below.

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Parent and Kid Consumers

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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released their findings in 2012 on how organic food benefits young children. However, parents have been fans of organic food for years, even before the AAP gave organics a thumbs up.

The most recent reports show that U.S. families are increasingly embracing organics in a wide range of categories. The Organic Trade Association notes that a full 81% percent of families with kids say they purchase organic products at least sometimes. When asked why they buy organic, parents note reasons such as better health and the desire to avoid toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. Other parents are looking to reduce family exposure to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and growth hormones.

Soon-to-be parents also buy organic foods often. In fact, about one in 10 pregnant women say they eat organic food regularly. Furthermore, some evidence shows that kids raised on organics may be more likely to eventually become long-term organic shoppers themselves.

No matter how you slice it, it pays to focus a fair amount of marketing efforts specifically on parents and their kids.

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New and Potential Consumers

Potential organic customers rock because, well, there's potential for more sales. However, it can be hard to lure new customers in and keep them as your customers due to slightly higher prices and confusion around what organic really means.

To gain brand new customers, proper consumer education is key. Many potential organic customers are somewhat skeptical or simply aren't sure what to look for. For example, many consumers mistake labels like "natural" and "fresh" for organic, so they may be buying the wrong products, even if they're interested in organics. Other recent research shows that consumers mistrust organics, regarding the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal as a way to raise prices. Of course, real organic products have many consumer benefits, but if you don't promote those benefits, consumers won't know about them.

Here are some tips that can help you focus on turning conventional customers into repeat organic customers:

  • Offer potential customers an organic buying guide.
  • Make sure your customers know the benefits of buying organic
  • Help new customers make sense of why organics cost more
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Label Consumers vs. Brand Consumers

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Marketing organics in general (as opposed to marketing a specific organic brand) is a tricky distinction, but one worth looking into because organic consumers shop differently than conventional consumers.

Many conventional shoppers are very attached to specific conventional brands. For example, folks who are major Honey Nut Cheerios fans stick closely to that brand. Because of this, it makes sense that General Mills doesn't often market "cereal in general," but instead works hard to advertise Honey Nut Cheerios specifically, because they're creating major fans of that single brand.

Meanwhile, many new or potentially new organic consumers aren't looking for specific organic brands. Instead, they're looking for organics in general. These customers don't tend to research which organic brands are more ethical or more sustainable. They're just looking for that organic label, plain and simple.

Even some long-term organic buyers are like this. For example, someone might always buy organic milk, organic cereal or organic apple juice, but not a specific brand of organic milk, cereal or juice. They're just looking for the best deal they can get that still features the USDA organic seal. With this in mind, it makes sense to make sure customers see you as an "organic company," as opposed to "Brand XYZ" company.

Although you should be seen as an organic company, marketing organics too generally is a mistake. Long-term, more informed organic consumers do want to see how your specific brand is better than other organic brands. 

You can market to both groups at the same time. Once customers know you're certified organic, make sure they also know why you're different and better than all the other like-minded organics out there. Organic Valley is a company that has found this balance. The company promotes organics in general and often markets the many organic benefits to consumers, which draws new organic consumers in. Beyond that, Organic Valley has managed to position itself as a sustainable organic brand that supports smaller family farms, which appeals to a smaller, but still significant, group of savvy organic consumers who are looking beyond the USDA seal for something more substantial.

It's a fine line to market to both new organic consumers and more engaged organic advocates, but if you want to sell more organics, you should try to find that line.

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Savvy Organic Consumers

Savvy, well-informed organic customers have usually been buying organics for a while, are often outspoken about the benefits of organics, and are looking for much more than just the organic seal. These types of customers are excellent because they're willing to pay more for organics since they understand the value in doing so. As an example, many super organic advocates won't buy private label organic milk or Horizon brand organic milk because of what they believe may be shady dairy practices. Real organic advocates are fine paying more for Organic Valley milk because they perceive it as a more truthful organic brand.

To market successfully to long-term organic advocates, you have to be outspoken about your organic integrity, your organic practices and hopefully, on board with other issues organic advocates tend to lean towards, such as genetically modified organism (GMO) issues, Fair Trade, and sustainability.

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Health-Minded Consumers

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Research shows that often health-minded individuals are more likely to purchase organic food. Health reasons for buying organics often include a general "It's healthier than conventional" statement from consumers, and 34% of individuals in one poll said they want to avoid toxins in their food that they perceive as unhealthy.

To appeal to health consumers, focus on sale points that offer health facts to customers, such as how organic wine is more heart-healthy, how organic milk has higher concentrations of nutritionally desirable fatty acids or how organic berries have more vitamins, fiber, and antioxidant content. Health-minded people want this information, but won't always seek it out on their own, so as an organic seller, it's your job to tell them about it.

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Sustainable and Local Consumers

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Many customers go organic for eco-perks, or to support local food. The downside is that many of these consumers will often pick eco-friendly or local over organic. It doesn't have to be this way. Although not all organic products are sustainable or local, many organics offer eco and local features, so why not focus on promoting those features? Here are some ways you can appeal to eco-minded and locally-minded customers:

  • Promote eco-aspects of organics
  • Give special attention to your local customers
  • Use greener business practices
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Anti-GMO Consumers

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are a hot topic, and the GMO issue is pushing many consumers over to organics. That being said, not all consumers know that organics are GMO-free, so to market to this group you need to pump up your materials surrounding GMOs.

A recent MamboTrack™ survey shows that most consumers who seek out non-GMO foods want their food products to be specifically certified and labeled as non-GMO, so becoming certified via the Non-GMO Project is something to seriously consider. If you're an organic retailer or restaurant owner, you might also want to think about celebrating Non-GMO Month each October.

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Skeptical Consumers

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Skeptical consumers are a hard sell. Many organic skeptics are long-term skeptics who rarely make the switch to organic. Don't spend too much time on these customers.

Nonetheless, don't ignore the skeptics entirely — some do make the organic switch. Sometimes it's because they're frightened by a personal health scare, sometimes it's because they start a family, and other times it's because something terrible happens in the conventional food market. For example, during the huge conventional egg recall of 2010, organic egg sales grew extensively, and in all likelihood, people were buying organic who never dreamed they would do so before the recall happened.

Don't use issues like recalls as a "ha, ha, I told you so moment." But do note that yet again, conventional foods have been recalled, so why not try organic?

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Don't Limit Yourself: Market to Many Consumer Groups

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When marketing organic to consumers, it's important to keep an open mind and widen your marketing scope. This is because there's plenty of debate on the best ways to market organic, and research supports many different viewpoints.

For example, while some studies say wealthy consumers buy the most organics, other studies say nope, mid-range salary customers buy more organics overall. Studies have also pointed out that ethnicity makes a difference, but it's not clear which ethnic groups lean more towards organics — at one time or another, research has pinpointed virtually every ethnic group as "the most likely to buy organic."

Due to different research outcomes, it's hard to reach a final conclusion about exactly which factors affect organic purchases the most, and which demographics are the most organic-dedicated. In turn, it's wise to focus on marketing to many groups of consumers, not just one or two.

To learn more about organic consumer discrepancies, try reading the USDA report Marketing U.S. Organic Foods — skip to the section titled "Consumers Fuel Market Growth but Defy Easy Categorization."​