White Wave made some waves in the organic community this past year by extending its traditionally organic Silk and Horizon brands into “natural” foods.
The company’s iconic brands were pioneers in the organic industry, helping to make soy milk a major consumer good and to first popularize organic milk. So its recent decision to offer non-organic, “natural” product lines has exposed the company to criticism. Fears abound that consumers seeing Silk and Horizon products that aren’t organic will stop seeing a clear dividing line between “organic” and “natural,” potentially weakening the “organic” label in the long run.
But I’d be less worried about any impact on the USDA Organic label and more worried about the impact on these brands. The organic label promises a great deal that “natural” does not–from the absence of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to the absence of GMOS and, in animal products, growth hormones and preventative antibiotics–and consumers’ awareness of these benefits is only increasing as time goes by. It’s hard to imagine that seeing a “natural” stamp on a Silk or Horizon product will change that.
And though “natural” is growing rapidly alongside organic, this is more of a plus for organic than a threat. It shows that people are increasingly attuned to the consequences modern agriculture is having for our health and the environment.
But the company may be jeopardizing the future health of its own product lines. Organic consumers value authenticity, and purely organic brands like Amy’s and Stonyfield often sell much better than brands that try to have it all and sell both organic and non-organic lines. To many organic consumers, either you believe in a better way to grow our food, or you don’t. You can’t have it both ways.
White Wave’s move to diversify makes some intuitive sense in its context: organic growth slowed during the recession, and because organic food carries a price premium it’s apt to do better during economic booms than busts. Cheaper “natural” alternatives may help White Wave to perform better during downturns.
But it may end up performing well during neither. The consequences of a potentially “brand-diluting” move like this are long term, and we may not know the results for sure for years to come. But I think White Wave’s changes are more apt to dilute the strength of its own product lines than the strength of the organic label. Plus, though organic growth slowed during the latest recession, it did continue to grow–a healthy 5% in a year when few industries grew at all. Which makes you wonder why White Wave felt such a strong compulsion to make the move at all.
What do you think of White Wave’s expansion into “natural”?