How We Helped a Bunch of Quirky Farmers Save the World
You’ve probably seen Organic Valley’s bright, bucolic labels in your stores’ dairy cases. Milk, butter, cheese, creamer, eggs. They’re right there, next to maybe a dozen or so other brands with similar organic and natural and sustainable labels.
And there’s the rub. While a lot of these brands have jumped onto the bandwagon (not a bad thing at all), Organic Valley— well, they built the bandwagon. It was time to share that story.
The year was 1988. Powerful corporations had taken near-complete control of food production in the United States. Across the country, farmland was being used for industrial agriculture, a system characterized by synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and intensive animal farming.
Both in and outside of the food industry, people could see the myriad ways industrial agriculture was harming the environment, human health, and animal well-being. Concerned activists and scientists tried to warn the public that the negative impact would only worsen until humanity exhausted our natural resources. Industrial agriculture could not sustain itself.
In spite of this dire forecast, the environmental movement remained at the margins of society. For most consumers, what mattered was that food was plentiful and cheap. And for farmers, it seemed that the only choice was to join the system—or find another line of work.
But a small group of family farmers in the Coulee Region of Wisconsin came up with an idea: if they couldn’t survive on their own, maybe they could keep the old, environmentally sustainable method of farming alive by joining together. And so, the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool (CROPP) Cooperative was born.
Fast-forward to 2017. Nearly 30 years after its founding, the CROPP Cooperative—now called Organic Valley—has expanded into a network of 2,000 farmer-owners in 32 states (and three Canadian provinces). Today, Organic Valley is the largest farmer-owned organic co-op in the US and, with an annual revenue of over $1 billion, one of the biggest organic food and beverage brands in the world.
Still, up until recently, relatively few people knew Organic Valley’s long-term roots in the category. Environmentally conscious farmers and consumers have certainly recognized the company as an agricultural leader for years. And OV’s creative, often hilarious campaigns, such as “Save the Bros,” have received millions of views, earned awards, and grabbed headlines. But for a shopper who’s unfamiliar with that work, and who may not know the difference between labels and descriptors such as “organic,” “sustainable,” and “natural,” Organic Valley has simply seemed like another brand competing for space in the dairy aisle.
Recognizing this, Organic Valley came to Grady Britton with a challenge: take the annual OV sustainability report and transform it into a vehicle for publicity and brand awareness.
In years past, the company has issued the report to their farmer owners, employees and a select group of highly-informed consumers—basically, people who already know what sustainability means, and who care about the minutiae of soil content and kilowatts of renewable energy produced. Our task would be to integrate the report into Organic Valley’s brand story. We would need to present the data in a way that would reach the general public; convey Organic Valley’s history and role as a sustainability champion and innovator; and explain not only what sustainable farming is, but why it’s the sole means of food production that preserves the health of our planet.
In short: help a bunch of farmers save the world. Were we in? Of course we were in.
We started by taking a look at the word “sustainability” and tossing out all previous associations we had with the word. Like the terms “green” and “natural,” sustainability has accrued so many meanings in recent years that it’s effectively become meaningless. For Organic Valley, however, it’s much more than a label, or a recycling program, or a commitment to “do good.” Sustainability means that what works now will continue to work a year from now, 10 years from now, and 100 years from now. It’s a set of business practices that don’t degrade the Earth and its inhabitants over the long term.
The farmers who own and operate Organic Valley keep sustainability at the core of everything they do. It’s the reason they raise their cows in pastures, derive the majority of their electricity from renewable sources, keep distribution as local as possible, and never use synthetic hormones, antibiotics, or toxic pesticides. It’s the reason they’re a co-op. Organic Valley’s dedication to sustainability is so extensive it even exceeds the USDA’s rigorous organic certification standards—standards, by the way, which Organic Valley helped write.
Organic Valley took the organic mindset and made it a movement. The fact that they continue to improve their organic practices on a massive scale, while offering their products at affordable prices, should impress anyone who buys dairy.
But as you’ve no doubt heard by now, facts don’t convince people. And that presented us with a real challenge as we figured out how to tell the brand’s story in a way that would emotionally resonate with consumers. Organic Valley’s sustainably team gave us access to scores of metrics, which are great for improving business outcomes, but have limited value from an audience awareness and engagement standpoint… until…
…Until you start listening to what the data is telling you. Unlike information collected by a company focused solely on profit, Organic Valley’s data has an accountability component: it proves that farmers throughout the co-op are following the same ethos. At a time when virtually every brand is focused on authenticity and transparency, Organic Valley doesn’t have to tell the world they’re trying to do good—they are doing good, so much so that marketing is almost an afterthought.
This revelation was pivotal. Those of us who work at creative agencies are trained (sometimes against our natural inclinations) to think of ourselves as in service to a brand. In this case, what we were really working for was a movement. Organic Valley is not a pyramid-shaped corporation, but a conglomerate of farmers and their families. These are the individual men and women who have joined together to provide a viable alternative to industrial agriculture.
In many ways, Organic Valley’s farmer-owners aren’t that different from their intended audience. They may have more background and experience with organic food, but they’re not in it to become rich—because, if they were, they would have already sold their land to one of the few dozen processors that own most organic food brands. In a world filled with uncertainty and conflicting information about topics such as climate change, animal welfare, and what is and isn’t safe to put in our bodies, these farmers are true subject matter experts. They’re the ones who should be leading the conversation and modeling sustainability through their examples.
Indeed, one of the primary reasons Organic Valley wanted to publicize this information was to promote sustainable practices in general. The individuals who are part of the co-op are demonstrating the values and characteristics of sustainable farming, while the company demonstrates what it means to adopt a sustainable business model. Their stories prove that it’s possible to stay independent and scale a company without compromising values.
With all of this in mind, our job was to simply do what we do best, and bring stories to the forefront. With Organic Valley’s tagline—“Bringing the Good”—as our foundation, we pulled the stories of individual farmers and specific sustainability initiatives out of the data, and developed them into relatable, eye-catching content.
The stories are available at a “Why Organic Valley” section of the Organic Valley website, just a click away from the homepage. Once the section was live, we helped circulate the launch message to consumers via a robust public relations strategy that centered around outreach to social media influencers and bloggers with food and beverage, organic, environmental, healthy eating and natural product topic focuses.
In our outreach to influencers, we shared the contents and main message of the report and encouraged them to share the website using a unique hashtag. We also repurposed digital graphics and created a unique social asset package for these influencers to use, making the report and sustainability story more appealing and consumer friendly.
The results astounded us. In days, the report garnered over 500,000 unique impressions across relevant blogs and social media channels, and we had a 75% response rate from publications on our media list.
Clearly, there’s an appetite (no pun intended) for this kind of knowledge. Food is a basic part of human life, but our connections to it are anything but simple. Our personal beliefs and experiences are bound up in what we eat. As humans start to understand more about the impact of our agricultural footprint, we need to be willing to engage in difficult conversations about culture, ethics, science, and economics.
No one has the whole picture, but if we’re willing to hear each other’s stories, we can bring our insights—and bring the good—to the next generation of farmers and consumers.