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NatureWorks® PLA is a corn-based plastic packaging for bakery, produce and deli items. More than 1,500 retail outlets across the United States have begun using the packaging since its debut in May 2003.
Grabbing a prepackaged turkey sandwich or potato salad from the grocery's deli, most consumers likely have been more concerned about what was in the package than what the package was made of. But that's no longer the case for many consumers, thanks to an innovative product and a healthy helping of research that contributed to its successful market introduction.

The new product, NatureWorks® PLA, is a corn-based plastic packaging for bakery, produce and deli items, as well as fresh spices and organic foods. Its magic is twofold, according to Michael O'Brien, former communications leader for NatureWorks LLC, which is owned by Cargill. First, NatureWorks PLA is made from annually renewable resources and requires fewer fossil resources to be produced than do traditional plastics made from petroleum and oil. Second, O'Brien points out, NatureWorks PLA products can be disposed of by all traditional waste management methods such as incineration, landfill and mechanical recycling. What's more, they can be composted in industrial composting facilities, thereby providing an alternative means of managing municipal solid waste.


The makers of NatureWorks PLA knew they had a good product, but they needed to determine how they could make its features relevant to grocery retailers. "We conducted one-on-one discussions with about 25 to 30 senior marketing and merchandising grocery retail managers during the fall of 2002 to find out where NatureWorks PLA might have a consumer fit," O'Brien explains. "We asked them, 'If we want to get your attention, who would we have to get to shop at your store?'"

The retailers' responses created a message and consumer profile that needed to be validated with consumers themselves. For this next research project, NatureWorks called on Grapentine Co. Inc., a marketing research firm based in Ankeny, Iowa.

Terry Grapentine, president of the 25-year-old firm, reports that during April, May and June 2003 more than 3,000 U.S. grocery shoppers were interviewed about four areas: product naming, benefit statements (what consumers value the most), concept statements (relative to competing product concepts) and pricing. The consumers' names came from a panel company that identified those who are the primary grocery shoppers (80 percent are female) and have household income of at least $50,000 a year.

All of the research took place online, a practice that has become fairly common in the retail trade, according to Grapentine. The shoppers were contacted and screened via e-mail. Those who passed the screening were directed to a Web site containing the questionnaire. "Participants received points that they could use for money and prizes from the panel company," Grapentine notes.


Research showed that food retailers can attract consumer attention at the point of purchase using NatureWorks PLA packaging.
The first phase of testing in April 2003 focused on communications messages. "We tested the name and positioning focused on different benefits," Grapentine says. The benefit statement that won was, "Because this new packaging is compostable, it's better for the environment."

Coming in second was: "Plastic is made from petroleum. Because this new packaging is made from corn, I feel better about my family eating food packaged in this new material."

In third place was: "Because this packaging is made 100 percent from corn, food in this packaging is fresh and safe for my family."

Shoppers also were asked about their preference between the name NatureWorks and an alternative. "'NatureWorks' resonated more with consumers," Grapentine reports. "They felt that 'NatureWorks' better reflects the product's prime benefits -- protecting natural resources and not harming the environment."

The next phase of research took place in May 2003 and focused on packaging benefit statements and price testing. Participants were 600 grocery shoppers from the panel (three cells of 200 each). Each cell was exposed to a different price for the product.

Grapentine explains that the study tested the likelihood consumers would pay for NatureWorks packaging at the following benchmark prices: 5, 10 or 20 cents more per package of food. "We also asked respondents directly how much they would be willing to pay for this new packaging based on a hypothetical food purchase of approximately $5.99," Grapentine notes.

The result was that at least 50 percent of consumers surveyed are willing to pay up to 20 cents per package for the benefits, Grapentine reports.

The third phase of testing occurred in June 2003. Participants were 300 consumers in each of eight cities: Austin, Texas; Boston; Charlotte, N.C.; Denver; Minneapolis; San Francisco; Seattle; and Tampa Bay, Fla.

"We redid the price test and found comparable results," Grapentine says. "Interestingly, there was a greater willingness to pay for the packaging in Seattle and San Francisco."

Grapentine notes that the research also was conducted in Europe and Japan with surprisingly similar results.


Grapentine says the research shows that marketing messages, which can motivate consumers to seek out and pay for NatureWorks packaging, should focus on issues related to the environment -- compostability and being made from a renewable resource.

And that's how NatureWorks decided to package its marketing messages to grocery stores. "We produced a public relations program directed to the raw material market, manufacturers and food retailers," O'Brien says. "We also created sales material and direct mail to retailers, as well as point-of-purchase materials."

Promotional materials are available on the NatureWorks Web site for "preferred partners." Included on the site are point-of-purchase materials, consumer research brand guidelines, technical data sheets, a photo library and artwork such as logos and stickers.

"We have developed a promotional kit so we can provide retailers with materials that will work for them," O'Brien says. "We have even developed Q&A scripts for employees and point-of-sale themes."

O'Brien notes that because composting facilities aren't available in all locations, most retailers are focusing promotional efforts on the natural packaging. "Themes like 'Our food comes from nature, now so does the packaging' or 'If Mother Nature made packaging, this would be it' are becoming more commonplace," O'Brien says.

Wild Oats Markets Inc., a chain of 108 natural and organic foods markets in 24 states and British Columbia, Canada, was the first retailer to use NatureWorks packaging. In May 2003 the packaging was introduced at nine test stores. With the help of NatureWorks LLC, Wild Oats developed a consumer point-of-sale theme asserting that sometimes revolutions start with a "kernel of an idea," O'Brien says.

"After the initial test phase, Wild Oats rolled out the packaging to its entire chain," O'Brien reports. "The company has experienced a 12 percent sales increase where the packaging is used as a promotional tool."

Since the Wild Oats Markets' launch of NatureWorks PLA, 1,500 retail outlets across the United States have begun using the packaging, O'Brien adds.

"NatureWorks can point to the success story with Wild Oats to show other retailers how they can motivate consumers to pay a slight price premium for the PLA packaging," Grapentine says. "As a market matures, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate products from the competition. NatureWorks PLA offers stores a way to do just that."

And the company has the research to back its claims. "This was a very extensive research project that has worked hard for us in many ways," O'Brien says. "We've used the data to validate our market position, develop PR and selling tools, and craft point-of-purchase materials.

"This work brought a lot of credibility to our product, sales organization and marketing messages when we first entered this market," O'Brien continues. "When we launch with food retailers, in many cases we're now viewed as the experts on how best to market this packaging at the point of sale." AM

Debbie Coakley is a freelance writer based in Warrenville, Ill.

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