Last Updated: December 7, 2020

Do your concerns, lifestyle choices, and attitudes influence the kinds of foods you buy?

Judging by advertising campaigns and outreach efforts targeted at consumers, organic food producers and marketers believe so. By exploring the qualities of the average food consumer, these companies and organizations sharpen their marketing strategies, educating consumers about the potential health, environmental, and lifestyle benefits organic foods offer.

In recent years, retail sales of organic foods have blossomed as consumers have educated themselves about potential benefits associated with buying organic. While studies regarding the dangers of non-organic foods are largely inconclusive, that hasn’t prevented the organic food industry from topping nearly $31.4 billion in sales in 2011, up from just $3.6 billion in 1997, according to the Organic Trade Association.

So just who is contributing to this rise in sales? Today, marketers heavily invest in research that determines just who their audience is by examining the psychological behavior of the average organic food buyer.

Psychology and Promoting Organic Foods

Brand and CommercialExplanation of AdvertisementDemographicsPsychological Response Elicited
Organic Trade Association “Organic. It’s Worth It”Created a website to increase consumer awareness about the benefits and ease of switching to an organic lifestyle. Pictures are shown of healthy animals, families, and produce.Males, ages 25-45, Females ages 25-45, FamiliesConcern for Safety: You care about the well-being of your family and the environment and you want to do everything you can to ensure the safety of both. Because preservatives and additives are potentially harmful, you should buy organic food.
Coleman Natural “Organic Chicken Breast Strips”Packaging promotes a quick meal “without all the added junk.” Notes that product was made without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones, “just the way nature intended.” Call your kids and enjoy your dinner.ParentsNeed to Nurture: You want to provide an easy and quick snack for your children, but don’t want to expose them to potentially harmful additives. Buy Coleman organic chicken breast strips to take care of your kids in a responsible way.
Whole Foods “Favorite Dishes”A Whole Foods grocery store is shown, featuring some of the all-natural foods you can buy. A narrator describes some of the popular products at the market, including custom cut meats and wholesome veggies without artificial preservatives. The advertisement ends, encouraging you to “feel good about where you shop.”Males, ages 18-45, Females, ages 18-45Egocentric Fulfillment: You understand the importance of avoiding additives, and want to “feel good” about yourself. By shopping at Whole Foods, you eat healthier and maintain a high level of quality.

Who buys organic?

If you are given the choice between buying two different bags of apples, one priced at $5 and one priced at $7, many people would choose the cheaper bag of apples. However, what if the more expensive brand was certified as organic? Might that persuade you?

Whether it does or not mainly hinges on your personal values, attitudes, and beliefs. According to “Who are Organic Food Consumers? A Compilation and Review of Why People Purchase Organic Food,” published in The Journal of Consumer Behavior, consumers’ purchasing decisions are based on subjective experiences and perceptions of organic food.

What is organic exactly?

Despite its relatively widespread popularity, confusion exists about what exactly constitutes an organic product. The Organic Trade Association classifies organic products as those produced without the use of:

  • Antibiotics
  • Synthetic Hormones
  • Genetic engineering
  • Sewage Sludge
  • Irradiation
  • Artificial Ingredients
  • Preservatives

The study, by researchers Renee Shaw Hughner and others, explores the general qualities of the average organic food consumer, and the forces and factors that drive consumption of organic food. For regular buyers of organic goods, organic food consumption is a way of life. It represents a range of values and themes they attribute to themselves.

Some of these values include:

  • Altruism (Relationships with others)
  • Ecology (Harmony with the Universe)
  • Universalism (Protection of the welfare of all people/nature)
  • Benevolence (Enhancing welfare of loved ones and friends)
  • Spirituality (Inner harmony and unity with nature)
  • Self Direction (Independent thought and action)

Marketing efforts for organic food usually focus on these values, presenting the product as environmentally friendly (Universalism), healthy (Benevolence), and as a means of bucking the system (Independent thought and action).

For example, many organic food companies base their products’ images on low environmental impact and local origin. By advertising their food as environmentally safe and local, and presenting the competition as potentially dangerous and part of the corporate agenda, these organic food producers attract those who identify with environmentalism and alternative lifestyles.

