In this corner: organic. In the other: natural. It’s not exactly the fight of the century, but at least as far as some consumers are concerned, the term natural seems to be getting in a few good punches.

Not to mention a lot of head-scratching among organic-industry officials. While products certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are tightly regulated and inspected, few rules exist for products using the “natural” label. Yet consumers seem confused about the two words.

When asked what is the best description to read on a label, 31 percent of respondents chose “100 percent natural,” 25 percent chose “all-natural ingredients” and 7 percent chose “contains natural ingredients,” according to results of a survey released this year by the Shelton Group, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based advertising agency. In contrast, only 14 percent chose “100 percent organic” and about 12 percent chose “certified-organic ingredients.”

“Consumers see natural as an honest, unpretentious term that requires no explanation,” says Lee Ann Head, vice president of research for the Shelton Group. “They see organic as a marketing buzzword. And they see organic as expensive.”


This confusion presents a challenge to an organics industry trying to increase market share and to retailers trying to attract mainstream shoppers. “There’s a misperception in the industry that people understand what organic means. They don’t,” Head says.

A study conducted earlier this year by The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash.-based research firm, shows the difference between organic and natural is blurring among consumers. Study participants associated both terms with products containing no pesticides, growth hormones, genetically modified organisms or antibiotics, giving a small edge to organic. But they associated products with no artificial flavors/colors or preservatives more strongly with natural.

“In the past, we were seeing some separation between organic and natural,” says Hartman President Laurie Demeritt. “People saw something behind organic. Natural seemed wishy-washy. But now, they don’t make a distinction.”

How can you clear up these misperceptions and boost your store’s organic sales? Get back to basics, the experts agree, the tried and true: education. That means training store employees who can talk knowledgeably to shoppers. It means holding workshops and seminars for the community. It means being available to comment on issues to local media as well as using social media. Here are the key messages experts recommend you focus on.

Don’t trash natural.
Unless they carry the Natural Products Association’s Natural Standard seal, “‘natural’ labels can mean whatever the company meant for them to mean,” says Christine Bushway, executive director of the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass. In contrast, any use of the term organic on a food label is regulated by the federal government. This can lead people in the know to value natural less than organic, but it’s a mistake to broadcast those feelings to your customers. Instead, “we have to circle back and talk about the truth of organics. Rather than denigrate natural, focus on educating about the benefits of organic based on science and research,” says Sylvia Tawse, owner of The Fresh Ideas Group, a Boulder, Colo.-based communications firm for the natural and organics industry. Debby Swoboda, a Stuart, Fla.-based retail marketing consultant and founder of askdebby.com, agrees that going negative about natural is a mistake. Natural might be the thing that draws mainstream shoppers into your store initially, she says, making it an opportunity to begin a discussion about organic.

Try this: Swoboda recommends a series of six-week informational campaigns targeting a key organics issue, like genetically modified organisms. Use social media, bag stuffers and signage to educate customers on how GMOs aren’t allowed under USDA organic standards. Educate customers not only on the health perils of GMOs and other key organic concepts like pesticide use, but the environmental impact as well.

Be healthy.
Demeritt says respondents to the Hartman Group study were particularly concerned about health and safety issues—an area retailers could easily target in their organics sections. “To consumers, safety means no chemicals, no toxins, no additives,” she says. “Mainstream consumers are now asking, ‘Why would I want to eat something that has chemicals in it if I don’t have to?’”

Try this: There’s a wealth of scientific information available on the perils of chemicals and additives in food and personal care products. Consider posting “Did you know” signs around the store, on your website and in your newsletter highlighting the latest data on a controversial ingredient that’s in the news—and that isn’t in organic products. One way to start: Bushway points to two scientific studies released this spring showing the harmful effects of pesticides, particularly on children, and recommending organic food—one by the President’s Cancer Panel and another published in the journal Pediatrics linking pesticides to attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder in children.

Play the percentages.
The Shelton Group survey found that because many mainstream shoppers don’t know what USDA organic certification means, they react more favorably to terms like “100 percent organic.”

Try this: “If I were choosing my label right now, I’d use the very expensive space to say ‘100 percent organic’ and give more space to that than to the USDA certification label,” Head says. Keep that in mind for any private labels your store uses, along with your printed marketing materials.

Keep it clean.
Demeritt suggests that it might be time for the organics industry and natural products retailers to shift their focus. She points out that results of The Hartman Group’s study show that “consumers have moved beyond organic versus natural. Now it’s ‘clean.’ Consumers want to know where it came from. Is it fresh? Is it real?”

Try this: Evaluate an organic grower’s über–eco-friendly claims through The Sustainability Flower Navigator, a web-based system recently launched by the Netherlands-based Nature and More Foundation, natureandmore.com. The Sustainability Flower Navigator offers information ranging from the concrete (carbon footprint, water usage and fair-trade certification) to the anecdotal (Q&As about farming values and philosophy) on organic growers around the world. The data falls under nine categories: energy, air, water, soil, plants, animals, freedom, justice and solidarity. The voluntary information is submitted by growers, then verified by auditing personnel. The site currently features 36 growers and organizations but the company plans to add more.

Jane Hoback is a Denver-based writer and editor. Additional reporting by Providence, R.I.-based writer O’rya Hyde-Keller.