“I’m not a marketing man. I’m an accountant.” The background of Huw Bowles, the COO of organic dairy co-op Omsco, may be in numbers but, as chair of UK umbrella body the Organic Trade Board, he is also tasked with presenting a vision for the sector of how to arrest stagnant sales. Dean Best met Bowles in London on Tuesday (22 September) to ask how organic food can bounce back in the UK.

just-food: This week, the Organic Trade Board has laid out plans for an industry-wide marketing push to promote organic food in the UK. Can it reignite organic sales here?

Bowles: It will focus the industry on having common messaging. That is the number one issue that both the industry recognises and is highlighted by consumer research. It is complex; unlike Fairtrade and free range, we’ve got a multi-faceted offering and each of those aspects will appeal to different groups. Some consumers will buy organic purely on animal welfare. Some will buy on taste or health benefits. Some of course buy into the whole thing and understand it. There is a bit of a danger in going for one slogan in that you lose some of the holistic benefits of organic. What we need to do is deepen the understanding rather than try to water it down and making it Fairtrade and making it free range, which it isn’t.

j-f: A snappy message is a key part of a successful marketing campaign, though, isn’t it?

Bowles: It is but one of the main things that people talk about as a barrier to entry is price. If you walk along the aisle, there are many organic products that are cheaper than the leading branded goods. Fundamentally, the product is different; because it is organic, it is different. Anchor butter or Lurpak butter is butter with a nice label on it. Organic butter is different and yet is the same price. In cheese: Yeo Valley or Alvis Bros cheese is at the same price as the leading branded cheese – Cathedral City. People are quite happy to buy Cathedral City; why aren’t they buying Yeo Valley or Alvis Bros cheese?

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j-f: That’s likely to be a consequence of the marketing support that Dairy Crest can put behind Cathedral City?

Bowles: Indeed, indeed, indeed. Fortunately, we do have an opportunity with price promotions to introduce consumers to new products. It’s about deepening the range consumers buy. We’ve got research that looks at consumers who buy organic carrots and those who buy milk. You find that 93% of the time these people leave the store without both in their trolley. Clearly, if they are regular purchasers of organic carrots or milk, why aren’t they buying those two leading products at the same time?

j-f: Should the marketing campaign focus less on the perceived extra health benefits of organic food, in the wake of the recent remarks from the Food Standards Agency?

Bowles: There is a difference between health benefits and nutritional benefits The nutritional differences [in organic] you can prove. You can analyse how much omega 3 or vitamin C is in an orange or a pint of milk. Time and time again, those studies have shown that organic food contains higher levels of nutrients. The FSA report – I’m paraphrasing this – says that it did not necessarily translate to health benefits. However, I think it got confused. Consumers who stay loyal to organic recognise that there are higher nutrients and lower pesticide residues and they will carry on buying organic. The QLIF report, which unfortunately is not going to come out until next year, is EU-funded and is the largest study into organic foods. That will categorically prove that, across most produce, there are higher levels of nutrients. Maybe not significantly higher [but] the FSA found that there were no non-organic foods with higher levels of useful nutrients than organic. It’s frustrating at times.

j-f: As someone who works in the dairy industry, why do you think milk has bucked the trend of stagnant organic sales?

Bowles: We [Omsco] focused very early on talking to consumers. We’re one end of quite a long supply chain; trying to get messages through the supply chain is not going to work for us. We talked to consumers through PR [and] we identifed what motivated them. We are fortunate that our price premium is not as significant. Organic milk has become a staple. That said, there are many more [organic] products that have a greater penetration than milk.

j-f: Is organic a cyclical category? When the economy improves, do you see an automatic recovery in organic sales?

Bowles: I’m not sure about organic being cyclical in nature. Clearly there was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction from consumers to the economic conditions. I don’t think much has changed over the last six months as far as economics are concerned. Consumers are returning to premium brands. There are products, companies – milk, for example – that are very resilient.

j-f: How can organic withstand fiercer competition from the likes of Fairtrade and free range for the ethical pound?

Bowles: I’m very positive about the introduction of half-way house brands [like free range]. There’s a progression in someone buying a Basics chicken for GBP2 – or at whatever ridculous level there are at the moment – and, if they are at free range at the moment, they are on a journey to an organic chicken. If we can move them up from free range to organic, then that’s good. It’s part of an awareness for the consumer of where their food comes from. Our experience is that when consumers become more aware of things, they start asking more questions, they deepen their interest, and are more likely to carry on and end up at organic.