Research by the University into how consumers perceive organic and local food is helping one producer to boost its customer base, and could provide lessons for the wider organic industry in Scotland.
The organic sector in Scotland is underdeveloped, with consumers spending proportionately less on organic food than almost any other region in the UK, despite ecological, social and economic benefits. For Borders-based organic farm Whitmuir Organics Ltd, understanding customer preferences for organic and locally-produced food is going to be crucial to retaining and growing its customer base.
Whitmuir Organics produces organic meat and vegetables for sale through its farm shop and has a strong customer base. However, in order to realise its potential, Whitmuir Organics wanted to gain a better understanding of how consumers perceive organic produce, not least because ‘organic’ now competes with other labels such as ‘local’ for consumers’ attention.
Pete Ritchie, joint owner of Whitmuir Organics, approached the University of Edinburgh’s Business School for assistance after hearing about Professor David Marshall’s research on consumer behaviour and marketing in the food industry. ERI’s Consultancy Office helped identify and assisted with an application for funding support for the project through the Scottish Funding Council’s Innovation Voucher Scheme.
Professor Marshall and Dr Angela Tregear undertook consumer-related research to examine the relationship between organic and local produce, focusing on the symbolic/image-related aspects and were able to identify both egocentric and altruistic motivations for purchasing organic food products. In order to look at Scottish consumers’ perceptions, the team held two focus group discussions with Whitmuir farm supporters.
For Whitmuir Organics, having an academic partner made its customers more willing to engage with the focus groups as they could be confident that this was research rather than sales activity – and the company learnt much more from the focus groups than its in-house surveys and meetings.
Pete Ritchie said: “Working with the University of Edinburgh Business School has helped us enormously by deepening our understanding of our customers’ values and motivations and relating these to the research on perceptions of organic and local food. The project has helped us clarify both strategic direction for growing sales and provided some valuable pointers for how we can improve in the short term.”
This will be taken forward to develop strong marketing strategies for the company as well as for the region. Other opportunities to build the Whitmuir brand through new distribution channels present an interesting challenge, not least in trying to capture the unique personal experience created by the proprietors.
According to Professor Marshall: “There are implications more broadly for the organic industry in Scotland, not least in terms of the increasing importance attached to local produce.”