hands on organic food. The Belgian supermarket Delhaize was the first to sell organic products in a supermarket. To its dismay, what was supposed to be its own quality seal soon became a known brand for organic products: Bio.
When Delhaize launched organic food into its own product line, it decided to place the organic items on the same counter as conventional food. The brand owners didn't want to have an isolated aisle, dedicated to organic food, because this would segregate it from the rest of the supermarket. The strategy paid off, and consumers who would normally buy conventional bread were shifting to organic food.
However mixing organic food with conventional items made it impossible for consumers to identify the organic items. Bio was not yet a logo, but rather a sign on the label to indicate that the product was organic and to satisfy a European Union requirement to identify organic products. However for consumers, the Bio symbol became an identifier for organic products in the supermarket.
Realizing this, the marketing department at Delhaize decided to turn the symbol into a logo that would help consumers distinguish the organic products in the store. "For the consumer it was not clear what was a bio product,” says Xavier Ury, vice president procurement development at Delhaize. “[In Belgium], we don’t really have that kind of philosophy where you have sub-brands or sub-groups or products of a marketing strategy; we only had an idea to provoke the consumer. We developed a brand so it stands out from the different brands."
Ury hesitates to compare Bio to a success story along the lines of a simple idea becoming a global icon, as in the case of other big brands. Instead, he attributes Bio’s awareness to word-of- mouth recommendation of natural products.
Delhaize started selling organic products in 1985 with a series of four different bread types. Four years later it decided to include dry pasta and expanded the line to fifty different organic items. In 1997 the organic product line developed the unique character it has now, with the green color of the package identity. Today the brand mark can be found on up to four hundred different items at Delhaize.
The Bio brand product line grew by filling in the empty spaces in consumers’ kitchen cabinets. "It was more about looking at the gaps and finding complementary products that satisfied our consumers,” says Ury. “If you take, for example, pasta, we didn’t have tomato sauce. The idea was to complete the tables of our Bio customers. We would start by looking at the breakfast of our customers and completing their meals with Bio products.”
Through this exercise, the supermarket started to see items that were never part of their conventional line. Products like coffee grains, bulgur, couscous and quinoa were introduced in Delhaize as a consequence of the Bio brand.
But as the brand grew, Delhaize had more difficulties in adapting to the different shapes and forms of food. When describing the brand, Ury will constantly mention the words clean, green, and "back to earth," a message that Delhaize wanted to pass on to the consumer through the label and the packaging. This is why the packaging tends to be transparent with an orange and green label.
But keeping the character of a brand is a challenge across a varied product line. For instance, different sorts of coffee beans needed special paper bags and required special colors that did not necessarily match the colors of the Bio brand. In this case, it was necessary to add new colors to the brand identity to solve the problem.
But the real challenge of selling organic food in the supermarket is maintaining the guarantee of quality in Bio. It is not only about tracing back the product, but also about keeping the quality throughout the entire distribution cycle, until the product reaches the consumer. Indeed, after the Dioxin crisis forced many supermarkets to withdraw its meat from their counters, customers lost confidence in the origins of food.
Ury explains that Delhaize ensures the product origin by asking suppliers to conform to a book of reference. According to Ury, a scandal like the dioxin scare is something Bio cannot afford. This is why it communicates to its customers an assurance that the animals were not fed animal origin food. "We tried to developed a certain kind of traceability with standard controls, and we follow a book of reference to avoid problems," he says.
Keeping control while meeting demand is also key to keeping this brand afloat. "If you have the quantity for fifty stores then you have only that quantity for that fifty stores. Sometimes we have to take these kinds of decisions," Ury says. For a supermarket chain that has stores all over Belgium, managing the supply, demand and distribution is fundamental to the business.
"If you take the coffee, you have to compare an organic coffee with the coffee with an origin. Meaning that we select our products. It's about packaging, traceability and to the development of our own label that justifies the price," says Ury.
According to Ury the challenge is to keep prices competitive to those in a naturist store. But although Delhaize was the first to introduce organic food in Belgium and is still ahead all its competitors, it needs to grow even more. "Although we are complementary in our selection of items, today we have a product range which is too low. [Only] one and a half percent of the food is organic, we need to increase this percentage," Ury says.
One thing the Bio brand has achieved is that it is an ordinary brand on the shelf, not a special product found in a natural foods store. It’s about choosing a brand while doing your groceries, not going out of your way to find an alternative to conventional food products.