Marketing, Half-truths, and USDA Organic (A Follow-up to “Tell Them the Truth”)

USDA organic

Disappointed and duped. This is what I felt when I first found out that “USDA organic” didn’t actually mean organic.

I’m not a hard-core organophile. I like to eat organic when I can, and I know that it is more important with respect to some foods than others (read all about that here).

But I hate being lied to, and the duplicity of this is what actually got to me.

USDA organic

It appears that the United States Department of Agriculture, a branch of the government that I believed to be serving the American public through its food safety mandate, has decided a) that my needs and preferences as a citizen, and ultimately, my health are subordinate to their own needs, b) that I can be lied to, or that it is okay if the truth is buried somewhere (the onus being on me to go digging), or c) that if I find out, I won’t mind.

Such government agencies in a representative democracy like ours should exist to serve the interests of “We the people.”

Here’s my issue: My starting point is that such government agencies in a representative democracy like ours should exist to serve the interests of “We the people.” The USDA should be looking out for me. While I recognize that it’s always a good idea to maintain a healthy level of skepticism, should I really have to look over my shoulder to make sure such government agencies have my best interests at heart and aren’t really just cutting corners to suit their own ends?

Definition please?

Labels matter. When the USDA created a logo to certify that a product is organic, they were creating a symbol of trust. This symbol, supported by the government, should serve as a shorthand to an underlying truth. The truth here is simple and clear: Any product carrying this label will be organic. But politics and some wrench in the mechanisms of our people’s government got in the mix and created “USDA Organic” instead.

‘100%’ Organic’ means all ingredients are organic. The USDA Organic logo may be used on the packaging.

This 100% would seem unnecessary, if not for the following: ‘Organic’ means a minimum 95% of ingredients are organic. The package may include the USDA Organic logo.

There is only one logo. It says “USDA Organic.” So, “Organic” may not actually mean organic.

So, “Organic” may not actually mean organic.

And so we have the situation in which Anheuser-Busch allegedly got the USDA Organic logo for Wild Hop Lager even though the product “uses hops grown with chemical fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides,” because hops, a key ingredient in beer, is less than 5% of the final product (since beer is mostly water).

If I am a parent who wants to feed my kids organic food because I think it’s more healthy, whom do I rely upon to reveal the lie behind this “trust mark” logo for American organic food?

And what would the USDA say if I demanded an explanation? Would I be met with “Well, you should’ve done your research. You should’ve looked into exactly what we meant by ‘Organic’”?

It’s not that I’m ignorant, or ill-informed. In fact, I consider myself pretty well-informed when it comes to these kinds of issues, so I can only assume many are still operating under a false assumption when perusing the grocery aisles. Or, is it that we just want the mark to do the work for us so we can go with the flow, avoid the trouble and fuss that might be hidden in the details?

The organic brand

There is another issue at stake here, and a lesson which can likely be transferred to a wide variety of products and certification standards. Falsehoods such as those bound up with “USDA Organic” have implications that leach out beyond the USDA and its labeling decisions: Such falsehoods threaten to weaken the meaning of “Organic.”

If after years of equating “USDA Organic” with “100% Organic” I now stumble upon the truth, I may naturally begin to question what exactly the concept of “Organic,” as well as all associated labeling, actually means.

Such falsehoods threaten to weaken the meaning of “Organic.”

So, I can’t trust “USDA Organic.” Well, what about “Certified Naturally Grown” and the like? Is the whole concept of “organic” just garbage; should I chuck the whole thing?

The answer is no. “Organic” does have a real meaning, but when we start talking percentages the power of the word—its brand power—gets muddied, and in many cases this situation leads to frustration and mistrust. These are bad emotions for any brand.

My fear is that this kind of evasive rhetoric leads us down a slippery slope. When “Organic” means, well, kind of about 90-something percent organic, without sounding alarmist I think it’s healthy to wonder where this is heading.

“Tell them the truth.”

Is this a trend that at some point will become a problem for us, or has it already? Every day we are bombarded with heavy handed half-truths from private companies. But many of us don’t expect the same from government agencies. Should we?

Tell the truth, odds are it will come out eventually.

Here I’m reminded of a message to all who engage in marketing from Paul Galvin, as quoted previously on this blog: Tell them the truth. First, because it is the right thing to do, and second, they’ll find out anyway.”

Well I did find out. And I was both pissed and disappointed, because I don’t like being taken for a fool. Does anyone?

When a government decides that it’s okay to lie to the the people (its consumers), something is wrong. There may be a lesson in this for your—and every—organization:

Do me the favor of respecting my intelligence and delivering the truth through your labeling and messaging (if your products and services are of good quality, this shouldn’t be hard) and I’ll reward you with my trust and, potentially, my brand loyalty. Don’t become the next BP.

Regardless of where your motivation falls on the spectrum from altruism to self-interest, the lesson here in marketing as in life actually only points to one thing: Tell the truth, odds are it will come out eventually.

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