I remember when the "organic" food craze was just beginning to take off in Portland.  Just about everyone jumped on the bandwagon and started offering organic varieties of everything you could think of.

Meat.  Poultry.  Vegetables.  Baked goods.

I once saw a store advertising "organic water," and that's when I began to see the immediate craze for what it was: a poorly-defined marketing term.

In the Early Days

Anyone could call just about anything organic because the definition of what constituted organic was very much in flux.

For some products, it meant the food (or its ingredients) had not been genetically modified in any way.  For other products, it meant the plants growing the crops (or the item's ingredients) had not been treated with any kind of fertilizer.  For others, that they had not been protected by any form of pesticides.  For still others, that all of the items on the ingredients list were merely raw and recognizable - no "high fructose" or "modified" anything.

For some others, it meant all of the above.

The bottom line was that you could charge between 2 and 4 times the regular price of a good if yours could be labelled "organic," and people would still buy it because of the label.

The insanity reached its peak when a grocery clerk explained to me that the only difference between their regular and organic apples was that the organic ones had been washed before being placed on the stand.  Apparently rinsing produce justified a 3.5x price increase.

With all of this weirdness around the term, it's no wonder I wrote the category off as a marketing stunt.

Today's Market

Things have changed considerably in recent years.

First, the "organic" label is now regulated - your products must meet certain, measurable criteria to qualify for the label (and, consequently, the higher price).

Second, consumers are more apt to know the difference between regular products and their organic counterparts.

Third, the higher price or organic goods is justified due to the higher cost of producing goods without artificial growth stimulants or chemical assistance.

Finally, real studies have been performed against both categories of goods - demonstrating that organic products really are that much healthier for us.

Again, though, seeing first-hand how freely the "organic" label had been applied to goods, I'm somewhat hesitant to trust it when I go shopping.  I understand the difference between the foods - and can actually taste the difference in certain goods - but I'm still wary to trust a marketing label.


RasperriesLast week I swung by the store for a few groceries and, for the first time, saw Driscoll's regular and organic raspberries side-by-side.

I was appalled.

The organic berries were almost a dollar more a package.  But they looked worth the extra expense.  Dark maroon, super ripe.  In comparison, the regular berries looked like the plastic foodstuff a realtor puts on the table when staging a house.

Had I been shown each in isolation, I would probably have missed the comparison.  The real-world juxtaposition, though, made it clear which berry was which, and what differences raising food organically can really bring about.


We apply labels in business all the time to help consumers (and our competition) know how to compare product A against product B.  Sometimes the labels are complete baloney.[ref]Just how many different car manufacturers are claiming they're the "#1 Safety Pick" right now?  Each appeals to a different measurement body and emphasizes the label rather than the body who awarded it, leading consumers to think every brand is somehow #1.[/ref]  Sometimes they're applicable.

What labels do you apply to your business?  Do they make sense outside your marketing plan?  Are these labels applied by an independent third party, or applied through arbitrary whims of management?

Is your sales label just a buzz-word, or a real, objective competitive identifier in your industry.