Food for Thought

Whether they're selling cookies or salad dressing, companies find doing good deeds is good for business.


It says it right on the package: "Cookies with a Cause."

Every box of cookies created by Immaculate Baking Co., from Sweet Georgia Brownie to Key Largo Lime, features original folk art, a biography of the artist and information about the Folk Artist's Foundation that was founded by the company and receives 5 percent of Immaculate's profits.

In marketing-speak, it's called "cause-related marketing," but for the growing number of food companies that tie their products to a good cause, it just makes better business sense.

Scott Blackwell, the founder and chief executive officer of Immaculate Baking Co., became familiar with folk art while driving a seafood truck through coastal South Carolina. When he began his cookie company in 1995, he returned to his interest in folk art and the people who created it.

"I didn't have a mission. I just knew I wanted to make a good, fun product. The other thing I wanted to do was give back, but I didn't have a clue what that meant," he says.

Folk art appealed to his desire to create packaging that embraced the essence of "Southernness" without being cliched. (The company is based in North Carolina.) He also took inspiration from the artists' ability to create despite living in rural poverty. "That's when I got focused on starting the company and when I thought, here's something I can do to give back."

In addition to the Folk Artist's Foundation, Immaculate recently launched the Soul Food Fund, an umbrella organization for the many philanthropic endeavors the company leads, most of which support art and fostering creativity in children.

"I believe that by being able to give back, you enrich the company even more. I think that's a healthier way to build a company," says Blackwell. "I don't want the people here [at the company] to go out once a month and pick up trash by the side of the road and say, `OK, that's what we've done for our community.' We're part of many communities because we're selling to many communities."

Blackwell is not alone in his idealistic efforts. According to a report created by the Corporate Social Responsibility Forum, "Food and beverage manufacturers are increasingly aware of not only the nutritional value of their products, but also how they are marketed and consumed."

As consumers grow weary of big business and nonprofit scandals, they're increasingly turning to the products they buy every day as a means to support the causes they believe in.

"This is definitely a growing trend, partly because about 80 percent of consumers have said for the last four years or so that they'd prefer to buy products and services from companies that are socially responsible," says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association.

"Consumers are very aware of the importance of corporations in our society, and they're also aware of the rampant corruption, so they're looking to alleviate their consciousness by finding companies that are doing the right thing."

One reason food is an effective medium for a message is that while humans don't always need T-shirts or bumper stickers, they always need food.

"Not only are [companies] educating [consumers], but they're really giving consumers the opportunity to make a brand choice based on informed knowledge," says Pamela Chaloult, co-executive director of the Social Venture Network. "Food is the largest consumption we do as human beings on the planet. ... It's a natural vehicle to do this kind of work."

Stonyfield Farm epitomizes the cause-related marketing success story. Since the company began in 1983 as an organic farming school, Stonyfield has used its packaging as a forum for educating consumers about environmental causes. In 22 years, Stonyfield has grown into the third-largest yogurt brand in America with $210 million in sales projected this year.

Its Profits for the Planet program gives 10 percent of the company's profits to environmental causes annually. In addition, Stonyfield has helped countless organizations publicize their causes by offering its yogurt lids as billboard space.

"The role of industry in helping raise awareness for nonprofits is that they have the resources to get this information out to many more consumers than nonprofits do," says Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group for name-brand food and beverage companies.

"Many of GMA's member companies are part of the daily lives of Americans, and it's a touch point to get that information out there and raise awareness."

According to Gary Hirshberg, president and CEO of New Hampshire-based Stonyfield Farm, the use of packaging as an advertising medium began because it was what the company could afford. But the long-term payoff benefits the company and its consumers.

"On the one hand, it's our mission, it's our cause, it's why we started in business," says Hirshberg. "And on the other hand, it's also been very good for our business. It's helpful because it builds loyalty."

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