Over the last 50 years, the U.S. natural, organic and healthy products market has prospered into a $108 billion industry, helping millions of people lead higher-quality, healthier lives. Yet, outside of this thriving industry, live hundreds of millions of other Americans who do not interact with natural, organic and healthy products brands—either because they don’t have access to them, don’t believe in them or cannot afford them.

It is this majority of the United States that was the focus of New Hope Natural Media’s first Future of Wellness ethnographic research study. As part of this research, New Hope held in-home conversations with 25 families about what health and wellness means to them. These families kept food diaries, cut out product labels, and wrote about their shopping behaviors, diets, concerns and issues around health and wellness. In addition, New Hope and a documentary filmmaker spent a full day with six selected families. The company’s researchers ate breakfast, snack and dinner with these families, shopped with them, and talked about the products in their cupboards and refrigerators. 

NewHope360 spoke with project's lead researchers—Dave Kingsbury, New Hope’s vice president of new product development and research; and Nancy Coulter-Parker, director of content, education and research—about the study and the insights it can bring to the natural, organic and healthy products industry.

Kingsbury and Coulter-Parker will present the top line findings and video clips from this research from 3 p.m.-4:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 10, at Natural Products Expo West 2011.

NewHope360: What is ethnographic research, and why is it important?

Dave Kingsbury: Ethnographic research has its roots in anthropology. Margaret Mead had a great quote about this type of research. She said: “To really understand a culture, you should laugh when they laugh and cry when they cry.” To do that, you have to immerse yourself in their culture.

When we talk about this kind of research, people often think, “Oh, you’re going to spend nine weeks in a mud hut with an African tribe that doesn’t speak English.” We didn’t do that here; we just went into American homes.

This is not Boulder or Berkeley

NewHope360: Whose homes did you go into?

DK: We went into the homes of people who do not currently buy natural and organic products. When we look at the natural and organic products world, give or take, we are talking about 4 percent of the population. We believe as a business that both our responsibility and our opportunity lie on the fringes of that 4 percent, which is why our presentation at Expo West is called "The Future of Wellness: The Voice of the 96 Percent Minority." This is the rest of the world. This is not Boulder or Berkeley or Portland or San Francisco or Burlington. It’s Houston and Spokane and Atlanta. It’s not the soccer mom driving her Prius to Whole Foods for a $13 slice of gluten-free pizza.

Nancy Coulter-Parker: But that doesn’t mean these people don’t care about health or wellness. These are people who, in their own way, are trying to engage, they just haven’t been invited into the conversation. We haven’t reached out to them through advertising, marketing, pricing or access. Through all of those things we have excluded people and have been only talking to the Whole Foods crowd.

DK: We spend an awful lot of time talking to ourselves as an industry.

NewHope360: What were the parameters of this first project?

DK: We recruited 25 families across the United States, and we sent them workbooks that had things like food diaries and collages about what it means to be healthy, little placards that they cut out to put on meals that say, “Healthy meal,” “Not so healthy meal,” “easy meal.” Then we actually went out with six of those families and spent anywhere from three to six hours with them. That included crazy, get-the-kids-out-of-the-house-in-the-morning-and-the-lunches-packed time. We also tried to spend some quality time with mom without the kids, and then we did the after-school craziness through dinner. We were in their homes with a documentary filmmaker getting the mac ‘n cheese ready, cutting up the apples, emptying cabinets and talking about what foods are in their kitchens, their meal plans, and financial and health realities.

NCP: As you talked to them, you would see things that they didn’t even realize they were showing you. They were telling you one thing, and then you would see their cupboards and the fridge.

DK: That gets to another big benefit of ethnographic research. What people say and what people do are usually very, very different. For example, one of our moms in southern California took all of the cereals out of her cabinet and started reading the labels. She was mortified that she had let these cereals into her house because she considered herself a really astute label reader. When we emptied her cabinets, she was  aghast at some of the ingredients of some of the products in her cupboard.

In search of health and wellness

NewHope360: Was there one really surprising finding from these families?

NCP: This was not surprising, but seeing the state that people are actually in. The economy has been really tough for people and people are living with really serious health issues, such as stroke, migraines and diabetes.

One surprising thing is that we didn’t see an attitude of, “I don’t believe in wellness” or “I don’t care about health and will eat whatever I want.” They all sincerely think they are trying and doing their best. The surprise too is that they can’t find information. They just don’t feel that there is a clear path to eating well and living a healthy lifestyle. Life’s challenges—time, money, access, family and work—all combine to make it really difficult for people to live a healthy lifestyle. It’s not for lack of want or trying…

Dave: Or awareness.

Nancy: Or awareness. I had one person tell me, “I was doing this Kraft meal plan every week and then I realized that it’s not healthy, so now where do I go?” We have asked these consumers to enter the health and wellness conversation by jumping to organic. We need to be more realistic in where people are and the steps we ask them to take. I always say that a manageable first change for someone eating Lay's potato chips is to to move to Baked Lay's potato chips.

Dave: It’s not like the answer is to say, “Cut out fast food.” The answer is to say, "Eat it one less time a week."

Nancy: Those are the steps that will help people make this change and feel like it is not this huge, drastic thing or that they are failing. We don’t want people to feel like they are failing. We want to help them feel like they are succeeding, but that doesn’t mean you have to change everything in your world.

NewHope360: New Hope believes that it has an opportunity—as well as an obligation—to reach out to the 96 percent of the market that isn’t currently engaged with natural, organic or healthy products. But what do you say to the company that is thriving in the 4 percent that does. Why should they care about any of this?

DK: Let’s look at a company that has been thriving in that 4 percent: Whole Foods. And let’s throw out a metric: What Whole Foods does in volume in 30 days, Safeway does in a week and Walmart does in 60 seconds. That is why we all should care.

NewHope360: What’s the takeaway here for New Hope and for the industry?

DK: As a business, what we are doing here is our homework. We are sharpening the saw, as you might say, because to develop products and services for the future of this market we have to get very, very intimate with our consumer and our clients in the marketplace. So we invested as a business in this study for ourselves.

This work is available for purchase. Our hope is that we can take this Future of Wellness study into a client or a company like Humana Healthcare, for example, and help bring this consumer to life so that they can develop products and services to grow this market. That is what this is about.