By purchasing food that reflects their values and lifestyles, consumers in turn fulfill egocentric needs that make them feel good about themselves. In this respect, buying organic food isn’t only about making a tasty dinner for two later in the evening, but expressing support for a movement or cause.

Unfortunately, even if consumers have positive attitudes toward organic goods and wish to purchase them, they might be turned off by the high prices. The study concludes that the best way to increase motivation to purchase goods is to engage in strategic educational marketing campaigns that emphasize the positive attributes of organic goods to the masses.

The psychological importance of values

In consumer psychology, a personal set of values often affects the initial consideration of whether or not to buy a product. In “Should I Buy Organic Food? A Psychological Perspective on Purchase Decisions,” by Christian A. Klockner, values are defined as follows:

  • They define what is morally desirable to achieve for a person.
  • They are allocated on a general level that makes them applicable across situations.
  • They vary in importance across cultures, people, and situations.
  • They motivate behavior because they guide goal setting and choice of action.

Source: Organic Food and Agriculture – New Trends and Developments in Social Science

Increasing motivation to buy organic food

Organic food producers must do more to position themselves as competitive alternatives to traditional food providers. This means implementing marketing strategies that present organic goods not simply as food, but as a way of improving your personal health and lifestyle.

Motives and Deterrents of Buying Organic

Purchasing Motives:

  • Health and Nutritional Concerns
  • Superior Taste
  • Concern for the Environment
  • Food Safety
  • Concern over Animal Welfare
  • Support of Local Economy
  • More Wholesome
  • Nostalgia
  • Fashionable/Curiosity

Purchasing Deterrents:

  • High Price Premiums
  • Lack of Availability
  • Skepticism of Certification Boards and Labels
  • Insufficient Marketing
  • Satisfaction with Current Food Source
  • Sensory Defects

Source: “Who are Organic Food Consumers? A Compilation and Review of Why People Purchase Organic Food” The Journal of Consumer Behavior

According to “Personal Determinants of Organic Food Consumption: A Review”, by J. Aertsens and others, there exists a great deal of uncertainty regarding different attributes of organic food. Even if people hold positive attitudes toward organic food, uncertainty lowers their likeliness to purchase, and causes them to further scrutinize the higher prices.

The article, published in The British Food Journal, explores how organic food producers might increase consumer interest and involvement in the industry.

Researchers call for more consumer outreach efforts on the part of organic food producers. To educate consumers about the potential benefits organic food provides to their lives, organic producers must embark on educational campaigns that emphasize healthier lifestyles and environmentally-conscious practices, to the tune of higher costs.

Spearheading these outreach campaigns are organizations like the Organic Trade Association, who provides resources for advocates and consumers who wish to learn more about organic products. The OTA offers consumers information about the environmental and health benefits of “going organic,” in addition to tips to make the products more affordable, such as buying in bulk, buying in season, and visiting farmer’s markets.

Because a major barrier to purchasing organic foods tends to be higher prices, producers must do more to inform consumers about why those prices are higher. Consumers desire more information about organic food production and processing, and how that production differs from non-organic foods. Websites like those created by the OTA help address these concerns.

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By learning the reasons behind the higher prices, consumers are in turn more likely to consider the real benefits organic food might provide for them. Even outside of perceived health benefits, many consumers feel good about themselves for buying products created in an environmentally-friendly way. For some consumers, this feeling overrides negative concerns brought on by higher costs.

The organic food industry is still a growing market, and researchers call for additional studies on the motivations, values, and attitudes of organic consumers. By further exploring the psychological factors behind organic food marketing, the industry will continue to boom.

Psychology and Marketing

If you’re interested in learning more about the intersection of psychology and marketing, click here to further explore concepts in consumer psychology.

Marketing Careers

Wholesale Buyer

Wholesale buyers explore pricing and demand for particular products. For organic foods, this means determining ways of pricing higher quality foods in a competitive manner to draw more consumers toward the product. Read more about the Wholesale Buyer career.

Consumer Marketing Manager

Because organic food is such a consumer-focused industry, companies must gain insight into what their customers think about certain products. Consumer marketing managers interview consumers about which organic foods they buy, why they buy them, and methods to educate more consumers about health benefits. Read more about the Consumer Marketing Manager career.